Post-2015 wonkwar continued: Claire Melamed on why it’s a Good Thing + your chance to vote

May 1, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Claire Melamed responds to my ‘bah humbug’ opener on post-2015Claire melamed

I spend most of my working life thinking about post-2015 so this is a slightly nerve-racking experience.  What if Duncan convinces me?  Let me first respond to his arguments, then set out what I think is to be gained from the post-2015 circus… and then we’ll see if I’m still working on post-2015 at the end of it.

I’ll start with the magical thinking.  Yes a lot of what’s being said in the name of post-2015 is a bit ‘if everything was nice everything would be nice’.  But think of it this way: people everywhere, not just wonks like us – are getting involved in serious debates at national, regional and global level, about poverty, about politics, about economics and about the environment.  We don’t know where it will lead yet.  Some of it will lead nowhere.  But don’t write off all that energy and commitment because it’s a bit unfocused, rather celebrate the fact that so many people want to get involved in political debate and action (even be, um, active citizens….).

In any case, that is about the campaign and the public debate, not the goals, and the two shouldn’t be confused.   If the outcome is important, being annoyed at the tone and strategy adopted by campaigners has to be a reason to get in there and change that, not to walk away.

So is it important?  Will a new agreement have any effect? It depends on what.  If it’s a specific change – say a new law on land rights, or criminalisation of gender violence – in a given country you’re after, quite obviously you don’t work on any multilateral process.  You work through national politics, if you’re a local organisation or in solidarity with those local organisations if you’re outside the country. Many organisations and individuals do just that, brilliantly.

But that’s not what we’re trying to do here.  Both Duncan and I, and millions of other people over the years, have also taken part in campaigns, research and advocacy dedicated to improving the global context for those national politics – for example by improving global trade rules or forgiving debt.  This is one of those.  Multilateralism will never be the fastest or most certain route to national change, but it’s a contribution.  Even if the changes are marginal in any given country, taken in lots of countries together that can add up to something quite big.

post-2015Of course you can’t know in advance, for any agreement or institution, how those global changes are going to work out in any given situation.  But you have to take a punt on the basis of (almost always partial) evidence, and go for it.

And so to the evidence.  Should, as Duncan suggests, post-2015ers have considered all the available options for multilateral instruments before embarking on this particular course?  Well, the next time someone asks me to design a multilateral system from scratch, then of course I will do that research.  Maybe we can do it together.

But this is not about fantasy multilateralism.  Yes post-2015 is about goals, because that’s what’s on the table.  That’s what governments, in the UN, in regional organisations, in bilateral forums, are negotiating.  Other instruments are available – if it’s laws you want, have another shot at the WTO, or if it’s league tables, there’s always the HDI.  They exist, they have an impact, and plenty of people work on them.  But the political opportunity of post-2015 is about goals, not any of those other instruments.

So why do I (and, by the way, a large number of the world’s governments and the whole UN system, not really the ‘sidelines’) think it’s worth working on goals for post-2015? Apart from the impact on aid, which everyone seems to agree on – there are at least three other reasons to think that the current MDGs have done some good in the world, and therefore why it’s worth investing in a new agreement.

More and better information.  The MDGs, and in particular the indicators linked to each goal and target, created a huge global effort to assess progress on the basis of commonly agreed metrics.  Information has improved in every way since then. The common set of indicators agreed as part of the MDGs allowed us to compare countries to each other and over time.  They created incentives to invest in data, and, probably, reduced the tendency to reach for GDP alone as the all-purpose indicator for human progress.  And more data improved advocacy, policy making , and sometimes led to a race to the top between governments  – all ways that this particular multilateral agreement has an impact at national level.  A new agreement could do this for information on gender violence, or on employment, to take two examples of very important things on which the data is terrible.

More campaigning.  There was campaigning before the MDGs and there would have been campaigning in their absence.  But the combination of goals and targets have been used as an extra bit of ammunition for national campaigns – and again, been one small part of changes in national politics and policy.  Advocates for education and for health services have probably been the keenest users of the MDGs.  It’s rare to read a description of the campaign for free universal primary education in Kenya, for example, that doesn’t mention the education goal as one of the factors that helped push the politics in the right direction (pdf).  Without the MDGs they would have had one fewer stick to beat governments with, and progress may well have been slower.  Campaigners for universal health care, for example, think a goal or target on this would be helpful as they try to push policy in that direction in particular countries.

More and better consensus.  In the 1980s and 1990s growth was king, income was the only thing that mattered, and, according to some of the architects of structural adjustment programmes, it was justifiable to actually make poor people’s lives worse in the short term in the name of ‘development’. The MDGs were the moment that the world agreed that this was not ok, and that social development, as defined in the goals, should be an equal priority for international efforts.  A new agreement can make a move to achieving a similar consensus on inequality, for example, or on the needmdg campaign to make sure that we keep to within environmental limits.  This stuff matters – look at how norms, and then laws and actions, on human rights have changed in the last 20 or 30 years.

A post-2015 agreement is not going to change the world overnight.  Nothing, sadly, will do that.  We can’t know in advance exactly what changes it will bring, and to who, and how.  It may all end horribly and pointlessly, and even if we get a good agreement, it will be a big and unwieldy thing, with an impact that’s felt through many channels over many years.  But within the range of global processes that it’s currently possible to influence, this seems to me to be pretty good investment of my time.  A thousand words later, I’m still convinced.  You?

So over to you for the inevitable poll. As on the results one, I couldn’t think of suitably nuanced revealing questions, so let’s just see if you agree more with Claire, me both or neither. And I think I can assure you, the result will have absolutely no influence over the post-2015 process!

May 1, 2013
Duncan Green