What happens after 2015? Reflections on ODI’s ‘after 2015’ meeting series

11 August 2011
Articles and blogs
We recently finished a series of ODI events considering what may happen once the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015.  When the goals were agreed in 2000, no doubt the end-point seemed reassuringly far away.  But that time is almost upon us and, if the global momentum for poverty reduction is to be maintained, the world needs to decide what to do next. 

In planning the series, we tried to cover a range of issues that aren’t included in the MDGs, but which have become increasingly important since the year 2000. We wanted to open up a discussion about how the global framework needs to change to accommodate new problems, or old problems that didn’t make the list last time.  And a final event looked at the politics – how might an agreement actually come about, if at all?

So, five events and 17 speakers later, what did we learn? 

Despite the range of issues tackled, a few clear messages emerged. Wherever possible, I’ve highlighted the speakers behind each argument and linked to the respective events so you can listen to the discussions in full.

  1. What do we know?  It’s something of a cliché that whenever development researchers get together they will at some point start to lament the poor quality of the data that they have to work with.  But it’s a cliché because it’s true.  The series brought out how little we know about some of the issues that will define development’s next 15 years. 
    Not knowing leads to poor policy.  If no one knows how many people live in cities [David Satterthwaite], or what their needs are, then how can a development strategy hope to be successful in tackling urban poverty?  And if no one knows how to help create jobs [Sarah Cook], how can one of the most crucial issues for many developing countries today ever be dealt with?   It’s clear that any deliberations on a future development agenda need to start with a serious look at what the real problem of poverty actually is, and what is known about what to do about it.
  2. What should we do? We have learned some things in the last 15 years – such as that the improvements brought about by aid have been mainly thanks to new technologies (vaccines, anyone?), rather than through any noticeable impacts on economic growth [Charles Kenny].  This must shape donors’ understanding of what they are doing with aid and what results to expect.  It’s likely that climate finance will be a key part of financial flows to developing countries in the coming years, and the lessons from aid need to be applied here too, if mistakes are not to be repeated [Jan Vandemoortele].  The lessons of the current MDGs are crucial for making the right choices for a post-2015 development strategy, however it is organised and funded.
  3. Who is it for?  The MDGs are all about average achievement rates, with a few exceptions.  But within those averages, some people have gained much more than others [Milo Vandemoortele, Patrick Watt].  This is true of any process of change, but for a strategy that is supposed to make the world a better place, it raises uncomfortable questions.  What can be done in the future to make sure that inequalities are more visible and that policy-makers have more incentives to address them?

The answers to all of these questions are political.  Politics drives choices about what information to collect, what to do with that information, and in whose interests to act – which is why poor people need a voice in the process [Amy Pollard, KM Dube].  But politics can also act as a barrier to any action at all.  Maybe the biggest risk to a post-2015 agreement is that it becomes trapped in the same multilateral stalemate as talks on trade, or on climate change.  Anyone who believes that there is value in a global agreement to tackle poverty will need to think hard about the how, as well as the what, of a post-2015 agreement.

My conclusions from the events?

The post-2015 genie is definitely out of the bottle.  Despite some lingering uneasiness about the risks of post-2015 distracting attention from the important work that has to be done up to 2015, the discussion is now very definitely underway.  Even during the few months of this meeting series, the number of organisations involved in this agenda in different ways probably doubled, and it’s only just begun. 

Also, it might be big.  When we began I had a lingering suspicion that despite the potential for rethinking poverty in more fundamental ways, the most likely outcome might still be an extension of the timeline for the existing MDGs and little else.  I think that’s less likely now, as interest has ratcheted up, and as arguments about what a better strategy might be have intensified.  But as ever there’s a risk – the more ambitious it gets, the higher the risk that it will all seem too politically difficult and nothing will happen at all.

In keeping with these two trends, we will be expanding ODI’s own work on the post-2015 agenda in this area in the next few years.  We will be researching the poverty problems that a new strategy will need to tackle, thinking about the best ways to measure progress and use targets to send out the right signals for action, and networking furiously to make sure that we are informed by as many different perspectives as possible.