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Emerging Voices: Alicia Ely Yamin on Defining the Next Set of Global Development Goals

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
September 20, 2012

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the UN headquarters in New York, September 20, 2010 (Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters). United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the UN headquarters in New York, September 20, 2010 (Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters).

Emerging Voices features regular contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Alicia Ely Yamin, lecturer in global health and director of the Health Rights of Women and Children Program at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health. She advances priorities for the process of defining a development agenda to follow the Millennium Development Goals, arguing that fragmentation and incoherence risk drowning out the voices of the global poor.

Everyone agrees that in the wake of the extremely top-down process that led to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), this time around we should be sure to facilitate opportunities to hear the voices of people in the global South. After all, they will be most affected by the decisions that are made about the next set of goals to replace the MDGs after they expire in 2015. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is organizing more than fifty national-level consultations on a post-MDG agenda to this end, and ten thematic consultations on various aspects of the agenda, from governance to equality to employment, are being held. By contrast, efforts to incorporate participation in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) process, which emerged from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in June, have amounted to little more than rhetorical invocations thus far.

The secretary-general’s recent report on “Accelerating progress towards the Millennium Development Goals: options for sustained and inclusive growth and issues for advancing the United Nations development agenda beyond 2015” helpfully calls for both broad consultation and coherence and coordination between the post-MDG and SDG processes. But these two processes, as well as the 20 year-review of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) also underway, are being led by different actors and have very different dynamics.

Moreover, in the cacophony of competing voices, how can we be sure the wielders of power are really listening to the diverse views of men and women who live in poverty or face exclusion along different axes of identity? Or that issues neglected in the MDGs, such as gender equality and reproductive rights—which were central to the ICPD Programme of Action’s reframing of population policy and the purposes of development—will not be marginalized from the post-2015 agenda, as they are already in the priorities of the SDG process?

Indeed, amid the fragmentation of the myriad activities surrounding the SDGs, post-MDGs, and ICPD +20 review, planning for the world we want risks resembling the  “Library of Babel,” described in a story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, where the  glut of information that was not organized in any useful manner led to perverse and arbitrary purging on the part of the librarians—or, in this case, the inevitable gatekeepers of the global agenda, shrouded as these individuals and groups are in the opacity of the overlapping processes.

Preliminary agendas need to come from somewhere, but “somewhere” is a political space. Steep inequalities in power and knowledge seem likely to prevent some issues from ever even arising in the real decision-making arenas for the future development agenda.

Meaningful participation by civil society in setting a future development framework will require more than having access to information and opportunities to express preferences as to various visions for the post-2015 future, although these would be welcome indeed.

For civil society participation to be meaningful we must connect the dots not only across the SDG, post-MDG, and ICPD +20 review processes, but also across goals, targets, and indicators. Indeed, in all the attention that is being devoted to the broad political must-haves—for example, accountability—the importance of the metrics that will be used to measure progress may be getting short shrift. We know from experience with the MDGs that targets and indicators have sweeping consequences, both for funding and programming and for the normative discourse of development. The use of maternal mortality ratios to measure progress on MDG 5, for example, created an industry around global estimation exercises and reduced the ICPD’s comprehensive approach to reproductive health and rights to the relatively depoliticized domain of maternal health care.

A few initiatives are attempting to fill the gaps in this respect in planning for a post-2015 agenda. One of these is a joint project of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Harvard University, and the New School, which I am coordinating with Professor Sakiko Fukuda-Parr. We are producing a critical review of MDG targets and indicators, from the perspectives of human development and human rights. The premise is that, unlike the MDGs, the next set of global development goals should have a rational sequencing of building global consensus, first around a set of goals, whether they are called SDGs or something else. This broad agreement on goals should be followed by a deliberative target-setting process that does not attempt to impose one-size-fits-all requirements on every state. Finally, the selection of appropriate indicators should, among other things, consider the intended and unintended consequences of the metrics chosen for the MDGs, as well as previous UN development agendas.

There must be opportunities for effective participation by civil society at each stage. The choice of metrics for progress is political as well as technical; it reflects inherent value judgments that cannot be left to statisticians alone. If criteria for targets and/or indicators are selected behind closed doors and are not subjected to public scrutiny, including by citizens of the global South, civil society participation in approving the post-2015 agenda goals may well turn out substantially less meaningful than hoped.

At a minimum, the criteria for the targets and indicators, as well as goals, should be transparent, publicly available, and manifestly related to the aims of reducing global poverty and inequality within and between countries and of promoting human development and human rights. Moreover, if we are to learn from another major gap in the MDGs, any criteria for measuring progress on a future development agenda should include consideration of how multiple duty-bearers, including national governments and donors, will be held effectively to account.

The legitimacy of any future development framework depends upon a legitimate process, including an adequate justification for what is selected and why.

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