Article: Universality Post-2015 – The Good, the Bad and … the Necessary (Part II)

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By Shannon Kindornay

In the first part of this blog, I discussed the good and the bad of the universal post-2015 agenda, drawing on our research road-testing the post-2015 sustainable development agenda in seven high, middle and low-income countries. In this part, I unpack “the necessary” – steps that need to be taken to realise the good, and minimize the potential bad, of a universal post-2015 agenda.

The Necessary

Our research shows that a universal set of SDGs can work, even if it will be challenging and difficult in practice. If this is going to happen, however, at least one game changer is needed: a shift in attitudes.

At a meeting hosted by the Center for Global Development in Washington D.C. in mid-October, where we presented preliminary findings from the Post-2015 Data Test, a lively discussion on how to make the universal agenda one that was accepted and applied universally, in all countries, ensued. Many participants recognized that demonstrating the utility and relevance of the global agenda to domestic constituencies in higher income countries presents a challenge. One participant went so far as to say that it would be political suicide for any US government to announce that it will now be setting national priorities according to an internationally negotiated agenda. The discussion begged the question, if the universal agenda isn’t going to have traction beyond the developing world, then why bother? Why not just establish the MDG 2.0 agenda, one that tackles the existing MDGs, sprinkles in a greater focus on inequality, adds a few more key priority issues like industrialization and employment, and gives a bit more billing to environmental issues? Eliminate the controversial issues, like governance and reproductive rights, and get on with it.

The answer, I hope, should be fairly clear. The world has changed since the MDGs were conceived. The North-South dichotomy doesn’t work anymore (if it ever did) and the challenges we face at the global and the national level are shared and complex in nature. And we need to deal with it.

What we really need is a shift in attitudes, particularly in the places that have historically financed global development agendas, rather then been subject to them. So what would a shift in attitudes look like in terms of outcomes for the post-2015 agenda?  For me, a shift in attitudes would be revealed by at least two key outcomes.

1)     Creation of a universal agenda in which all (or at least most) countries take the SDGs seriously, regardless of their income levels.

A shift in attitude means taking the universal agenda seriously in all countries. For countries that have the experience of the MDGs, this is less of a challenge – these governments, including many of their citizens, typically know about global development frameworks. However, higher income countries, typically those in the North, do not have this experience. The MDGs are a foreign concept to most of our citizens, including individuals working for the government outside the foreign ministry. Taking the universal agenda seriously in all countries means engaging a much broader domestic constituency on the post-2015 agenda.

2)     Establishment of a universal agenda that goes beyond MDGs 2.0 and captures the broad complexity of sustainable development.

Some countries have expressed concern with the breadth of the SDG agenda, as it is currently laid out in the OWG document, and pointed out that universality may take our focus away from where efforts are most needed globally. This is the concern of my country, Canada.  The government’s priorities for the post-2015 agenda have decidedly been of the MDG 2.0 genre – focus on the most vulnerable and the poorest globally (i.e. not in Canada), value-for-money efforts to support maternal, newborn and child health and job creation and inclusive growth, and emphasis on the importance of accountability.  From what we have seen so far, there is little effort in Canada to really embrace the notion of universality.  Another concern with universality is that it will provide countries with the justification to look inward, and not tackle global challenges and meet global responsibilities. For example, governments might reduce their aid spending, claiming that they need additional funds to tackle poverty at home.

To my thinking, there is no zero sum game to ensuring a continued focus on the poorest globally and having a universal agenda. Canada can be a leader on maternal, newborn and child health globally and address the deplorable situation of Aboriginal Canadians, growing inequality, and the sustainable management of our natural resources which has been cause for international concern. We can address our national challenges in the context of a global framework while ensuring that our development cooperation efforts support the poorest and most marginalized globally. This is what we should be doing anyway.

The current breadth of the universal agenda speaks to the wide challenges countries share.  It also has the flexibility to cover issues that are more specific to different country contexts. While this creates challenges for the monitoring and accountability framework, this approach may be exactly what is needed to not only capture the breadth of sustainable development challenges, but also ensure relevancy of the agenda across countries.

Though a change in attitudes is needed, this won’t be easy. Just look, for example, at who is negotiating the agenda. From the lower income and middle income countries, you have folks that have played this game time and again. They are ready for a fair turn of play (and are unlikely to back down), recognizing that indeed, things are different this time around. From the higher-income countries you have the foreign ministries – folks who have historically played a role in determining development frameworks and promises for other countries, but not their own. The extent to which these negotiators truly see their own sustainable development challenges – which require no small measure of humility – and are using this perspective to inform their position remains questionable.

So, what can we do to push the much needed shift in attitudes? Here are two suggestions.

First, get the right people involved in post-2015. Foreign ministries need to begin engaging with domestic constituencies across government and at subnational levels. In high income countries, it is time to raise awareness of the post-2015 agenda, and quickly. Get inputs from national and sub-national government departments and engage domestic stakeholders in the private sector and civil society. Domestic stakeholders have a valuable contribution to make to the post-2015 process. Their forward looking plans and ongoing initiatives offer the domestic roadmap for post-2015 implementation.

Second, keep the pressure on for a truly universal agenda, and build the right civil society coalitions to do so. Civil society engagement on the post-2015 framework has been substantial to date through global coalitions and at the national level in many middle and low-income countries through the UN’s consultations processes. In high-income countries, it’s time to bring domestic CSOs, beyond environmental and international development communities, into the conversation. As noted by Andy Norton from ODI, the SDGs will serve as a global framework for social mobilization, advocacy and dialogue.  Domestic CSOs will play a key role in translating the mobilizing power of the SDGs to the national, subnational and local levels. CSOs already engaged on post-2015, such as Beyond 2015 and Action 2015 are working to bring these folks into the conversation as natural allies. Going forward, these efforts will be critical to looping in domestic CSOs and building momentum for a transformative, universal post-2015 framework.

Negotiations on the post-2015 agenda will intensify in the months to come. While ensuring the SDGs are truly universal won’t be easy, it is necessary, otherwise we risk missing a potential opportunity to ensure that our global sustainable development framework is relevant for the world we live in and reflects the paradigm shift that has already occurred.

Shannon Kindornay is an Adjunct Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. She is also member of the Post-2015 Data Test team.