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Time to gamble on development goals

Written by Claire Melamed

Every global movement starts when a group of people decide to take a gamble – a gamble that an issue will become big, a gamble that they can move the politics their way, a gamble that events will be helpful in moving their agenda on.  Every campaign – to drop the debt, against the slave trade, in favour of women’s suffrage, started with someone, or a group of people, betting on optimism and winning in the face of apathy or hostility.

This could be a moment for a similar gamble.  You might not have noticed, but there’s something that may just be very big indeed, struggling to emerge from what seems from the outside a fairly arcane UN process.

The UN is about to launch three years of negotiations to agree new global goals on ending poverty, to kick in when the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015.  They might be called ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, or ‘Global Development Goals’, or something similar.  They might have targets on all kinds of things like energy or water, well-being or happiness, nutrition or literacy.  Their eventual character is what the technocrats and bureaucrats in the UN and its member states are paid to think and argue about – and believe me, they are doing just that.

But they’re doing it in a kind of vacuum.  And that's a shame, because there’s a lot of good stuff being discussed.  There’s a strong consensus that inequality is a big problem that needs to be tackled, in concrete ways, as part of the post-2015 development agenda.  Targets to totally eliminate absolute poverty by 2030 are being seriously considered. There’s much hope that the diverging tracks of development and environment can be bent back together.  And it’s starting to feel as if the most progressive policies of some emerging economies: universal health systems, cash transfers, a new approach to development partnerships, are beginning to make a difference on the global stage and to define a truly new global development agenda.

The list includes many of the things that progressive people in development organisations have been wanting to see for years.  But it is a long list, and that’s part of the problem. The danger is that many good things are agreed, but that the combined long wish-list has too much finely crafted technical detail with no political momentum behind it to actually make it happen.  Governments have to want to make a new agreement work, otherwise it will join the mass of fine-sounding UN agreements that have promised much and delivered precisely zero.  And of course a big public campaign is one way to make that happen.

I’m one of the technocrats, churning out reports on various aspects of the discussions.  But in a previous life I was a campaigner.  And I’m surprised that most of the big development NGOs haven’t yet grasped the potential of this process.

It should be just what’s needed to give a shot in the arm to the whole business of development.  Stuck with the thankless task of defending an aid budget that goes to fewer and fewer countries and agonising over the role of organisations in developed countries when the centre of gravity of development moves inexorably towards the BRICS and rapidly growing African countries, the development industry in rich countries has got used to being on the defensive.  In recent years it’s lost what one sympathetic observer calls its ‘fizz’.

And in practical terms the right agreement could have quite an impact – think about how the current MDGs have dominated donor thinking and global discussions about development for the last few years.  A new agreement certainly wouldn’t change the world overnight but it might – ahem – give it a ‘nudge’ in the right direction.

The discussion about what might happen after 2015 is that rare thing – a real political process but one where the content is still undefined.  It’s an opportunity to keep the good but also repair the mistakes of the MDGs, look again at what ‘development’ is and the role of the international community in helping it to happen.  Big ideas, well communicated and with popular support behind them, could make a big difference. 

Between now and 2015 NGOs will rightly focus their energy on ensuring we get as close to meeting the MDGs as we can. Yet even if every goal is met there will still be a big job to on January 1st 2016. Some more, louder voices are needed to make sure that the work doesn't stop when the MDGs expire.  It is too soon to point to a missed opportunity but with 1000 days until the start of 2015 the clock is ticking.

We can’t predict the end result.  But this seems to me the perfect moment to bet on optimism.