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Global goals, national targets – squaring the MDG circle?

Written by Andrew Norton, Director of Research at ODI.

The arguments for broadening the ‘next’ MDG framework so it covers all countries are very strong.  If you really want to take on sustainable consumption challenges, or to be relevant to climate change mitigation, or to tackle inequality as a goal, then clearly there is no justifiable reason for excluding developed countries.  But then you face the issue of making goals relevant to widely ranging conditions – a formidable challenge which the Millennium Declaration rather elegantly ducked (by having a set of predominantly ‘absolute’ targets – which mostly were only relevant to poor countries).

The obvious answer is to set the targets at a national level rather than a global level.  Taken to its logical extreme the principle of ‘global goals, national targets’ would allow for some discretion for countries to set different kinds of targets which are relevant to them.  Building on that – you can have processes to establish national level legitimacy and policy buy-in.  Fantastic! What’s not to like?

But hang on a minute – we have been here before….. The Copenhagen Social Summit of 1995, to take one example.  Let me take you back there:  smoke-filled rooms (yes, it was that long ago) with sophisticated Danish light fittings, and the massed brains of the world’s poverty and social policy gurus, including very prominently the late and much-missed Peter Townsend. Anyway, they persuaded the governments of the world (well, 117 of them…) to sign up to this:

“We commit ourselves to the goal of eradicating poverty in the world, through decisive national actions and international cooperation, as an ethical, social, political and economic imperative of humankind.”

And how was this to be done? Yes, national level targets, with policies and budget allocations and stuff like that to go with them.  The signatories of the Copenhagen Declaration committed to taking forward these actions and reporting back on how they were doing (including at the Copenhagen +5 and +10 meetings).  The UK’s policies and targets for reducing child poverty (which were a very big deal under the last government and led eventually to the Child Poverty Act of 2010) were developed in large part as the UK’s ‘offer’ on the Copenhagen WSSD commitment 2.

In short – this was a great process in many ways.  But arguably its biggest influence on development practice came through the translation of Copenhagen’s absolute poverty commitment into MDG 1.  Without the WSSD – and the legitimacy and consensus-building work done there – there could have been no MDG1.

But if you try to use the Copenhagen Social Summit approach for a new global development agreement after 2015, you face some rather significant challenges.  Firstly, it’s very slow (the UK legislation on its flagship policy took 15 years).  Secondly, UN General Assembly Declarations don’t usually have any mechanisms to require national level follow up.  You would need a whole machinery to receive the national ‘targets’ and associated reporting on implementation – which ideally would need national level legislation to be fully operative.  Obviously, the MDGs have generated their own momentum at the national level – and also UN follow up facilities such as the Millennium Campaign, and the MDG fund.  But implementing a formal requirement for governments to engage in formulating and legislating targets and plans is a bit more demanding from a bureaucratic (and political) point of view.

What would be a good solution then?  Maybe the next MDG framework could do two things.  Firstly a set of ‘absolute’ targets, building on the existing MDG set and aimed at ‘finishing the job’ of eradicating extreme poverty on a global scale. Then you could add the facility on some (or all) goals for countries to submit their own voluntary and country-specific targets, policies and plans.  You would need some sort of global poverty reduction secretariat to support this – i.e. to document the country contributions, aggregate them and provide a global overview.  I doubt that finding the resources required to run this would be a major problem.

This might actually be quite powerful.  Think of MDG 3.  This was supposed to be the goal on  ‘gender equality and women’s empowerment’ – it should have been transformational in spirit, but instead most people now think of it as a rather technocratic and boring education target.  But if you allow countries to also develop their own targets on girl’s and women’s empowerment – and then create mechanisms for those countries to share experiences and support each other – you might just get something that looks more like transformational change on a global scale.  But I believe it would be a mistake to drop altogether the aspiration for global targets which would be ready to go immediately in 2015.  The launch of the next global framework of development goals and targets would be a non-event without these.  The process of establishing national targets should not be put under fierce time pressure but allowed to give space for real democratic process and debate.  Can we square the circle between the need for global urgency and national ownership this way?


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January 1st, 2016
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