At the end of May, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-chairs of the UN High-level Panel (HLP) of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda submitted their report, A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development, to the UN Secretary-General. They had been given the job of recommending global goals to end poverty through sustainable development, an unenviable task given that:

  • there were separate tracks and agendas for “Sustainable Development Goals” and a successor post-2015  arrangement for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs);
  • many less developed countries fear that universal goals applicable to developed and developing countries alike would divert the focus from their issues; and
  • the HLP was faced with an unrealistically long list of priorities and differences in view on the framing of priorities and targets.

The co-chairs characterized their report as both “bold and practical.” They outlined the need for five indisputable transformational shifts: 

  • Leave no one behind.
  • Put sustainable development at the core.
  • Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth.
  • Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all.
  • Forge a new global partnership.

Controversial issues such as democratic governance and gender equality were finessed in the report by the provision of a list of 12 suggested goals that was “illustrative rather than prescriptive” — characterized as an example of “how new goals and measurable targets could be framed in the wake of the transformative shifts.” The 12 proposed illustrative goals are:

  • End poverty.
  • Empower girls and women and achieve gender equality.
  • Provide quality education and lifelong learning.
  • Ensure healthy lives.
  • Ensure good security and good nutrition.
  • Achieve universal access to water and sanitation.
  • Secure sustainable energy.
  • Create jobs, sustainable livelihoods and equitable growth.
  • Manage natural resource assets sustainably.
  • Ensure good governance and effective institutions.
  • Ensure stable and peaceful societies.
  • Create a global enabling environment and catalyze long-term finance.

The report has many well-founded recommendations and a few peculiar elements. The HLP recommends that “all these goals should be universal, in that they present a common aspiration for all countries. Almost all targets should be set at the national level or even local level, to account for different starting points and contexts.” This makes a lot of sense — the MDGs labelled the performance of some countries as a failure, despite having made large gains relative to others’ improvements, simply because they started near zero.

The HLP recommendation on targets is wise. The report proposed 54 targets that “would not be binding, but should be monitored closely. The indicators that track them should be disaggregated to ensure no one is left behind and targets should only be considered ‘achieved’ if they are met for all relevant income and social groups. 

The HLP is spot-on regarding the essential role of measurement and the need for data to allow indicators to be disaggregated by various categories. It recommends that “any new goals should be accompanied by an independent and rigorous monitoring system, with regular opportunities to report on progress and shortcomings at a high political level.” It calls for a “data revolution…with a new international initiative to improve the quality of statistics and information available to citizens.”

Some of the HLP proposals are curious. The education goal is decidedly unambitious, with the target: “Ensure every child, regardless of circumstance, has access to lower [emphasis added] secondary education.” The report does not have a goal for “connectivity” or inclusive access to infrastructure. Instead, safe drinking water and sanitation is covered in one goal, with targets for universal access to modern energy services in a second goal, and access to financial services, transportation and information and communications technology in a third goal.

It is unfortunate that the HLP ducked the issue of population — simply referencing the fact that it will grow to nine billion. Life on the planet would not be as “nasty, brutish and short” if the population could be stabilized at well under eight billion. Targets that have planetary boundaries, such as climate change, are much more likely to be achieved with a lower population. While the HLP was not expected to confront population control directly, it could have tackled it indirectly by promoting secondary education for girls more aggressively as a key target — since graduation is directly correlated with lower fertility rates as well as other beneficial outcomes.

A curious omission from the HLP’s list of 54 targets is obesity. While there are three references in the text of the report to obesity, neither the Health nor Food Security targets mention obesity. This is unfortunate, since the public health benefits of reducing obesity are significant, not to mention the impact on health expenditures.

The Jobs target for youth is decidedly weak: “Decrease the number of young people not in education, employment or training by x%.”[i] Some targets are: “Candidates for global minimum standards.” Other goals envision ‘zero’ targets.” The “End Poverty” goal, for example, has a target to “Bring the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day to zero.” Why not have a goal of zero for “youth not in education, employment, training or community service”?

Perhaps the most serious criticism is that the HLP package is too big. A smaller number of goals would be more likely to have an effective communication and motivational impact. The HLP took the easy way out by not “choosing among their children.” At the same, the HLP is to be commended for not ducking the contentious questions of good governance, effective institutions, security and an enabling environment.

An unfortunate characteristic of UN high-level panels is that they disband immediately upon releasing their reports. Recommendations generally gather dust on a shelf. Ideally, the authors, and especially the co-chairs, would invest as much time in communicating the recommendations made in their report as they did to write the report. In a perfect world, the co-chairs would actively disseminate their proposals for several months following the submission of the report to the UN Secretary-General. The HLP case is not promising. The Jakarta Post’s headline on May 31 was: “SBY left all on his own to submit post-2015 UN report.” The many innovative and worthy ideas in the HLP report cry out for the British, Indonesian and Liberian leaders to “walk into a bar” and devise a campaign to promote their ideas.

[i] The HLP intended each country to choose the value for each target, for example, 10 percent or, in other cases, 20 percent.

The HLP is spot-on regarding the essential role of measurement and the need for data to allow indicators to be disaggregated by various categories.