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How Can a Post-2015 Agreement Drive Real Change? Please Read and Comment on this Draft Paper

Duncan Green's picture

The post-2015 discussion on what should succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is picking up steam, with barely a day going by without some new paper, consultation or high level meeting. So I, along with Stephen Hale and Matthew Lockwood, have decided to add to the growing slush-pile with a new discussion paper. We want you to read the draft (see right) and help us improve it. Contributions by 5 November please, either as comments on the blog, or emailed to research[at]

The paper argues that there’s an urgent need to bring power and politics into the centre of the post-2015 discussion. To have impact, any post-2015 arrangement has to take into account the lessons of over a decade of implementing the existing MDGs, and be shaped by the profound global change since the MDGs were debated over the course of the 1990s and early noughties.  We’re hoping that this will be at the centre of this week’s discussions in London linked to the High Level Panel and in Berlin at the Berlin Civil Society Center on Development post 2015.

The most significant shift is that the new arrangements have to be designed to influence governments, whereas the main impact of the MDGs was on the aid system. Why the shift? Because aid is becoming less important, both because it is likely to decline in volume over the next few years, and because governments’ dependence on aid as a percentage of revenues is falling even faster than aid itself. In any case, aid is a pretty ineffective way of influencing government behaviour, beyond the actual expenditure of donor dollars.

So if influencing governments is the goal, what can we learn from the experience of the MDGs? The first thing to note is a startling lack of research. Many reviews blur the distinction between ‘MDGs’ and ‘MDG policies’/’MDG planning’ (in effect, social welfare). Analysis of the data on improvements in health, education, and other key sectors largely ignores the vital question of how much of that improvement can be plausibly attributed to the MDGs, rather than to other factors such as national politics, economic growth, or technological innovation. Given the substantial political and financial investment in the MDGs, and the need to design an effective post-2015 framework, being unable to attribute – with any certainty – progress due to the MDGs is a truly lamentable gap in our knowledge.

There is even less research on (and less anecdotal or circumstantial evidence for) the impact of the MDGs on the policies and behaviours of rich countries, beyond changes in their aid budgets. There is scant evidence that MDG 8’s commitment to a ‘global partnership for development’ has had any impact on rich country behaviour. Understanding this failure is vital, given that many proposals for the post-2015 regime seek to place more obligations on rich countries in areas such as climate change and resource consumption.

What we know is that some governments have adopted the language of the MDGs and have customized them to fit national priorities, while civil society groups have increasingly used them as advocacy tools.

Beyond that, many post-2015 participants seem to think it is not possible to give a more complete answer to the traction question because of the missing counterfactual (how can we know what would have happened without the MDGs?). Not so. It is certainly possible to know much more than we do about attribution through more rigorous qualitative research. For example, in-depth interviews with policymakers could investigate the traction exerted by a range of external and domestic forces on their decisions (avoiding any leading questions on the MDGs). We have yet to locate such research.

So much for the MDGs, what about whatever comes next? International instruments can exert influence in three key ways:

  1. By changing national norms in areas such as women’s rights. However intangible, norms matter, leading to long-term changes in what society considers acceptable or deplorable, which then leads to changes to laws, policies and behaviours.
  2. By directly influencing government decision making, through any of a number of possible carrots (aid, contracts, acceptance, approval) or sticks (sanctions, disapproval).
  3. By giving civil society organisations and other domestic actors more tools with which to lobby, campaign, and secure action by their governments.

In most cases, the main drivers of change will be domestic – the result of national politics and culture. But international initiatives are second-order factors that can nudge things along. We identify six kinds of instrument at global and regional levels.

Big global norms: rallying cries intended to influence the underlying attitudes of decision makers and citizens, such as ‘zero poverty’ or ‘zero hunger’.

Global goals and targets: as encapsulated by the MDGs.

Regional goals and targets: the African Union has been particularly energetic in agreeing regional targets, setting out what its member governments should be aiming for on the Rights of Women (AU Protocol, 2003),or their allocation of spending to agriculture (Maputo Agreement 2003), health (Abuja Declaration 2001) and similar commitments on social protection, and water and sanitation.

Global league tables: the international community and/or civil society can simply collect and publish data allowing a comparison between different countries’ absolute situation and rate of progress, as in the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Anecdotal evidence (and long NGO experience) suggests that league tables can be effective both in attracting public and media interest, and in goading politicians into action – there is nothing a leader likes less than to be seen to lose out to a rival nation.

Data transparency: according to some architects of the MDGs, perhaps their greatest legacy will be the improved quality, collection and dissemination of social data. One option would be to make this the centrepiece of a post-2015 arrangement, and leave it to others (national or regional bodies, international institutions) to ‘mash up’ the data into different indices and use it to advocate for progressive policies.

International law: Most governments are already signatories to dozens, if not hundreds, of international conventions and the role and influence of international law appears to be on an inexorable upward curve, steadily encroaching on previously untouchable areas of state sovereignty.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of these options in influencing norms, decision making or civil society activism? Here we are basically into guesswork/gut feeling, captured in the table below. We’d be interested to hear your views, and very grateful for links to any relevant research.

Possible options for international instruments to drive change post-2015

Instrument Influence on national norms On decision making Civil society take-up
Big global norms Sometimes strong, but often disappear without trace Long-term influence (e.g. shaping future leaders’ world views) Strong, if resonate with national reality
Global goals and targets Partial Transmission via aid system, otherwise likely to be partial Yes, when resonate with national reality


Far stronger if accompanied by national goals, civil society commitment to these, and clear national accountability mechanisms

Regional goals and targets More influence where regional identity is stronger (e.g. African Union) Especially if governments have to ratify and legislate. Rivalry can also be effective Can provide a valuable advocacy tool, especially where regional identity is strong
Global league tables Weak Effective if builds on regional rivalries Can provide a valuable advocacy tool
Data transparency Weak Depends how data are picked up by national actors Depends on civil society capacity to use data for advocacy purposes, alliances with academics, etc.
International law Strong, but slow osmosis into national common sense (e.g. children have rights) Especially if governments have to ratify and legislate, or report publicly on their performance (as with the UNCRC or CEDAW) Depends on civil society capacity to use legal system (and responsiveness of legal system)

Over to you for comments, links etc.

This post was originally published on From Poverty to Power

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