The End of the MDGs?

Posted on | March 8, 2012 by Stefano Gennarini, J.D. |

This morning the Secretary General, and Rebeca Grynspan, Associate Administrator of UNDP, and Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Special Adviser on the MDGs, held a press conference to report on the progress towards achieving the MDG’s. The SG described Sachs and Grynspan as his “top development experts and senior advisers.”

They cited a report issued this week by WHO and Unicef claiming that the target of access to drinking water has been reached. They extolled the MDGs as a success, especially with regards the goals of extreme poverty and access to water, as well as in health, particularly with malaria and tubercolosis. Nevertheless, they highlighted the progress that still has to be made. The SG called attention to the “massive disparities” that exist especially in sub-Saharan Africa, in sanitation and hunger. The SG emphasized the role of partnerships for development for the success of the MDGs.

There is a buzz at the UN about the future of development programs once the MDGs run their course in 2015. It appears they will be included in a new “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDG) project by way of the Rio + 20 Conference on Sustainable Development this summer. Just last week, at an event during the Commission on the Status of Women, featuring the head of UN Women Michelle Bachelet, Lakshmi Puri, UN Women Deputy Executive Director, spoke of the SDGs as a reality, and about the fact they would include a gender equality goal.

At the press conference today, Sachs especially appeared adamant about the success of the MDGs. It was he who first came up with the idea, and he recalled the skepticism that accompanied their adoption in 2000. Sachs gloated as he listed the number of MDG targets and indicators that point to success. He especially extolled the character of the MDGs as Aid. He told the press that the MDGs were proof that “aid works!” and that we must “accelerate” because we are now at a “wonderful inflection point” (an expression of Hegelian origin that has been repeated by communists, idealists, Obama, and all manner of utopians for over a century, it means a point in history were history is radically directed towards its completion).

Sachs certainly knows about the plans for a new Sustainable Development Goals framework for development. The MDGs have given the UN system as a whole previously unthinkable focus, and something has to be put in place by 2015 to maintain that momentum. The SDGs are an excellent alternative. Except that they are shrouded in mystery, and no one knows what they will be. Certain aspects of them however are fairly ascertained:

1. They will integrate the MDGs, or some form of the MDGs
2. They will include a gender equality goal, possibly with a quota on women in public and economic leadership positions.
3. Some type of accountability framework for the green economy will be set in place (something akin to a treaty body without a treaty defining obligations because no one is able to agree on environmental issues)
4. They will shift the focus of development away from aid and towards individual countries working to meet targets, what is being called a “social protection floor”. For the developing countries, this means creating working welfare states with effective fiscal and environmental governance mechanisms. For more on the Social Protection Floor look at the Advisory Group chaired by Michelle Bachelet and created by United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (UNCEB).

Delegations from the developing world met by C-FAM are at odds about the SDGs. They have yet to see concrete proposals on the MDGs, and all they have heard so far leads them to worry. Firstly, about the shift in emphasis away from aid. Countries are worried that the shift will leave the most poor at the mercy of governments unable to cope with their needs. Secondly, about the way developed countries, this means the EU and USA bloc, do not want to acknowledge “differentiated responsibility” for environmental degradation. In other words, that the SDGs would fail to recognize the need of developing countries for lots of dirty energy in order to develop, putting them at a disadvantage with respect to developed countries. The fact that Sachs mentioned the importance of aid may reassure some of them.

A shift in emphasis is nevertheless in the works. It is a move away from aid. It is still unclear whether the responsibility for the welfare of the most needy will fall on national governments, and whether differentiated responsibility will find a place in the outcome document of the Rio Conference. But the continued economic growth of developing countries at a faster pace than the West, and the fiscal crisis of developed countries brought on by demographic decline will only accelerate that change of direction.

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Turtle Bay and Beyond is a blog covering international law, policy and institutions. Our experts - at the UN, European Institutions, and elsewhere - explore an authentic understanding of international law, sovereignty, and the dignity of the human person. We expose those who would seek to impose a radical social vision that is contrary to these principles.

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