Development is history looking forwards

Ten ideas for lobbying David Cameron as co-chair of the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals High Level Panel

Phil Vernon
16 May 2012

First the good news

Good news that UK Prime Minister David Cameron is co-chairing the UN High Level Panel to shape an international framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015. His appointment to this role is presumably a reflection of and reward for the leadership role the UK has played in international development assistance over the past fifteen years since Clare Short set up the Department for International Development (DFID). No doubt his appointment was a result of strong lobbying by the UK. (To imagine it as a subtle way for Ban Ki-moon to stiffen Cameron’s resolve in the face of a media and backbench push back against the government’s commitment to increase UK official development assistance (ODA) up to 0.7% of GNI may be going too far!)

Good news also that Cameron’s co-chairs are President Yudhoyono of middle income but still fragile Indonesia, and President Johnson-Sirleaf of grossly underdeveloped and war-recovering Liberia. Both are twice-elected presidents of countries still experimenting with democracy and freedom. One is an ex-general; the other an ex-international civil servant. Meanwhile Cameron is struggling to deal with coalition government, a free media and serious economic constraints. Quite a broad set of real world perspectives, so hopefully suitable for the leadership of such a panel.

Good news also that Cameron has a broad and deep level of aid and development expertise available to him in DFID and other parts of the UK civil service, along with a large professional UK-based aid and development community, and a significant proportion of global academic development expertise based in the UK; and that the country he leads has a tradition of international humanitarianism.

Good news too, that this is all happening after, and can thus draw on the deep and comprehensive work done by the World Bank for its 2011 World Development Report on Development and Security, which laid bare some of the tired misconceptions of how development happens in places where there’s not yet the rule of law or responsible, responsive and representative governance. The ongoing International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding has also produced some useful interim work on how to promote the emergence of peaceful and effective states, on which the new High Level Panel must draw.

Even better news however, that Cameron is not personally an aid or overseas development expert; and nor is Yudhoyono. Because, as I’ve argued before, the great limitation of aid experts is that we tend to have a rather narrow view of the possibilities of development and aid, constrained as we are by our own experiences and by the vested interests of our organisations and allegiances. The co-chairs will be better able to see the wood from the trees if they avoid surrounding themselves too tightly with the usual ODA suspects.

And finally, this is presumably good news for UK-based and -linked groups wanting to influence the post-MDGs agenda – including the global coalition Beyond 2015. How then should we use this opportunity of access to the co-chair of the commission? 

Here are ten initial ideas 

1. Scope: it’s time for a truly global framework. This is a brilliant opportunity, at a time when globalisation, environmental limits, and climate change really do imply that we are all in it together, to develop a framework which applies globally - not just to poor countries. This means coming up with a framework which is relevant throughout the world, and which avoids objectifying poorer nations. It also recognises that all nations have significant problems to overcome, and different comparative advantages in the overarching global progress project. This approach would also help take the conversation away from a narrow focus on aid.

2. Frame this project around human progress, not aid. Whatever people might say, the MDGs are really about aid, not development; they only really apply to aid-recipient countries, and their real purpose has always been as a spur to increase aid flows and focus them on a few generic issues. That has not worked well: they haven’t served the purpose of mobilising politicians, civil society, businesses and civil servants to develop sustainable development strategies based on a comprehensive context analysis and political vision for change. Instead, because they are so narrow and aid-focused, they’ve probably impeded the development of a broad and far-reaching vision for change in some countries.

3. Timing: take it slow.  A very visible and rather contentious high level panel is the kind of scenario in which civil servants and sherpas will typically encourage the leaders to set out an aggressive calendar to pre-form the outcomes much too early in the process. Of course, that’s their job. But in this case they should resist business as usual. Two main points to make here. First, it really doesn’t matter if we have something finalised in time for the 2015 UN General Assembly or not; the world will not stop turning, and development policies, funds and strategies will not grind to a halt. Second, it’s absolutely critical to cast the ideas net as widely as possible before coming up with potential models for discussion. This is a large and diverse world, in which that will take time. And the prize is well worth the waiting. Indeed, in some ways the debate is far more important than the final product.

4. Preparation: get out there and start listening, and avoid formulating specific proposals for as long as you can. The Panel needs to spend at least the next two years simply looking around at and listening to people’s ideas, and consulting widely. It’s important to canvas a whole range of ideas from a wide range of sources, from poor and marginalised people to elites, from political oppositions to incumbents, from NGOs to the UNDP, from insurgent rebels to the militias fighting them, from local businesses to multi-nationals, from scientists to philosophers, from novelists to historians, from children to mums and dads, from heterosexuals to homosexuals, from farmers to hedge fund managers, from Cubans to Americans and Greeks to Germans, from Keynesians to the Chicago School, Moslems to Christians, from migrant labourers to the rentier classes, from the Chinese Communist Party to the American Republican Party, from immigrants to indigenous people, from islanders to continentals, from the Taleban to the US Marines, from DFID to the FCO… and yes, let’s even ask both the Occupy protesters and the bankers what they think.

… And ideally of course, these different groups – and others – need to be brought together to discuss and confront each others’ ideas so the dialectic process can do its work. This is quite a challenge, and it will take time and resources – and excellent project management. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be to find the best marriage between technical and political views of development progress, and between different ideological views. But it’s important not to shy away from ideological debate, as development practitioners have often tried to do in the past.

5. Get the purpose right, so form follows function. There are plenty of people and institutions out there who seem to know what the post-MDGs framework should look like; and of course each of them is pushing a particular agenda. No harm in that, but the first question the Panel needs to answer is: What is the purpose of the new framework? Form should follow function, after all. 

In my view the purpose of any global post-MDGs framework should not be to set out precise goals and indicators as with the MDGs. It would be more useful to create a broader vision of how people in different contexts can be better governed and live more prosperous, peaceful and fulfilling lives. Specific countries and institutions can then use these for inspiration as they determine their own goals and strategies.

One clue as to how to frame our aspirations is to imagine how historians in a hundred years might frame the history of human progress in 2015-2030. Put simply, development planning is history looking forwards.

6. Take time to learn what was good and what not so good about the MDGs. There’s masses of literature on this, but I think it’s widely agreed that the MDGs have significant strengths and weaknesses, among which:  



The MDGs cover topics which are fairly easy for a broad range of actors to support

Most of them are presented in a simple, easy to understand way

It is relatively easy to measure progress on most MDGs, at least at a national level in stable countries

They were mostly built on pre-existing agreements and data collection arrangements


They are focused on a too-narrow list of mainly technical issues, ignoring politics, justice and security for example; taken together, they do not add up to “development”

One size fits all: the goals were set at a global level, though development mostly happens nationally and locally; the MDGs assume that everyone everywhere faces much the same challenges and opportunities

They confuse ends with means

They take insufficient account of climate change or other sustainability issues

They more or less equate “development” with poverty eradication


7. Don’t aim for a fine level of detail. Last time around, not many people were paying attention to the MDGs as they were developed and agreed. There were a lot of other things going on. So the framers were able to push their product through without too much fuss and argument. This time, every UN agency is already preparing its pitch; Rio-plus-twenty will produce a pitch; every lobby you can imagine will be figuring out what it wants to see and – perhaps more importantly – what it doesn’t want to see included. It will be very hard to get agreement on detail except at the lowest common denominator level. So aim for something broader. But for goodness sake don’t base your ambition on what can most easily be agreed: this issue is more important than easy consensus. It’s worth arguing about.

8. Don’t base yourself only on what we already know how to do: there is so much we still have to learn – the UK still hasn’t figured out how to provide free mass public education effectively, even though it’s the sixth biggest economy and has been “developed” for quite some time now.

9. While thinking outside the box and casting the net widely, nevertheless take care to identify what’s already agreed. A good place to start might be the 2000 Millennium Declaration, which is pretty comprehensive – certainly far more so that the narrow and prescriptive MDGs.

10. Above all, avoid simply injecting new momentum behind the existing MDGs, as has been proposed by some, on the grounds that they haven’t yet been achieved and because it will be hard to find consensus on a better model. That would be a cop-out. Two  presidents and a prime minister leading a high level panel should be in a strong enough position not to cop-out.


This was originally published on Phil Vernon’s blog - Africa, International Development, Peacebuilding and other random thoughts -  on May 13, 2012.

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