Helen Clark: Speech at 2013 Robert Chapman Lecture on "Beyond the Millennium Development Goals"

Aug 19, 2013

Rt. Hon. Helen Clark
UNDP Administrator
2013 Robert Chapman Lecture
Beyond the Millennium Development Goals: What could the next global development agenda look like?
The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
  6 pm, Monday, 19 August 2013

My thanks go to the Political Studies Department of Auckland University for inviting me once again to give the annual Chapman Lecture, in honour of the greatly respected former Professor of Political Studies, Robert Chapman.  

Bob Chapman had a major influence on me and countless other students during his long career at this university. He was an astute observer of domestic politics and world affairs. He helped me to hone my ideas and beliefs into a coherent philosophy, which I could later apply to a political career, and now to my position at the UN Development Programme. I owe Bob Chapman a great deal for his interest in my intellectual development, and for instilling in me a drive for rigour and evidence-based approaches in my career at this university, in Parliament and in government, and now at UNDP.

Such a seminal figure in our country’s intellectual life fully merits the naming of an annual lecture series in his honour. I hope it can continue long beyond the contributions of those of us who knew Bob personally and who benefited from his sage advice.

I gave the foundation Chapman Lecture in November 2000. To me that seems like a lifetime ago. Those were very different times, for me, for New Zealand, and for our world.

There is, however, a link in that lecture to my topic today. In it, I referred to the Millennium Summit of the United Nations, which I had attended as Prime Minister just two months before.

I remember the year 2000 as a time of hope - once the fears of a Y2K bug proved not to be justified!

Indeed hope was the spirit of the Millennium Declaration issued by world leaders at the United Nations that year. It was a clarion call for a more peaceful, prosperous, and just world in the 21st century than that which the twentieth century had delivered.

The Declaration foreshadowed the Millennium Development Goals later launched by the UN Secretary General, and specifically called for realizing a number of development targets by 2015. They were:
•    halving the proportion of the world’s peoples living in extreme poverty, in hunger, and unable to access safe drinking water;
•    for all children to complete their primary education;
•    substantial reductions in maternal and child mortality;
•    turning the tide on HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; encouraging the pharmaceuticals industry to make essential drugs more accessible; and giving special support to HIV/AIDS orphans;
•    significantly improving the lives of slum dwellers by 2020;
•    promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment;
•    making the benefits of new technologies available to all; and
•    developing strong partnerships with the private sector and civil society in pursuit of development and poverty eradication.

All these elements of the Millennium Declaration were further elaborated on in the MDGs. While the MDGs have been dismissed in some quarters for not being the product of a broad consultative process, the fact that leaders of 189 delegations at the Summit – many of them Heads of State and Government, including me – agreed to a declaration containing key elements of what were to become the MDGs – gave them weight.

Whatever the debate about the MDGs’ origin, they certainly gained traction. A great many developing countries incorporated the targets into their national development plans, and have measured progress against them ever since. There has been a large number of national, regional, and global reports produced on MDG progress over the past thirteen years, and there is a particular focus now on accelerating achievement of the goals and targets by the end of December 2015.

Concurrent with that effort, an international debate is well under way on what a global development agenda should look like beyond 2015. Should there be one at all? Should it apply to all countries? Should global targets be set? If so what should they be? I will comment on some of these issues this evening.

Should there be a renewed global development agenda at all?

This question begs rather more fundamental questions, such as:
•    what is the point of multilateralism in general and when applied to development in particular, and
•    are there development objectives which are more likely to be achieved through global focus and effort than by each country acting alone?

The experience with the MDGs suggests that global priority setting, backed by action, does generate results. For example, the global poverty reduction target set in the MDGs has been met, most of the world’s children now go to school, and the tide has been turned on HIV/AIDS and malaria.  In the context of HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, maternal mortality and under-five mortality, the decline by nearly 32 per cent in the burden from these MDG-related disorders between 1990 and 2010 is considered to be greater than pre-MDG trends would have produced. This suggests that the increased global attention these areas got from the MDGs, and the extra funding which followed, helped.

On reflection, the development progress stimulated by the MDGs should not surprise us. Overall, the evidence seems to suggest that norms and priorities established through international agreements and agendas can and do have an impact on the attitudes of societies, the laws and policies of countries, and ultimately on the well-being of people.

Robert Putnam has argued that international agreements can “change minds and move the undecided,” especially where political leaders and opinion-formers champion them. The impact may not be immediate, but over time the UN’s conventions, declarations and conference outcomes have shifted domestic and global debates, for example on gender equality and on women’s sexual and reproductive health rights – although clearly there is still some way to go.

The mission of the United Nations itself rests on a foundation of universal values enshrined in a series of agreements, beginning with the UN Charter in 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and continuing to the Millennium Declaration in 2000 and beyond. These agreements provide an ethical framework for the work of the UN. The studies conducted by the UN Intellectual History Project concluded that they have inspired change in the way countries understand and approach development. That in turn, has helped trigger long-term and under-the-radar change in public norms and values. That same intellectual history project rates the MDGs as among the UN’s greatest ideas and initiatives.

The UN Charter took the unprecedented, and in 1945 extraordinary, step of calling for global development action to increase standards of living in all parts of the world. The UN’s founding members realized that a more peaceful world would not be possible without stable societies, more prosperous communities, and universal respect for the human rights of all people, regardless of race, sex, language, or religion – the list has expanded since that time. Ever since 1945, the UN has linked the three pillars of its mandate – peace and security, human rights, and development.

That has helped to broaden the focus on development. Richard Jolly, one of the lead authors in the UN Intellectual History Project, argues that the UN’s many agreements and conference outcomes have shifted the common understanding of development from a narrow economic concept to one which is broad, people-centred, and multidisciplinary.

Pioneering UN Conferences and agreements, particularly in the 1970s and 1990s, were successful in making human rights, conflict resolution, environmental sustainability, gender equality, and peace and peace-building integral to what UNDP considers today to be sustainable human development. Jolly notes, however, that rising debt and recession in the 1980s brought early thinking and co-operation along these lines to a halt. In those years the International Financial Institutions dominated the international development agenda with their focus on stabilisation and structural adjustment programmes.

The priorities of those programmes were lowering inflation and deficits and generating economic growth – not human development. It was said that some of the architects of structural adjustment went so far as to argue that making poor people’s lives worse in the short term could be justified in the name of ‘development’. The result was what has been described as ‘a lost decade for development’ for sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

During this time the UN’s development arm took on the role of constructive dissent. In 1985, UNICEF began promoting the need for ‘adjustment with a human face’. In 1990 UNDP issued its first annual Human Development Report, crystalizing earlier thinking and offering an alternative approach to the “Washington Consensus” by putting people firmly at the centre of development. This approach, pioneered by Nobel Laureate Amatya Sen and his colleague Mahbub ul Haq, saw development as being about enlarging people’s choices and strengthening human capabilities. In the human development paradigm, which owes so much to Sen and Ul Haq, it is the extent to which people are healthy, educated, and free which provides the yardstick for a nation’s progress, expressing in effect the aphorism that “man does not live by bread alone”.  

A second round of global conferences and summits in the 1990s linked human development and social priorities to sustaining the environment, understanding population dynamics, ensuring food security, and promoting gender equality. The UN Millennium Summit in 2000, where leaders from 189 countries adopted the Millennium Declaration and in effect set the Millennium Development Goals process in motion, was a natural outcome of all these discussions, and had a strong focus on human development.

In the follow up to its major development summits and declarations, the UN has long adopted and promoted goals - for example, to provide universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, or to increase healthy life expectancy and eradicate illiteracy. The assessment made for the UN Intellectual History Project of the progress on the economic and social goals set by the UN from 1960 to 2000 suggests that most have been partially or largely achieved. For me, this makes the case for global agenda setting for development.

The drive to achieve internationally-agreed goals can also spur countries on to greater achievements. I know from my own experience in government how prized a high ranking in an international index was – and how a low ranking could motivate urgent action to address the problems it exposed. In a similar way, the MDGs have had a galvanizing impact on many countries, as they put the spotlight on basic benchmarks of human development.

As well, the indicators linked to the MDG targets have incentivized countries to invest in better data against which progress can be more reliably measured. An expanded post-2015 development agenda could go further in stimulating both action and better information collection on huge issues like gender violence and unemployment. On both of these, many countries currently lack sufficient data on what is happening – perhaps because tackling them has not had the priority it deserves.

International agendas and goals also help build alliances for change – within and between governments and civil society especially. The MDGs brought together diverse development actors around a common cause. The measurability and focus of the Goals helped draw broad public attention to the development challenges of particularly the poorest countries.

After a period of stagnation in the 1990s, Official Development Assistance (ODA) did rise sharply in real terms from 2000 onwards. Many attribute that rise in aid quantity and also in quality to the MDGs – in itself a major achievement. Now as ODA levels are dwindling, perhaps a renewed global development agenda could reignite enthusiasm for eradicating poverty once and for all, and for building a more sustainable world.

Moving beyond 2015 – broader issues to address

There is no doubt in my mind that a renewed global development agenda is desirable, and would re-energize human and sustainable development. In renewing, though, there is no need to start from scratch. The next agenda should build on the MDGs’ success, aim to complete their “unfinished business”, and reflect the profound global changes since 2000.

To do that, what has been learned from the MDG experience needs to be analysed. Having supported countries to pursue the MDGs over these past thirteen years, UNDP has come across both inspiring success stories and significant weaknesses. Both are relevant to designing a new agenda.

But a lot has changed since 2000: the world has been exposed to numerous crises – from the global financial crisis to major natural disasters, and to profound conflict with regional and global spillover effects.

•    In 2000, there was nothing like the awareness which exists today of the threat of climate change. Now the predictions pour out on global warming not being on track to peak at two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but at three, or four, or even six degrees. Huge losses have been suffered from extreme weather events - drought, floods, and storms. The stress of unsustainable global production and consumption patterns are reflected in high rates of deforestation, water scarcity, food waste, and greenhouse gases’ emissions. Current development models have brought us to the brink of planetary boundaries.

•    Continuing business as usual risks not only irreversible damage to ecosystems, but also arresting human development. The poorest people on earth are bearing the brunt of climate change. It is not sensible to talk about poverty eradication and environmental sustainability as separate issues – they are closely linked, and a renewed global agenda needs to be premised on a strong vision for sustainable development.

•    A new agenda could also make the links between development and the rule of law, effective and responsive governance, and the importance of peace and citizen security.

•    The MDGs were silent on: the devastation caused by violence and conflict; the importance of open, accountable, and responsive governance; the need for inclusive growth and decent work; and the exclusion of persons with disabilities. Some countries have taken the initiative to add their own MDGs at national or local levels to help address such issues: Mongolia, Albania and Tonga, among others, for example, introduced national goals and targets aimed at good governance.

Should there be a universal agenda with local targets?

The MDGs were set as global benchmarks. Some developing countries had met most of the targets when they were launched – and some still haven’t.

The Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Post-2015, co-chaired by the Presidents of Indonesia, and Liberia and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has suggested that “all goals in the future agenda, be universal, representing the common aspirations of all countries; while almost all targets be set at national or local levels, to account for different starting points and contexts”. In UNDP’s experience, localizing the targets and getting buy-in at all levels of government – national and sub-national – helps drive MDG achievement.

A universal global agenda could also help address an often cited weakness of the MDGs: the imbalance between having mainly performance criteria for developing countries and aid-centric delivery criteria for donors. Correcting that will be critical for reaching consensus on a new development agenda.

In reality, the global sustainable development challenge requires all countries to act. A shift to more sustainable production and consumption patterns, for example, will require concerted action from the developed world to cut carbon emissions, but that does not mean that others need to do nothing. Even heroic action by advanced economies to reduce their carbon footprint is not enough to ward off catastrophic climate change. “Common but differentiated responsibility” must remain a key principle for action on climate change.

Should there be a focus on tackling inequalities?

It is commonplace to observe that progress on the MDGs has been uneven – across and within countries. By 2010 the world is estimated to have met the MDG target of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. This achievement owes a lot to the exceptional progress made in just one very large country – China. Some countries, however, have seen little reduction in their extreme poverty rate.  On another dimension, a country may be encouraged by national reports of fewer child deaths, even where the poorest of its people see no change.

Since the Millennium Declaration was signed, inequalities have increased in many places, even where economic growth and development progress have been rapid. The poorest 1.2 billion people in the world account for only one per cent of the total global consumption of goods and services, while the richest one billion consume 72 per cent. Already poor and excluded groups may face the added burden of discrimination – whether that is due to age, gender, ethnicity, indigenous status, disability, place of residence, HIV status, sexual or gender orientation, or other factors. They typically have the least resources and remain the furthest behind.

The High Level Panel Report recommends that the next development agenda should aim to “leave no one behind.” That could lead to formulating a global goal aimed at eradicating extreme poverty worldwide. An ambitious agenda might also seek to eradicate preventable deaths, chronic hunger, and illiteracy. It should also target gender inequality - widely recognized as the single largest driver of inequality in today’s world. More broadly, targets and indicators focused on excluded groups could be included across the agenda – ensuring that the worlds’ progress is gauged by the status of its poorest people.  

Increased access to technology and social media has better enabled people to highlight the extent of inequalities and demand change. These tools and better data can help to track progress of those once invisible in the “tyranny of averages.”

Enabling broad participation in the development of the new agenda

While the Millennium Declaration which foreshadowed the MDGs was agreed on by the UN’s Member States, there was not broad public outreach when either it or the MDGs were developed. These days there are much greater expectations that peoples’ voices will be heard when global agendas are developed.

An expert review of “What Makes International Agreements Work”, conducted by New York University and the UK Overseas Development Institute last year, concluded that “multilateral agreements that bring a range of actors into the process to support the accord, including domestic actors like government officials and civil society groups, are more likely to be agreed and implemented.”

To increase the involvement of civil society in debate about the post-2015 development agenda, UNDP and sister UN organizations launched a global conversation through social media, other websites, and face-to-face meetings. More than one million people from across all UN Member States have shared their priorities to date. When those Member States move to negotiate the next agenda and sustainable development goals, it is to be hoped that these many voices will be heeded.

What do people want from a future agenda? Where do their interests converge?

In addition to inviting broad public engagement, the UN Secretary General sought the advice of world leaders and experts by convening a High Level Panel on Post-2015. The Panel issued its far-reaching Report last month. This month, the business, academic, and scientific communities have weighed in with joint reports and recommendations. There appears to be consensus emerging across this wide range of experts, leaders, citizens, and groups from the public consultations, the SG’s High Level Panel, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network on:
-    a future agenda which tackles the unfinished business of the MDGs;
-    a future agenda centred on sustainable development, with the eradication of poverty at its core;
-     a universal agenda which mobilizes countries, North and South; and
-    a limited number of goals and targets which capture the key challenges for humanity in a compelling way.

At UNDP we are advising UN Member States in the early stages of their negotiations to ‘bank’ areas where there is broad agreement. This would then open up space for negotiators to focus on the topics which are more challenging.

In the discussions to date, higher human development and ecosystem integrity are seen as compatible objectives. Green and inclusive economies and societies can deliver both – it’s not a question of either/or. But achieving both requires integrated approaches – bringing together sectors and policy-makers often not accustomed to working together.

Coming to consensus in a multipolar world: tackling the hard issues

Among those hard issues is the place of peace and good governance in the new agenda. They were not specified in the MDGs, perhaps because of the difficulty of reaching agreement on how to reflect their importance. In the post-2015 consultations, however, there has been a groundswell of support among citizens for honest and effective governance to be recognized as a critical driver of development. This ranked third in the global My World survey on priorities.

The UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel describes “personal security, access to justice, freedom from discrimination and persecution, and a voice in the decisions that affect their lives as development outcomes in their own right”. They suggest global goals with nationally adopted targets aimed at, for example, increasing public participation in political processes, guaranteeing public access to information, and reducing the number of violent deaths. These concrete suggestions, backed by a mobilized citizenry, could help the negotiating member states overcome doubts and hesitations in this area.  

Another bone of contention will be over what in the jargon is referred to as the “means of implementation” of a transformative global agenda.  

For sure, more and better quality development assistance for poor countries would help – along with greater policy coherence in a range of areas, from trade to migration and tax avoidance.

MDG 8 aimed to ‘create a global partnership for development’, and contained targets on trade reform, debt relief, and access to new technologies and essential drugs, but progress across these areas has not been stellar.

A report from the UN development system to the Secretary General on the post-2015 agenda suggested that countries could set out how - given their particular abilities, capacities, and resources – they could each contribute to advancing the global goals, by specifying the partnerships and policy “enablers” to which they would commit.

But a new global agenda also needs to take into account the partnership possibilities emerging from today’s shifting geopolitics and geo-economics, and from the widening range of development actors – across the emerging economies, the private sector, the mega-philanthropic foundations and NGOs, and a vibrant civil society in developing countries. South-South co-operation will have a growing role to play – but as a complement to and not a substitute for traditional ODA.

Where to from here?

The process of reaching agreement on the future global development agenda still has some two years to run.

•    This September, the UN General Assembly will hold a special event with world leaders looking at how to accelerate progress to meet the MDGs between now and the 2015 deadline. The event may also plot a roadmap for nations to decide – between now and 1 January 2016 – on what the next development agenda, with goals therein, should look like.

•    By September next year, UN Member States involved in the UN General Assembly Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals are due to issue their recommendations.
•    UN Member States will then – or before – begin negotiations on the renewed agenda, with a view to that being affirmed that at a high level UN meeting in 2015.

Some Concluding Thoughts

Two things are important now:

1.    maintaining a high level of public interest in the outcome of the negotiations on post-2015 and sustainable development goals, and

2.    accelerating achievement of the goals we have. The greater the success of the MDGs, the greater the credibility of the process of negotiating a new agenda will be.

A sobering reflection: whether or not the MDG targets are met, around one billion people will still be living in extreme poverty in 2015. Many still will not have clean drinking water or improved sanitation. Many will still be suffering from hunger, malnutrition, gender discrimination, and more. Such suffering is inconsistent with the vision for dignity, equity, peace, and prosperity of the Millennium Declaration.

The future global development agenda can be the next stage of implementing the vision of the Millennium Declaration. To rise to that challenge, the international community needs to agree on a reinvigorated and transformational global agenda.

Twenty years ago, could we have imagined that one billion more people would have been lifted out of extreme poverty by now, or that polio would be gone from all but three countries, or that four out of five of the world’s children would be vaccinated, as is the case today? The world is demonstrably healthier, more educated, and prosperous than ever before.

In the face of today’s daunting global challenges, we cannot allow ourselves to be condemned by a collective failure to imagine a better world. Rather we should work for a world where poverty in all its dimensions is consigned to history, and where we pull back from the brink of environmental catastrophe to a new, sustainable global equilibrium. It is to be hoped that the outcome of the post-2015 debate rises to this challenge.

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