The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by United Nations (UN) members in 2000 to address some compelling development deficits, are currently at the centre of a debate for two reasons. Most of the targets laid down under MDGs have to be met by 2015 and as that date nears, a variety of organizations, not to speak of UN agencies, have got involved in monitoring their progress. Another reason why MDGs are making news is centred on a debate whether the global community should buy into a post-2015 development compact comprising another set of goals. If such a compact is indeed necessary, what should its contours and content?

The debate on the necessity or otherwise of a post-2015 global development compact was seemingly put to rest last month when the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon appointed a high-level panel with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and British Prime Minister David Cameron as its co-chairs. The panel is expected to begin its work soon after the Rio+20 summit this week.

Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

The approach of these initiatives converges at one point: they are proposing another set of goals, some of which are akin to the existing MDGs. However, what is not quite clear is the rationale for including the goals proposed. It would appear these goals are an attempt to capture global debates on development, but at the same time they also include issues such as human rights which bring with them a deeply divisive agenda.

An alternative way of approaching the post-2015 framework would be to first lay down the rationale for identifying the goals. At least three broad categories can be suggested. The first could represent the new challenges thrown up by the development experiences of the low- and middle-income countries. The second set of issues could be those about provision of global public goods which can only be addressed through collective action by UN member states. The third element could be the building blocks needed for a new development paradigm, the most critical deficit confronting the developing countries.

Topping the list of new challenges is the scourge of inequality: not merely in terms of income and consumption, but more importantly in terms of access to resources. It may be pointed out that while many countries claim to have made progress in reducing poverty measured in terms of the dollar-a-day, income gaps have been increasing at an alarming rate. The process of globalization has contributed substantially to this problem: the winners have been rewarded by market forces and the losers have faced exclusion. Safety nets were expected to fill in for this market failure, but the scale of income inequalities clearly demonstrates the problems in implementing them.

Although inequities in terms of inadequate access to resources appear formidable, policymakers will do well to focus on this dimension, for herein lays the solution to the problem of income inequalities. In most countries, the poor lack access to productive resources, which they can use to climb a ladder out of poverty. It should be pointed out that addressing inequities in resource access can help solve poverty in a sustainable manner: it can free the poorest from the apron strings of poverty alleviation programmes.

Equally important is the challenge developing countries face in the area of human resource development. MDGs had stressed the significance of increasing the enrolment in primary education, a target that has already been accomplished by almost all countries. The logical next steps should be improving enrolment at the secondary level of education and improvement in the vocational education system. These areas provide opportunities for imparting the essential skills and can, therefore, provide the basis for countries with relatively young population to reap the development dividends.

The post-2015 global development compact needs to include processes that will result in the delivery of global public goods. Global regimes covering environment, food, trade and finance are some of the best candidates for inclusion in this category. By including these processes in the compact, the development dimension may, in fact, get greater prominence, and this can turn the course of key negotiations covering climate change and trade.

One of the criticisms of MDGs was that they represented an essentially status quoist paradigm since they were not intended to define a development agenda. In other words, MDGs accepted the pre-eminence of the “Washington Consensus", even when the ability of the fund-bank model to deliver on development was under scrutiny. The criticism of MDGs can be cast away if the architects of the post-2015 framework are able to identify key elements that may serve as the building blocks of a much-needed development paradigm.

Biswajit Dhar is director general at Research and Information System for Developing Countries, New Delhi.

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