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Did 2015 pass the five tests for development success?

Written by Susan Nicolai


​2015 was a monumental year for development. Not only were the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted as an ambitious vision for the next 15 years, but the landmark Paris Agreement set commitments to limit temperature increases to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda pledged a new social compact to deliver a basic package of services for all, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction charted a global course on disaster issues.


A year ago I suggested ‘five tests’ for development success in 2015, highlighting key areas that should be addressed across these processes. The tests were ambitious: breaking down development silos, tackling inequality, rethinking finance, getting good data, and the need to shift from global to local action. 

So, how has 2015 measured up?

1. Breaking down false walls

Efforts to address the interlinked poverty, climate change and disasters agendas have often been led by different camps, with little communication between them. Yet real world connections are clear. Unchecked, climate change could draw up to 720 million people back into extreme poverty just as zero poverty is reached. And disasters often aggravate existing vulnerabilities, destroying livelihoods and weakening economic growth. 

The test for 2015 was to break down these silos and generate joint action. There has been progress on the first part, with the SDGs calling for an ‘indivisible balance of the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental’ and other frameworks recognising connections. But there has so far been limited progress on integrated planning – globally and nationally – which matters immensely as the focus shifts to implementation.    

2. Tackling inequality

In the past 25 years there has been massive progress on global development, with around 1 billion people escaping extreme poverty. What’s more, 59 million deaths from malaria, measles and tuberculosis have been averted since 2000 and there are 137 million more children enrolled in primary school today than in 1990.  However, not everyone has shared in this progress, with the poorest 5% of people experiencing no increase in their real incomes over this period.

The critical test this year was whether or not equity was embedded in global frameworks, and this was passed. The SDG declaration pledges that ‘no one will be left behind’ and that efforts will ‘endeavour to reach the furthest behind first’. The Paris Agreement highlights the need for ‘intergenerational equity’ and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda commits to providing social protection systems for the most vulnerable and those furthest below the poverty line. These commitments clearly set out a call to ‘leave no one behind’, with the task ahead being to encourage and monitor action.

3. Rethinking who is financed and how

Diverse sources of funding are needed for development in the future: domestic budgets, the private sector and international public finance. One estimate found that an incremental 1.5-2.5% of world GDP may be needed to achieve the SDGs in all countries. Analysis across health, education and social protection identified a financing gap of $84 billion per annum, $73 billion of which is in low-income countries, that could be bridged if DAC donors kept their promise to deliver 0.7% of GNI as official development assistance.

There were three tests on finance for 2015. First, whether middle-income countries would benefit from the Addis deal: here the call for a sustained focus on aid for these countries was clear, and was recognised by the Addis agreement. Second, increased investment in climate funds: new pledges after Paris totalled $1.5 billion. Third, reduction of subsidies for fossil-fuel exploration, which is the one aspect going in the wrong direction: as fossil-fuel prices have fallen, some countries have increased subsidies.

4. More and better data

While the 9.7 million votes collected by MyWorld2015 show that citizens want their voices heard on priority development issues, the need for more and better data to support decision-making and accountability was also a clear theme in 2015. With as many as 350 million people worldwide not covered by household surveys, even our headline data may be wrong, with current estimates possibly missing up to one quarter of those living in extreme poverty.

The 2015 test here was to secure investment so that development data could be better disaggregated going forward, boosting understanding of the patterns of poverty and inequality. While each of the separate development frameworks called for improved data, the greatest step forward here has been the formation of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. Since its launch in September, more than 100 governments, companies and international organisations have signed up. The question is whether their individual commitments will translate into powerful collective action.

5. Staying local

Throughout the SDG process there have been calls to ensure national and local ownership of the goals. Lessons from the MDG experience show there were three ways in which governments used the former goals: referencing the MDGs in national development strategies, creating institutions to track progress, and using the MDG framework to show international leadership. However, early MDG action was limited, and governments often waited to renew national targets before revising their own targets. UN-led efforts, such as the MDG Acceleration Frameworks established in 2010, may have helped increase alignment.

The test this year was whether a structure would be put in place to support national and local governments to adopt their own targets and strategies. To date, efforts have been focused on accountability, rather than processes for contextualisation. Indicators are the major element here – at least in terms of the SDGs – with an independent experts group soon to finalise a global set of indicators by March 2016 that can be adapted at country level. Similarly, the main tool emerging from the Paris Agreement has been Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).


In short, 2015 deserves a strong pass, but with lots of outstanding questions for upcoming years. On the plus side, core issues were included in new frameworks, confirming a consensus around the future vision of development. On the minus side, words on paper don’t benefit those in greatest need of development action, and SDG projections show just how much more effort is needed for implementation.