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

By Shannon Kindornay

For just over a year I have been working with seven country teams to road test the universal post-2015 sustainable development framework as part of the Post-2015 Data Test. As the lead on the Canada case study, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of universality. Does a universal agenda really make sense across high, low and middle income countries? If so, how might it work in a way that makes sense globally but is also relevant nationally? Is my country, Canada, and other “rich” countries, ready for a global paradigm shift that moves from seeing development as something that “happens over there” to something that happens at home?

Even after a year, I find that I am of two minds on the concept of universality. On the one hand, I see “the good” – the potential gains arising from an agenda that recognizes shared national and global challenges, and offers a much needed paradigm shift away from outdated global development assumptions of the past. On the other hand – “the bad” – I have a long way to go before being convinced that the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be fully adopted by all countries, representing a true paradigm shift, and that they will sufficiently address power asymmetries at the global and national levels that inhibit less developed countries from owning and realising their own sustainable development ambitions. Will the implementation of the SDGs result in another globally determined framework imposed on countries that rely on external financing? Will it enhance or undermine country ownership? Contemplating “the good” and “the bad,” I am left with…the necessary – the steps that need to be taken to realise the good, and minimize the potential bad, of a universal agenda.

The Good

Last December Ruth Levine, Program Director for Global Development and Population at the Hewlett Foundation, wrote a blog in which she very clearly pointed out the benefits of a universal set of SDGs. She noted that, historically, “global” development frameworks have only really applied to middle and low-income countries, with high-income countries only entering the scene to foot the bill. With the universal SDGs, Levine highlighted a “profound conceptual pivot,” one that moves beyond defining the problems of “development” as belonging to only one particular group of countries and recognizes that high-income countries are not immune to, for example, social unrest, governance challenges, and ensuring inclusive growth and decent job creation.

Indeed, one of the post-2015 framework’s greatest contributions could be to enable the international community to move beyond the old North-South dichotomy. As it currently stands, the universal set of post-2015 SDGs, as proposed by the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, seeks to do this. The universal nature of the goals recognizes the shared challenges that countries face at the national level (e.g. violence against women, employment, income inequality, social exclusion, environment safeguards), defying our assumptions behind what development means and moving us away, at least on paper, from a world where some countries hold the moral high ground of being “developed.” At the same time, the framework captures issues more specific to lower income countries (e.g. internationally defined extreme poverty, child stunting, full primary education) and higher income countries (e.g. sustainable consumption and production). The proposed universal agenda also shifts our view towards common challenges such as addressing climate change and improving international financial stability. It seeks to promote shared solutions in an inter-connected world.

Importantly, as our initial findings from the Post-2015 Data Test show, a universal set of goals could work in practice, depending on how the post-2015 architecture plays out. We road-tested seven candidate post-2015 goals in all seven countries. For each goal, a common set of universal 20 targets and 45 indicators were tested in all countries. In addition, country teams identified a set of national level targets and indicators to test in their country. By taking this approach, we sought to balance the need for universal application and international monitoring and comparability with national relevance and utility. The pickle for folks negotiating the post-2015 framework will be to establish an appropriate architecture, including its associated monitoring and accountability structure, which supports a universal set of goals that recognize the transboundary nature of the world’s most acute challenges, while still allowing space for country specificity.

The Bad

The MDGs were critiqued by developing countries as an externally imposed, top-down agenda. This time around, significant efforts have been made to ensure that the post-2015 framework is informed by consultations with citizens, civil society, the private sector, international agencies, and governments, and is negotiated through an inter-governmental process. In theory, this should mean the creation of a universal agenda that is, for the most part, universally owned.

Yet, as our research shows, countries and regional groupings have already established their ten, twenty and sometimes longer year plans. Take Senegal for example “Plan Sénégal Emergent,” the government’s medium and long term plan, was developed through broad national consultations and sets out a vision for the country to emerge economically by 2035. The African Union has its Agenda 2063. Most of Canada’s provinces have developed poverty reduction strategies. In October, when our team met with colleagues in Washington D.C. to discuss initial findings from the Post-2015 Data Test, the question of how country and regional level plans can be integrated into the SDGs was raised. To my thinking, the question is not how global, regional and national plans can be reconciled with the SDGs. The real question is how the SDGs can be used to support existing national and regional level plans.

While high-income and many middle-income countries will have the space to decide on the extent to which the SDGs frame their existing efforts, I am not confident that this will be the case for lower-income countries that rely heavily on external resources. The SDGs move the goal post higher for all countries but this will be felt most keenly in the places where capacities are weakest. For many donor countries, the SDGs will become the new lens through which development cooperation efforts occur. And as the donor community moves forward on this agenda in a context that continues to be characterized by a power asymmetry between finance providers who do not fully respect country ownership and finance receivers who are incentivized to take what they can get, there is a risk that the SDGs will, once again, serve as an externally imposed framework, subject to some of the same criticisms as the MDGs.

Compounding this is the risk, at least at this point in the game, that despite the rhetoric of universality, the SDGs will be universal in name but not in practice. Those of us from the global North know very well that traction on the SDG framework in our countries is going to be a challenge. As Ruth Levine rightly points out, and the Canada case study under the Post-2015 Data Test shows, domestic constituencies in so-called developed countries are close to clueless about the global agenda their foreign ministry colleagues are negotiating. Indeed, without greater engagement with domestic constituencies in the North, not to mention buy-in at the political level, there is a real risk that universality will ring hollow in developed countries. This may also be the case in a number of middle-income countries, particularly those who have their own resources and less of a financial incentive to robustly adopt and implement the global agenda. We run the risk of having a universal agenda that defines national priorities for one sub-set of countries and is completely ignored (with the exception of defining development cooperation objectives) by another.

What steps could be taken to avoid a scenario where we have a universal post-2015 agenda only in principle but not in practice? In Part II, I suggest what needs to be done to ensure the universal post-2015 framework represents a true paradigm shift.

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.