If you read one paper on the post-2015 process, make it this one

December 4, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

The SDGs/post 2015 debate just got interesting. Regular readers of this blog will know that up to now I have been a convinced sceptic on the post-2015 circus (see this post-2015-300x2002012 paper on why). But now the endless attempt to hang more/fewer development baubles on the SDG Christmas Tree is coming to an end, and we are coming to the moment of truth – how to ensure that whatever is agreed will have an impact where it matters – the policies and practices of national governments?

A brilliant, highly original new ODI paper from May Miller-Dawkins (a friend and Exfam colleague), makes a massive contribution to that debate. It argues for leaving the MDGs behind (hooray!), and basing the level of ambition, implementation and reporting requirements much more on those other aspects of international norm setting in areas such as Human Rights and the Environment, which have had far more tangible impacts on government behaviours.

Here’s the Exec Sum:

‘As we come ever closer to the final negotiation and agreement of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is likely that there will be many calls to make sure they are practical, reasonable and measurable. This report suggests that we may need to look at the SDGs in a different light: as closer analogues to international human rights and environmental agreements than international programmes or, even, than their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals.

The report examines evidence from international agreements and other international initiatives to derive lessons for the design of the SDGs. Examining over 150 pieces of literature, this report has four key messages:

panel of experts cartoon“Practicality” should not blunt ambition in the final stages of the SDG negotiations: the high ambition and non-binding nature of SDGs could increase, rather than diminish, their overall and long-term impact. In a variety of cases, higher ambition, lower enforcement agreements have allowed domestic groups to use international norms and frameworks for leverage to generate change. Equally, in cases of uncertainty where states may be willing to act but uncertain what they can achieve, non-binding agreements have led to greater change in behaviour than stronger enforcement but lower ambition agreements. The potential for strong normative influence and social mobilisation at a domestic level is increased if the SDGs can articulate principles that can be effectively adapted into political systems and debates. In the final stages of negotiation, groups will need to pay attention to the level of ambition of the goals and the internal normative coherence between the goals.

National platforms need to include diverse stakeholders and have time for genuine dialogue: The effects of international agreements are “highly contingent” on the dynamics of domestic social mobilisation and existing institutions. As such, it is better that both goals and targets are not overly prescriptive as to how they should be achieved. Successful national problem-solving requires intensive debate and dialogue amongst diverse stakeholders to create a platform for experimentation not just “implementation”. The national processes will need time and should be built into the timeframe for “implementation” and “results”.

Knowledge and monitoring can drive progress, not just measure it: At the national level, dialogue by diverse stakeholders that creates a more consensual definition of the problem can create a platform for successful problem solving. At the international level, programs of knowledge generation have reduced uncertainty, changed political positions, and ultimately strengthened the effectiveness of environmental regimes. There is already significant movement towards improving available statistics through the data revolution. Beyond this, investment in qualitative assessment and the careful design of national and international platforms and networks for dialogue, information sharing and debate are crucial.

SDGs reinforce existing international norms, and can strengthen their existing monitoring platforms: In the Open Working Group draft, the majority of goals are underpinned by international human rights and environmental law. To contribute further to strengthening those norms, the SDGs should explicitly indicate the harder law basis of the goals. Beyond an SDG platform for measurement, the SDGs could be used to strengthen the monitoring, verification, and reporting processes in human rights and environmental regimes. Creating stronger ties and potentially drawing greater attention to these can strengthen their work as platforms. In the environmental and sustainability area this can contribute to the programmatic creation of knowledge as a key part of the pathways to success. In the human rights area this can strengthen the attention given to evidence provided by diverse domestic actors and the potential for social enforcement against human rights violators or laggards.

After years of debate and dialogue at the international level, it’s possible that SDG-fatigue will lead to settling for practical, achievable goals and targets over ambitious

I've finally made it to the 1%

I’ve finally made it to the 1%

principles that strengthen norms and give national groups a further point of lever. Exhausted by international processes, and short deadlines for national targets could also truncate the needed dialogue at the national level in favour of a technocratic process to determine national targets. However, if we take heed of past experience – not just of the MDGs but of international agreement and initiatives – we won’t let practicality blunt our ambition, and we’ll take the time to make sure that global goals can be used for real problem solving around the world. ‘

This all strikes me as tremendously useful and important. I think she could have gone further in terms of how the actual reporting could help ensure traction – e.g. the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires countries to report publicly every 5 years to a special UN Committee. I am also a big fan of regionalism – if the annual reporting came in the form of regional league tables, highlighting the region’s heroes and zeroes on any given issue, governments, media and civil society organizations are far more likely to sit up and take notice. Maybe that could be May’s next ODI paper?

December 4, 2014
Duncan Green