Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Shaping the Post-MDG Agenda

by Isobel Coleman
November 8, 2012

Families fleeing renewed fighting between the government and M23 rebels near Kibumba walk toward the eastern Congolese city of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, July 25, 2012 (James Akena/Courtesy Reuters).


As 2015 approaches, debate among global development scholars and practitioners is turning to what should succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a topic explored on CFR’s Development Channel earlier this fall. Among the contributions to the debate so far is a thoughtful report recently released by Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Korea Development Institute. Several members of the team behind this effort visited the Council on Foreign Relations this week, where they discussed their report at an event hosted by my colleague Stewart Patrick, director of CFR’s International Institutions and Global Governance program. (Stewart also wrote a blog post about the report yesterday.)

The report, “Post-2015 Development Agenda: Goals, Targets, and Indicators,” is a comprehensive and detailed discussion of eleven potential new goals. Some focus on standard social and economic concerns, such as economic growth, food and water, and education and skills, with a useful emphasis on human capability. Other goals are more controversial. “Empowering people to realize their civil and political rights,” for example, touches on sensitive issues of democracy and human rights. “Security for ensuring freedom from violence” deals with hot-button topics like gun deaths and domestic abuse.

But perhaps most controversial of all, as Stewart noted on his blog, is the report’s call for new goals to apply to industrialized countries as well as developing ones. This “one-world” approach, as the report puts it, is conceptually worthy. But it promises to be politically difficult—perhaps impossible. Although the report says countries should “come up with their own targets, preferably above a universally agreed minimum level,” it is easy to imagine wealthy powers refusing to be measured in the same way as poor states, especially on touchy subjects. If an indicator of gun violence is included in the security goal, for example, countries like the United States might not stack up so well. The same could be true for China on political measures such as electoral participation and freedom of expression. This could jeopardize the support of critical countries for the entire enterprise.

More broadly, the landscape of global poverty has shifted dramatically in recent decades, raising thorny questions for the shape of the post-2015 agenda. As one participant noted at the meeting, the majority of today’s poor live in middle-income countries. Many of the rest live in fragile low-income states. This leaves only a small minority in stable poor countries, the quintessential targets of development efforts and foreign aid. (Charles Landow wrote about these trends recently on my blog.) Whom, then, should new global goals target? By the numbers, goals should prioritize the issues facing middle-income countries with huge pockets of poverty, including things like equitable growth and social safety nets. But while those countries need support, they have their own resources to tackle development challenges. Meanwhile, prioritizing low-income countries is difficult because of the divergent needs and capacities of fragile and stable states.

In this context, it is not clear that a single set of global goals, no matter how compelling in principle, makes sense. A unified approach would not focus attention and resources on the most intractable problems, which are found in poor and fragile countries that would likely fail to meet any set of globally oriented goals. This suggests that those crafting the post-2015 agenda may need to consider different goals for different groups of states. This would lack the elegant simplicity of the MDGs, but it might be more effective in marshaling action where it is most needed.

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