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Shaping the post 2015 development agenda - don't forget the Millennium Declaration and the UN Declaration on Human Rights

Critics fear that the renewed UN Millennium Development Goals starting in 2015 will fail to include democracy and human rights. But maybe the UN Declaration on Human Rights is still useful.

Mandeep Tiwana
28 February 2013

Next week the UN’s post 2015 road-show will be coming to Johannesburg. Civil society groups are hoping to shine a spotlight on the critical missing element in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as global experts debate ‘governance and the post 2015 development agenda.’

Absence of any mention of democracy or good governance in the present formulation of the MDGs and by implication in the dominant development paradigm is indeed scandalous. Independent watch dog group, Freedom House estimates that only 43% of the world’s population are living in countries that are ‘free,’ assured of basic civil liberties and democratic freedoms.

Even as the UN, governments, the private sector and civil society engage in hectic parleys to shape the post MDG agenda, it is vital that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Variously described as ‘minimalistic’ and ‘mediocre,’ the MDGs are viewed by many sections of progressive civil society as a shoddy compromise formula imposed on citizens of the developing world by rich donor countries. A major criticism of the MDGs is that they are a lop-sided set of low level aspirations because world leaders at the time were either too timid or too selfish to pursue a comprehensive vision of development underpinned by the achievement of all human rights, in particular civil and political rights.

Big promises were made in the Millennium Declaration passed through a UN General Assembly resolution in 2000 to “spare no effort” to free fellow men, women and children from the “abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty.” Although, it was acknowledged that success in achieving development objectives depended on good governance in each country, decision-makers failed to translate their high rhetoric into relevant goals. Thus, “participatory democracy based on the will of the people” so eloquently spelt out in the Millennium Declaration finds no mention in the MDGs.

Charismatic leaders and their armies of loyal bureaucrats succeeded in making seductive arguments to the international community that dents in poverty reduction should be the main development priority while civil and political rights could be relegated to achieving economic growth. This suited a number of authoritarian leaders in developing countries who were later able to position themselves as global development stars while ruthlessly clamping down on democratic dissent by political opponents and civil society at home.

If anything, a critical lesson learnt from the Arab Spring is that people’s aspirations for democratic freedoms cannot be downgraded in the name of achieving progress on economic indicators. Tellingly, in 2010, Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan were celebrated as champions in the achievement of MDGs while sitting on a powder keg of public discontent. Even today, seen from the lop-sided prism of the MDGs, non-democratic countries such as Cambodia, China, Ethiopia and Rwanda are lauded by mainstream economists and financial institutions as development successes for reducing poverty in large numbers while continuing to imprison legitimate democratic dissenters. The current development paradigm of prioritising economic growth above all fails to tabulate the cost of oppression on societies even as struggles for basic democratic freedoms continue to be waged in Bahrain and Syria at enormous human loss. 

2015 indeed provides a promising opportunity for the international community to rethink ‘development’ and examine whether development is at all is possible without freedom. Civil society has long been arguing that development is best achieved by adopting an integrated human rights based approach. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights agreed over sixty years ago provides an excellent insight into various conditions necessary for human development through each of its 30 articles whether they are the right to just and favourable conditions of work; the right to social security, food or education; the right to participate in cultural life; the right to freedom of opinion and expression; or to take part in the government of one’s country. 

In fact, much of the groundwork has already been laid for a new development paradigm that is in harmony with the current needs of humanity. In the Millennium Declaration, world leaders rightly identified six fundamental values as “essential to international relations in the twenty first century.” Each of these are relevant to the multiple interlinked economic, social, political and environmental crises that we are faced with today. The post MDG development agenda would do well to be underpinned by the values of (i) freedom, (ii) equality, (iii) solidarity, (iv) tolerance, (v) respect for nature, and (vi) shared responsibility.

As vast amounts of energy and resources are expended to shape the post 2015 development agenda, the international community doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel or be seduced by the narrow vision propounded by those pursuing selfish interests. Let’s hope that the 26 member high level panel of eminent persons ensures that the new development framework is deeply rooted in the democratic aspirations outlined in the Millennium Declaration and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Chair: Alice Martin, advisory board member of Autonomy, a think tank dedicated to the future of work.

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