The post-2015 Development Agenda: new goals, no goals - or own goals?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), for all their doubtless faults, had this one great virtue: they encapsulated the whole, sprawling and often rather arcane development issue into eight universal, simple, concrete, comprehensible and measurable development targets, to be reached mainly by 2015.

From halving absolute poverty and hunger to reducing infant mortality by two-thirds, the goals were clear and tangible, which made them relatively easy to brand and market. Being measurable, they would, of course, quite clearly show success or failure. And as the deadline looms, it is apparent that in sub-Saharan Africa especially, failure will be far more common than success.

Even South Africa is struggling. According to the latest MDG progress report by Trevor Manuel’s National Planning Commission (NPC) last year, four of the goals have been achieved, three are likely and one is unlikely to be achieved.

The unlikely one is Goal 5: to reduce the maternal mortality rate by three-quarters between 1990 and 2015. In practice, that would mean reducing the rate from 150 deaths per 1 000 deliveries to 38. By 2010 the rate had instead climbed, steeply, to 269 deaths per 1 000 deliveries. South Africa is likely to be way off target.

The post-2015 Development Agenda will be harder to pin down than nailing jelly to a wall

And the NPC’s prediction that South Africa will achieve Goal 4 – reducing infant and child mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015 – seems optimistic. The goal for infants is 18 deaths per 1 000 live births; whereas there were still 38 deaths per 1 000 births in 2010. For children under five, the goal is 20 per 1 000 in 2015; a rather substantial distance from the last available figure of 53 per 1 000 in 2010. But the report bases its optimism on increased vaccinations for some of the most fatal diseases, so the targets are not impossible.

For much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, the prospects are far worse.

The revealing thing about South Africa’s MDG performance is that the most concrete MDG goals are proving hardest to meet. South Africa spends an enormous amount on education and on health, as we know. It has already achieved, or will very likely meet, the education goals, which are essentially to provide universal primary education and equal education for boys and girls at all levels.

That’s really about putting bums on benches. That is an achievement in itself, but also very different from producing educated young people; a much harder thing to achieve and to measure.

When it comes to maternal, child and infant mortality, the measure is literally as simple and incontrovertible as life and death. By contrast, the post-2015 Development Agenda – what the world should be striving for after the MDG deadlines have expired – is going to be harder to pin down than nailing jelly to a wall. At least that is the impression one gets judging by the Common African Position (CAP) on the post-2015 Development Agenda, which was adopted by the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa last month.

In typical AU fashion, the CAP welcomes the wide consultation process that has been observed in generating the post-2015 Development Agenda – which it contrasts with the process that led to the MDGs. It also stresses the importance of African nations presenting a unified position in the global debate that is underway. It prides itself on having produced a ‘genuinely, purely African…’ approach.

For all that, though, the CAP looks like a pretty standard development wish list. Its five pillars are structural economic transformation and inclusive growth; science, technology and innovation; people-centred development; environmental sustainability, natural resource management and disaster risk management; and finance and partnership.

Africa wouldn’t want to be measured again - and found wanting

It also has a sixth leg called ‘enabling implementation,’ which includes peace and security, good governance, fighting corruption, respecting human rights, providing ‘a credible participatory process;’ macroeconomic policy and private sector development.

Under the pillar of finance and partnerships, there is of course an exhortation to donors to make good their prior commitments of development aid, especially those at Monterrey and Gleneagles. This includes promises of fairer trade and greater representation of Africa in the global institutions of political and economic government and development.

But there is also a fresher emphasis on the need to improve the mobilisation of domestic financial resources, a theme that has risen much higher on the general AU agenda since Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma assumed the chair of the AU Commission in 2012.

There is also an emphasis on the continent’s own responsibility for attaining peace, though not enough emphasis, really, given that peace is the absolute foundation of development and one that has been so glaringly absent across much of Africa.

And so on.

It’s hard to imagine any of this being highly contentious in the global debate on the agenda. But that may be deceptive. In his speech to the UN General Assembly last September, President Jacob Zuma suggested some of the issues that have already risen in the debate and will no doubt loom larger still.

‘A development agenda beyond 2015 should allow individual regions and states the space to address the development needs peculiar to their circumstances and priorities,’ Zuma said. ‘For Africa in particular, the future development agenda should address poverty eradication, income inequality and job creation,’ he continued.

Zuma took a swipe at the developed world, both for reneging on its prior commitments to finance development and for ‘changing the rules’ by introducing new development criteria, such as the green economy and clean technology.

He berated them for trying to ‘delegate’ some of their historical development responsibilities to the new emerging economies – such as China and India – saying these countries had to meet their own development backlogs.

Zuma’s remarks reflected some of the post-2015 debates, where developing countries have insisted that any new post-MDG measures should also tabulate the progress made by these countries in areas such as curbing the outflow of capital from Africa to European or Caribbean tax havens.

While the underlying sentiments are certainly valid, this sort of argument could make it impossible to establish a new set of goals as tangible, measurable – and universal – as the MDGs.

There is just a hint in the discourse that perhaps Africa, especially, might be happy with that result, because it really wouldn’t want to be measured again by a precise and common ruler – and found wanting.

But that would be to score an own goal, so to speak. It would miss the central point, which is that the MDGs, and what should follow, have and should measure development outcomes; not who is responsible for those outcomes.

The allocation of responsibility is important and will always be contentious. Though, from the point of view of those whom this whole exercise is supposed to be about – the wretched of the earth – it is not the real issue. 

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa