UN rethinking international development goals as 2014 deadline looms

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 23, 2014 

— When a handful of technocrats from the world’s most advanced nations gathered in a United Nations basement in 2000 to finalize the world’s first-ever development goals, their objective seemed simple: create a blueprint to help the world’s poor by 2015.

But as the deadline nears and many targets remain to be met, the United Nations is shifting from what it once hailed as the world’s ambitious, unwavering promise to the world’s poor _ the Millennium Development Goals _ to a more inclusive, participatory and sophisticated approach _ the Sustainable Development Goals.

Theses new goals, which are to be be finalized by the U.N. General Assembly in the summer, attempt to revise the previous ones by involving more global leaders at the table and seeking to align national priorities with international goals rather than imposing international goals on countries with widely varying needs and resources.

“We’re no longer living in a G-20 world. We’re living in a G-0 world,” said Paul Ladd, who leads the United Nations Development Program’s team on the post-2015 development agenda.

This shift in agenda has reignited a debate in the world of international development: Can common goals even drive development?

The Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight goals designed to form a blueprint for international development, have had mixed results. Extreme poverty and global child mortality rates have been halved from their 1990 levels, but progress has been uneven between regions and countries, especially in health and education. In some parts of Africa, measurements of health standards have declined.

Yet while the goals have not been met in all areas, even a marginal improvement because countries were trying to meet the goals means something, since they were “a bunch of completely nonbinding legally unenforceable aspirational targets,” said Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, an nonprofit think tank in Washington.

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which focused on straightforward objectives like alleviating extreme poverty, guaranteeing access to primary education and decreasing maternal mortality, the new goals _ which will include standards like reducing climate change, ensuring good jobs for all and promoting peaceful societies and strong governance _ target the entire world, not just its poor.

That means the new goals include items beyond health and education, including some that are likely to prove difficult to implement, such as action on climate change.

U.N. diplomats have met 11 times this year to discuss how to align national goals with solutions for some of humanity’s biggest challenges. Surveyors have trekked through remote mountains in Peru and Nigeria as part of a global poll to determine international priorities from more than 2 million people in 294 countries.

The result, Ladd said, is a set of goals focused less on good governance and Western-style democracy, which developing countries fear can be used to deny them aid, and more on social, economic and environmental challenges.

Climate change is also a sticking point, since no country has achieved a sustainable development path that can be replicated by others without overburdening the environment, said Homi Kharas, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and deputy director of its Global Economy and Development program.

But whether setting goals at all is a good idea is also part of the debate. Some say they are relics of a bygone time when people thought that if they could set a goal and measure progress toward it, improvement would follow.

Experts now agree, however, that development goals don’t guarantee success. They fulfill a simple objective: creating a language and a framework for diplomats, politicians and development practitioners to talk. The new goals will change the tone of the international conversation, some experts say.

“We’ve got to remember these (goals) are about tracking progress, not declaring what utopia would look like,” said Kenny of the Center for Global Development.

Email: fwaseem@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @fatimahwaseem

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