In the rapidly swelling sea of post-2015 publications that is ever lapping at my desk, one report that has been well worth reading properly is the UN System Task Team’s Report to the Secretary-General: ‘Realising the Future We Want for All’.
Considering it has been authored by a group of 60 (!) UN agencies plus the World Bank and various other international organisations it is remarkably, almost eerily coherent as a document. This is not a text that has been track-changed to within an inch of its life. At times it is hard to believe that such a large number of diverse agencies have generated a vision that is so consistent – but we must presume at the minimum they have signed off on it. To have done so without turning the text into mush is cause for celebration indeed.
And there is a lot to celebrate in this report. Several of the key asks and messages that CAFOD, Beyond 2015 and many other civil society organisations have been pushing for receive support and reinforcement – and various other post-2015 commentators will be pleased too. The case for an inclusive process gets a big bold highlight (p.7), albeit with a light counterpoint in the text. The three principles of human rights, equality and sustainability (p.23-25) will be widely popular, and support for a holistic approach is welcome. In line with the weight of opinion in the current debate the report backs a fully global framework – not just one for ‘developing’ countries. There is explicit acknowledgement of the need to keep a clear focus on poverty and human development (p.9), and balm for most of the key anxieties that are typically raised around this agenda.
Indeed, it feels like a good amount of listening has gone on. Much of the language used and the issues included will be familiar to those who have participated in the numerous events on post-2015 in recent months – and we could hazard a guess that the authors have attended a good number of these. All in all, the piece is as good as any I’ve seen as a flashbulb of where the debate has arrived at in mid-2012.
An exception to this, weirdly, is the most high profile sentence in the whole document. The Summary opens by asserting that “The central challenge is…to ensure that globalization becomes a positive force for all the worlds’ peoples of present and future generations”. This seems like a very strange claim to me – much more in keeping with the way the challenges were being framed in the 90s before the MDGs were agreed than how they are framed today. Despite globalization being presented as ‘the’ central challenge, the term does not reappear in any part of the document, nor is it further justified or explained.
Whilst the content of the report would suggest a wide range of sources have been taken into account, a disappointing approach to referencing seems to have been taken. Of 48 footnotes, only three reference independent sources – whilst the rest are of texts produced by UN and World Bank system agencies. Several statistics and pieces of evidence go uncited even when the intellectual claim to them is indisputable (for example, Sumner’s work on p.9). Whether or not this was done deliberately, only citing your own material really is bad form – and it undermines other efforts around openness and engagement with diverse actors. It impairs transparency and accountability, erodes trust, and does nothing to dispel the long standing myths around UN/World Bank hegemonic domination in development.
The most interesting bit of the report is p.24-32, especially the diagram, which sets out four dimensions of “inclusive social development, environmental sustainability, inclusive economic development, and peace and security”. Personally I like this bundling. You could interpret it as the addition of peace and security to the traditional three pillars of sustainability (environmental, social and economic); or as a fuller working out of the ‘people, prosperity, planet and peace’ idea which was in misty circulation some six months ago. The latter is arguably more memorable as a set of labels whilst almost entirely the same content-wise. An obvious fix to the challenge of how to fit the large number of important issues into one concise framework is to create subtitles, and these look like fairly sensible ones to me.
Less convincing at this stage is the ‘enablers’ which would work across all four dimensions as means to achieve the goals (rather than goals themselves). The examples currently given as enablers are in some cases wholly repetitive with what is given in the boxes as potential goals (ie. ‘Universal access to quality education’ as an enabler, with ‘Quality education for all’ as a goal). But the distinction between ‘enablers’ and ‘goals’ will surely be impossible. Almost anything you put in either category is will be both a good in itself and a springboard for other crosscutting achievements – and many of the issues being mooted as enablers (for example, ‘sustainable energy for all’) have been well established as candidate goals in their own right. Whilst I see the temptation of looking to address the means as well as ends, trying to get the agreement on enablers as well as goals is like trying to get the entire world to agree on one single theory of change diagram. There’s a high risk that this ends up as a confusing distraction, which is simply used to shoehorn issues that slip off the goals list.
But given that the debate is still warming up, it is better to err on the side of being overly ambitious than overly gloomy (there’s plenty of time for all that!). Ambition is the general tone of the debate as things stand, and I think the Task Team report is a fair reflection of where thinking has got to on the issues as a whole – which even moves this thinking forward in places. There is much still to be worked out, some mistakes and significant room for improvement, but the overall coherence of the Task Team report bolsters the credibility of UN leadership on this agenda as a whole.