Global Development Institute Blog

By David Hulme,

As we enter 2015, Professor David Hulme looks ahead to the next twelve months in international development as the Millennium Development Goals come to an end and plans take shape for the next phase.

This year, 2015, will be an important year for ideas and policies about international development.  It marks the completion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) era and there will be many reports and meetings to deliberate on ‘what’ has been achieved, ‘why’ those results occurred and identify the ‘gaps’ in achievement. It is also the year in which the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be negotiated into existence. The SDGs will marry poverty eradication with environmental sustainability…but, will they also include growth, creating decent jobs and other initiatives to reduce inequality at the centre of the global agenda? A set of key meetings will move these negotiations forward…or stall them – the Finance for Development in Addis Ababa in July, the post-2015 Summit in New York in September, and the climate change Summit planned for December in Paris.

Global bullshit?

What should we make of such meetings? There are three main perspectives I can identify. At the cynical extreme one can see them as ‘global bullshit’: international bureaucrats, political leaders and think-tankers flying around the world, staying in nice hotels, making grand speeches and pontificating …but not making any contribution to making life better for disadvantaged people on the ground or to the fostering of social justice. This is what I thought of the MDGs in the early 2000s…but I was wrong.

In the middle ground, one can see the meetings as genuine negotiations: complex processes of threat, promise and discussion between actors (in theory UN member countries but also political leaders, corporations, banks, wealthy individuals) and groups of actors. Some actors are very powerful (the US, OECD, G7, China, the BRICs, Google, ExxonMobil and others)…some are influential (the UN Secretariat and Ban-Ki-Moon, the UK, Bill Gates, Nobel prizewinning economists, the Vatican, Bono)…and some are more marginal (ministers from low-income countries, peasant and slum dweller associations, refugees and others). From this perspective, 2015 will be viewed as a year of strategic political struggle. The negotiated promises and deals that will be agreed will probably permit the powerful and rich to maintain ‘business as usual’ (exploiting workers, mis-using public resources, and ensuring private gain) but it creates opportunities for progressive advance (dare one say ‘transformation’) that must be pursued by whoever can make a difference.

A third perspective, perhaps more optimistic, sees the negotiations and meetings as the unfolding of international social norms: battles of ideas that can lead to moral advances – ending slavery and apartheid, poverty eradication, human development, gender equality, sustainable use of natural resources and others. From this viewpoint academics, teachers and scholar-practitioners (who professionally ‘trade’ in ideas) have a key role to play in developing the concepts to support social progress and disseminating them to students and the public more widely.

Whichever perspective one takes one thing is very clear – the nature of the negotiations and goal-setting processes in 2015 is very different than it was in 2000. Fifteen years ago the drive behind the MDGs came from OECD countries and multilateral agencies: telling poor countries what their goals should be and imposing PRSPs (‘owned’ by developing countries but needing the approval of the IMF and World Bank). Today this is not the case. Developing countries – emerging powers, emerging middle powers and poor countries – are actively driving the agenda. Brazil (with the support of other G77 members) has built on the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 and Rio+20 and has made sustainability a twin focus of the post-2015 agenda, alongside poverty eradication. The African Union has insisted that economic growth and job creation have to be in any future set of goals. And G77 members are pushing for the goals to be universal (all countries will agree to pursue the goals) and for ‘means of implementation’ to be incorporated in the SDGs. The latter will identify the responsibilities of key players and especially how poor country access to finance and technology will be achieved.

Reducing poverty

In 2015 the goal-setting process will not be developing countries adding a goal or two to the rich world’s agenda as in 2000. It is a much more balanced negotiation with poor and middle income countries pushing their national interests, forming groups to achieve common interests and re-claiming their right to shape what ‘development’ means and how it will be pursued. Many factors have forged these changes – the rise of the BRICs and emerging middle powers (Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh and others), new sources of finance (the New Development Bank, Contingency Reserve Arrangement and mega-bilateral finance for infrastructure), burgeoning middle classes in middle income countries and others. So negotiations are more balanced, but that does not mean that they are representative of humanity or fair.

I anticipate 2015 with hope for my academic colleagues to engage with the SDG processes and negotiations. The SDG process needs us. We have the research and evidence to demonstrate if the MDG process has succeeded in reducing poverty. Importantly we can work to find ways to address if inequality is actually being tackled. We have the rigorous approach to methodologies to ensure that the right data is being collected to measure new goals and indeed to choose the new goals. Too often academics are said to not engage with the policy process or that research is not used enough to change things in the real world, but 2015 is the year that we can change that and create a lasting impact in reducing the gap in inequality.

This post was originally published on the Manchester Policy Blog.