The Bali meeting of the High-Level Panel designated to prepare the post-2015 global framework to the MDG offers little hope of a rethink on the development paradigm. By VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN recently in Bali

HOW IS THE UNITED NATIONS PLANNING TO ADVANCE THE post-2015 successor development framework to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) which sought to combat poverty in the developing world on the basis of measurable indicators and parameters? What concrete shape will this successor framework have?

The last of the major, official consultative meetings of the 26-member High-Level Panel (HLP) of eminent persons designated to prepare the post-2015 framework was held in Bali in the last week of March, and indications are that the process is largely mixed up and will need much more effort to develop tangible dimensions. Several formulations of the HLP have already been criticised by parliamentarians and civil society leaders from different countries as not being conducive to sustainable development or social justice. Many of those who have appreciated the HLP’s work have qualified it by categorising it as a halfway measure that can be improved upon.

With barely two months left for the HLP—co-chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to present its report and recommendations to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who in turn will present his own formulations based on them before the U.N. member states—rationalising these streams will undoubtedly be laborious. Particularly so because the HLP has visions of promoting “a single and coherent post-2015 development agenda that integrates economic growth, social inclusion and environmental sustainability”.

The Bali meet, which had participatory and parallel sessions involving parliamentarians and representatives of civil society organisations (CSOs) from different parts of the world, was indeed billed as a continuation of the HLP-led consultative processes that were held earlier in New York, London and Monrovia (Liberia). Different aspects of the MDG framework, including its eight goals, 18 targets and 48 measurable indicators, and the future trajectory it should take were discussed in the scores of plenary and thematic sessions. A two-day session prior to the HLP meet focussed specifically on Alternative Narratives, and this meeting too came up with its recommendations.

A number of civil society players, including representatives of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) and the Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA), carried the eight-point “Red Flag” identified by a group of activists and networks who met in Bonn before the Bali meet. The issues of land grab and privatisation of water and essential services such as education and health figured prominently in these red flag issues. All this marked a higher degree of engagement with political and civil society players and this engagement was at many levels impassioned. A number of observers had pointed out even as these sessions were being held that it would be difficult to bring out a concerted and clear approach out of all this. The multidimensional responses to the HLP’s Bali communique also underscore this observation. The responses have ranged from the critical to the laudatory.

Thematically, the Bali meet had spelt out certain premises to advance its discussions. These included the premise to identify critical lessons learned from the MDG experiences that would accelerate the MDG achievement in the remaining years and to agree on key responsibilities. There was also the parameter seeking to identify and agree on priority issues, key principles and critical building blocks for the post-2015 development framework. More importantly, there was the premise to discuss the core elements of global partnership for development, including development financing options in the changing international context, and identify critical actions that different actors should undertake. A point stressed in this context was that resource flows from and into developing countries should not end up damaging the economy of these countries. Along with all this, there was also the emphasis to establish a comprehensive accountability framework. It is in the evaluation based on these premises that the Bali meet has resulted in a plethora of nuanced and even contradictory responses.

Those who have lauded the Bali meet and its outcome, including some members of the HLP, have termed it a “watershed” and an event that has “concretised a vision to lay the ground for a more equitable and sustainable world”. Advocates of this approach, including HLP co-chair Ellen Sirleaf, pointed out that all the five key areas that needed progress for realising the post-2015 agenda had been realistically addressed at the Bali meet. These key areas are reshaping and revitalising global governance and partnerships, protection of the global environment, sustainable production and consumption, strengthening means and implementation, and better accounting in measuring progress.

Sharing responsibilities

Participants and observers of the process, such as the U.K.- and Africa-based Development Initiatives, are of the view that the insistence on clearly specifying the means of implementation “is a major step forward”. The organisation points out that the MDGs were silent on implementation, and given the rapid growth in the number of actors involved in international development (and the resources they control), the need for agreement on responsibilities and funding is greater now than ever. “A framework that specifies the means of implementation should address how responsibilities can be shared among actors—public and private, national and international—and should look to increase the contributions that wider resources, such as remittances and foreign direct investment, make to the post-2015 goals. It is important that this imperative is not lost as the HLP process gives way to intergovernmental processes later in 2013 and beyond,” an assessment by Development Initiatives said.

The HLP’s communique did state that “a post-2015 agenda should clearly specify the means of implementation, including financing for development”. It went on to add: “A greater commitment to improving and using country systems as well as the global system in this regard is particularly important. Ownership at all levels is crucial. Adequate, stable and predictable financing, as well as efficient use of resources, is required to support development. This will require honouring international, regional, and national financing commitments, enhancing domestic resource mobilisation, and multiple complementary and innovative sources of finance such as private investment, corporate social responsibility, philanthropy, North-South, South-South and triangular cooperation, public-private partnerships, debt swaps, guarantees and market mechanisms. Particularly important will be the regulation of tax havens and illicit financial flows. Enhanced knowledge sharing, capacity building, technology transfers, data collection and trade will also be key.”

‘Red Flag’ issues

While this, particularly the reference to illicit financial flows, is indeed a first-of-its-kind statement in the HLP process, parliamentarians and civil society organisations who raised the red flag issues demanded a more categorical assertion on private investment and public-private partnerships.

Interacting with Frontline after raising the “red flag” issues repeatedly at the meet, Amitabh Behar, co-chair of GCAP and executive director of the National Foundation for India, said: “We need to urgently address the poison threads in society. Corporate land grabs, mega-mines, unjust global trade rules, financial speculation, corruption, and the privatisation of essential social services are heightening inequalities, ruining our environment and impoverishing communities across the globe. The HLP and the U.N. Secretary-General will have to address these red flags, which also include privatisation of water and essential services like education and health; corporate accountability; unjust global trade and governance architecture; and sources of funding for development. These fault lines and the responses of the HLP to these are going to decide the future of the post-2015 framework. A bold new narrative challenging the existing dogmatic thinking based on neoliberalism and market fundamentalism (and dependence on private sector) and these ‘red flags’ is essential for making our shared commitment to human rights and planetary boundaries a reality.”

Corporate grab

Gita Sen, Professor at the Centre for Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB), who was part of several consultative sessions, evaluated the exercise to Frontline as follows: “Bali was the epitome of the complex and confused state of the post-2015 development agenda process. Most people, including me, weren’t aware before they came to Bali just how many parallel meetings were going on, let alone how they were supposed to add up to anything. One thing was clear—the voices from South countries, whether CSOs, parliamentarians or alternative thinkers, called consistently for global justice to address the challenges of multiple and intersecting inequality, the destruction of the global and local commons, violation of human rights, the deepening crisis of survival for the poorest and most subordinate groups, and violence, including violence against women and girls. This call often seemed to fall on tin ears—the response was all too often about the potential of the private sector and public-private partnerships with very little said about regulation, transparency or accountability. The final official communique from Bali, even allowing for the blandness that is intrinsic to such documents, was disappointing. It appeared to avoid substantive content altogether, leaving all those who came to Bali to hear something tangible about the post-MDGs development agenda high and dry.”

Sukhjargalmaa Dugersuren, an opposition leader from Mongolia who is leading a campaign against alleged land grab by Turquoise Hill Resources, an international mining company, also argued in the discussion forums at the Bali meet for a clear stand on issues relating to privatisation and public-private partnerships. “Lack of clarity on these issues would be self-defeating to the very goals of the MDG. Poverty cannot be addressed without taking a clear stance on unfair trade and corporate practices. Halfway measures are of no use in tackling these issues,” Dugersuren told Frontline.

Many advocates of these red flag concerns pointed out that these arguments had found reflection even among HLP members. Former German President Horst Koehler, who is part of the HLP, had pointed out that “we cannot talk about food security without regulation of financial markets... poverty without (addressing) unfair trade, peace and security without small arms control, land degradation without talking of climate”. “However, it is also significant that such clear formulations are not part of the official HLP documentation,” pointed out Dugersuren.

Neoliberal approach

There is, of course, a diverse range of opinions in the HLP, ranging from Koehler’s to that of Cameron, who pursues a neoliberal approach, to that of his fellow co-chair Ellen Sirleaf, whose main theme is reducing social and economic inequalities. “But the most important question is about the theme that takes centre stage at the end of it all,” points out Walden Bello, a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines. In a document circulated at the Alternative Narratives meet, Bello pointed out that the pro-privatisation approach had been dominating the evaluation of the MDG too over the past few years.

“There appears to be a consensus among the World Bank, United Nations agencies, and key development researchers that, contrary to expectations, global poverty data show that the world has already met a United Nations goal to halve extreme poverty in the world’s poorest countries by 2015.... And there are researchers who attribute all this to the rise of globalisation, the spread of capitalism and the improving quality of economic governance....” But, Bello pointed out to Frontline, these theorists refused to look at the experiences of countries such as Venezuela, where a combination of government intervention, economic nationalism and redistributive populist policies promoted equity and expanded internal markets. “This oversight is a big limitation and this is finding reflection in the MDG processes,” Bello added.

This stream of opinion did find reflection in the statement released after the Alternative Narratives meetings. It pointed out as follows: “The discourse on a successor development framework to the MDGs is taking place at a time of profound shifts and changing dynamics. We are deeply concerned about the continuing harsh environment for sustained well-being, inclusive economic growth, social transformation, and fulfilment of human rights. The structural and systemic underpinnings of the crisis of finance, energy, food, land and water, and the resulting turbulence and uncertainties; widening global and national inequalities; a model of global economic governance that imposes excessive fiscal discipline on borrowing countries; cutbacks in public spending in areas such as health, education, water, sanitation and programmes for social protection; and poorly regulated privatisation and public-private partnerships continue to stifle economic and human potential.” According to Behar, this Alternative Narratives meeting is also a strong reminder to the HLP and the U.N. that business as usual will not work and a fundamental rethink of the developmental paradigm is a prerequisite for any legitimate global framework for post-2015.

However, it is unclear as to how these concerns and pressures will reflect in the processes to finalise the HLP report and the U.N. Secretary-General’s formulation. There is also the additional factor that the HLP consultations need to be seen in conjunction with other processes on post-2015, including over 100 country consultations that address issues in different sectors relating to the MDG. Again, it is unclear whether any of the official agencies, including the Secretary-General’s office, involved in the preparation of the post-2015 agenda has a comprehensive understanding of these diverse engagements.

Responding to the question where all this is headed, Gita Sen said: “I am expecting a lot of lofty words in the HLP’s report; but the most substantive point is likely to be about an expanded role for the private sector. This could really be an opportunity to re-balance the U.N.’s excessive tilt towards the private sector in recent years without real mechanisms of accountability. Will such a rebalancing happen? David Cameron speaks about a ‘golden thread’ that means for him ‘open economies and open societies’; not much there about the possible conflicts between the two. And then it will all land in the tug of war of realpolitik between countries—the G8, the G20, the least developed, and on and on. I don’t think anyone can predict whether it will add up to anything, let alone anything that will mean real development for those who need it most. Still, alternative voices have to keep trying. It will be even worse if that does not happen.”