UN expert: Sustainable development requires ‘checks and balances’

Drought-stricken Africans. [Stuart Price/United Nations]

With UN Millennium Development Goals set to expire in 2015, plans for a successor programme were under debate in Berlin last week. Negotiations are far from conclusion, but it is already clear that democracy and the rule of law are crucial points for sustainable development. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The current UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are due to expire in 2015. Though many of the UN goals have not been met, the international community is already brooding over a development agenda beyond 2015. The new set of global targets is intended to combine farther-reaching development goals, and the principle of sustainability.

On Thursday and Friday (20-21 March) the latest round of negotiations took place in Berlin.  The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the UN Development Cooperation Forum (UN DCF) jointly hosted talks over the reorientation of the global development goals.

Amina Mohammed, special advisor to the UN Secretary General, was a guest speaker at the “high-level talks”. Mohammed is charged with post-2015 development planning, and on the eve of last week’s negotiations, the experienced development expert spoke to students at the Hertie School of Governance.

One of her first points: “The MDGs have worked.” If this were not the case, she said, nobody would speak of a new set of goals.

Rampant mistrust of aid workers

But Mohammed, a Nigerian by birth, was clear that she did not want to gloss over anything. Since 2000, she has advised three different Nigerian presidents on development issues. Drawing from her experiences, Mohammed spoke of all the difficulties she encountered in implementing the MDGs.

She described ineffective vaccination campaigns and education programmes, which did not deserve their name. Even projects which seemed successful at first glance, turned out to be problematic when they were put to the test.

As an example, Mohammed described a case of mistrust she met while visiting a Nigerian village: the government had used development funds to drill a well there, providing the population with access to clean drinking water. But the villagers did not want to drink the clean water – it was too clear, they said. ‘What is wrong with the water?’ Mohammed said the people asked her. ‘Usually it is red, what did you put in it?’, a herdsman wanted to know. The man did not even want to give the water to his livestock. The villagers were not convinced of the water’s safety until Mohammed demonstratively filled a glass from the well, and drank it herself.

‘Top-down does not work’

For development expert Mohammed, it is clear what the success of future development depends upon: All those affected must be involved in implementing the development measures.

“Top-down does not work”, explained Mohammed.

First, one must find out the needs and expectations of the local residents. Then, all relevant national, regional and local institutions must be integrated in changing the goals. Mohammed said she attaches particular worth to the latter, namely the “trickle down” of assistance measures, through all institutional levels, and the inclusion of all relevant actors. Because, she explained, in this way, institutions go through a phase of transition: an important precondition for sustainable development.

Hans-Joachim Fuchtel from the BMZ confirmed this assessment. “For the new global catalogue of goals to be successful, the state, civil society and private economy must work together in the best way possible. Goals must be measurable and verifiable so they can be jointly carried by all,” said the parliamentary state secretary.

Democracy and rule of law

But this approach will only work, Mohammed said, if democracy and rule of law are firmly embedded as goals in the post-2015 agenda. For plans to be successful, development aid must be transparent and individuals involved must share in the responsibility.

“As soon as the people understood that someone would come and look over their shoulder, they fulfilled the agreements”, explained Mohammed. It needs “checks and balances”, she said.

Unfortunately these two terms – democracy and rule of law – still remain emotive words, the Nigerian development expert said, and have the potential to slow post-2015 MDG negotiations to a standstill.

“You should keep in mind that we are dealing with 193 UN member states. They must all agree,” she pointed out. But according to Mohammed, there is a growing understanding among the partners that the transformative effect of good governance is irreversible, and definitely worth the effort.

At this point, it is important not to fill the post-2015 agenda with too many goals, and instead, focus on a few concrete targets, the special advisor emphasised. The MDGs are a success story because 8 goals were agreed upon. During talks over the future framework of development, “approximately 150” goals were identified, Mohammed reported. In the meantime, the focus has been narrowed to 19 target areas. But she hopes for a maximum of 10, she said, adding, “Honestly, everything beyond that does not interest politicians anyway, and will end up going over the edge .”

Negotiation marathon until September 2015

The results of the Berlin symposium served to prepare for the upcoming meeting of ministers within the Global Partnership for Effective Development and Co-operation, scheduled for April, in Mexico.

Since 2003, the partnership regularly organises forums, bringing together industrialised, newly-industrialised and developing countries. The most recent of these took place in Accra, Ghana (2008) and in Busan, South Korea (2011).

The Berlin talks will also leave their mark on the 2014 DCF meeting in July, hosted by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in the UN headquarters in New York. A UN Open Working Group (OWG) is charged with presenting a target catalogue to the General Assembly in September. Meanwhile, a separate working group has been assigned to focus on financing post-2015 development in parallel.

After these hurdles have been cleared, the UN Secretary-General will attempt to interweave these two strands in a report, Mohammed explained, outlining the next steps. The resulting report is intended to form the basis for negotiations nine months later.

“Then, in September 2015, we will have the final result.  I am absolutely sure of that”, Mohammed said. But she did not go so far as to predict whether or not the agenda will be ambitious enough to adequately address the challenges of today’s complex world. 

The United Nations set the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be met by 2015. The goals are:

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Achieve universal primary education
Promote gender equality and empower women
Reduce child mortality
Improve maternal health
Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases
Ensure environmental sustainability
Develop a global partnership for development

In 2008, governments, businesses and other organisations reinforced their commitments to meet the MDGs, raising some €12.3 million in new funds for development. Two years later, the MDG summit adopted a global action plan, again reinforcing the drive towards meeting the MDGs.

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