By Brian Pratt.

The long-awaited and much-hyped report of the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda has been published, following a year-long process of meetings, consultations and musings. There is a great deal on offer in the report and in some ways it goes further than many feared in trying to review some of the wider global challenges, such as climate change and long-term gender inequality. It seems that initial reactions are mixed; those whose particular interests are included in the report, such as NGOs engaged in technical issues (water, maternal health) seem happier than those who are not, such as NGOs concerned with wider socio-political issues (inequality being the most prominent issue).

Looking back at the MDGs and the relative success and failures of the millennium initiative, we should think about what may be useful for engaging with the proposed plan to take us to 2030. Are there lessons which might help us avoid some of the constraints and weaknesses of the experience of the MDGs since 2000?

The first issue which for many destroyed the Millennium Declaration was the narrow focus on the MDGs. The Declaration included issues around human rights, inequality, gender and governance. However the MDGs will be known for their very basic level attainments in health, water, and infant and maternal mortality, for example, all of which can be applauded. Yet we must be concerned that so many countries are well off-track to achieve the MDGs – look at the latest information coming out of Somalia, for example. But, more importantly, very few of the bigger global concerns were even touched on by the MDGs. We saw far less progress in halting the rush towards climate-based catastrophes, environmental destruction, and rapid increases in inequality, led by South Africa, China, and Nigeria, which have not only copied the worst levels of inequality in the developed world but are going well beyond them.

The problem lay in the operationalizing and implementing of these goals. Bureaucrats the world over will go for gains which can be achieved easily, without rocking the political boat in which their leaders sit. We may start with grand aspirations, as with the HLP report or the original Millennium Declaration, but end with overly modest and simplistic indicators which do little to challenge political power, corruption, and elite control of governments or major companies and financial systems.

The weakness of the UN system is referred to in the HLP report and this has to be welcomed. However we must not underestimate the weaknesses in global governance which have led to a failure to arrive at agreements over climate change, and have obstructed peace initiatives around the world (present-day Syria is a case in point). We also need to remember that many people still gain through the inability of global humanity to resolve these and other issues, because they are able to exploit arms sales, treat public finances as their personal funds, profit from the export of polluting industries, and so on.

A second issue is being wary of placing too much faith in global partnerships. The report uses examples around sectoral single-issue partnerships, often driven by commercial public partnerships. It is a concern that the report’s authors are sidestepping the way such partnerships have, to date, ignored or been blind to the real constraints on social development. This is not to say that these partnerships have not had some successes, but all our experience shows that as we make progress with the middle ground of more easily achievable social goals, the difficulties of removing the big constraints on the poorest and most oppressed increase and become less open to a simplistic approach of single-issue global partnerships.

A third issue is that, although sympathetic to ideas around improved data which have greatly improved our understanding of poverty and development issues, we would not want to see this as an excuse to hire lots of new statisticians to tell people what they already know from their practice and lived realities. A government, especially one which is corrupt, can always massage or ignore the figures as it wishes; better policies are more likely to come from institutional reform not merely better data alone.

The report does not help us resolve the tension between different approaches to development – with some clearly wedded to a concept of continuing economic growth, others to a scientific positivism which believes that all social problems can be resolved by the introduction of the right technology. Neither of these approaches has been able to resolve increasing inequality, persistent marginalisation, and poverty, unless they are tied to progressive social and political policies. This tension continues to be reflected in the inability of any government to talk about a future without assuming further economic growth, whilst at the same time speaking about the environmental issues that our increased use of resources has caused and will continue to cause. We seem incapable of having a discussion about how we can square the desire for growth with the physical limitations of growth. Such unresolved tensions will surely undermine this and any other global reports on our future.

I am sure that most of humanity would hope that the new initiative will improve the key areas of our lives as set out in this report. Our worry is that, as with the Millennium Declaration, what happens on the ground is a pale reflection of these lofty ideals. The combined ability of bureaucrats, corrupt governments, private and elite interests to undermine our achievement of such goals should not be underestimated; we have the lessons of recent history to guide us. Civil society needs to choose its own goals rather than just buying into this report or a development narrative that we may have been consulted on but ultimately be disappointed with. Let’s leave the easy goals to others, and not get caught up in massaging our activities to fit around new (funding) opportunities, as happened a great deal with the MDGs.

Our comparative advantage lies in arguing for better national and international governance, and defending those marginal groups who will be the last to gain from any growth. Inequality is not just about fairness; it is in itself an indicator of the failure of recent economic growth to help more than a small proportion of many populations, hence the lack of real progress on many social indicators. Civil society groups of all types need to engage with local political constraints, argue for improvements in the use of public resources and private sector employment at the local level, not let themselves get too side-tracked into delivering on the relatively easily attained objectives in the way many of NGOs have during the past 15 years.