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The MDG Summit Outcome: What Next?

arton3085On 4 October 2010 in Geneva, NGLS organized a briefing and multi-stakeholder interactive panel to take stock of the outcome of the “MDG summit”– the UN High Level Plenary Meeting that was held in New York on 20-22 September to review and accelerate progress in the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDGs, which grew out of the 2000 Millennium Summit, are composed of eight Goals, most of them with time-bound targets, ranging from halving hunger and poverty by 2015 to dealing comprehensively with the debt problems of developing countries. The 2010 MDG summit, which brought together some 140 Heads of State and Government, adopted an outcome document which identifies lessons learned over the past 10 years and an action agenda with recommendations to advance progress on each of the Goals.

The panel convened by NGLS on 4 October was a timely occasion to examine – from the perspective of representatives of civil society, the private sector and the UN system – opportunities contained in the outcome document as well as challenges and gaps that need to be addressed. Given the strong level of civil society participation in the summit preparatory process, the meeting focused in particular on three areas where expectations for an “MDG Breakthrough Plan” were particularly high:

  • Strengthening human rights-based accountability frameworks to improve MDG implementation;
  • Charting new development paths that are more consistent with full and productive employment, social inclusion and environmental sustainability;
  • Initiating major reforms in international economic and development cooperation pertaining to Goal 8, made all the more imperative in the light of the catastrophic setbacks caused by the global economic crisis.

An “aspirational” outcome

Most speakers described the outcome document as more “aspirational” than action-oriented, often drawing from already agreed inter-governmental language. On the positive side, panellists outlined a number of areas which could be used as “anchors” to foster meaningful progress. These included:

  • Recognizing that respect, protection and promotion of human rights is an integral part of effective work towards achieving the MDGs, with particular emphasis on the rights to food, health and education, and rights of women and indigenous peoples;
  • Promoting universal access to public and social services and providing “social protection floors;”
  • Committing to new macroeconomic approaches and sectoral policies to advance the objectives of building productive capacities, full and productive employment and decent work for all, implementing the Global Jobs Pact, and improving incomes and capacities of small farmers; and
  • Recognizing the “central importance” of Goal 8 – and that without substantial international support, several of the Goals will likely be missed in many developing countries by 2015.

However, most panellists said they were disappointed that there was little or no indication in the outcome document on how these and other commitments would lead to concrete implementation.

More of the same, or a different approach?

Ingrid Srinath, Secretary General of CIVICUS, said she observed at the summit two different tendencies on how to take the agenda forward. For some institutions and donors, accelerating progress is mainly about building on existing successes, through up-scaling or transfer of best practices between countries. For others, there are much more fundamental challenges involved, and which she said amount to “placing human rights front and centre, fundamentally redefining development paradigms and ensuring democratic governance at every level, from the very local to the very global.”

Roberto Bissio, Coordinator of Social Watch, argued that the summit assessment of progress to date is “not a very honest analysis.” On poverty for example, even by using the methodologically questionable measures of the World Bank, he said, poverty has actually gone up between 1995 and 2005 if we exclude China from the average statistics. He noted increasing evidence (including from research for the UN Human Development Report and by Social Watch) that progress on social indicators slowed on average after the year 2000.

He agreed that accelerating progress is indeed badly needed in the five years remaining, but warned that the outcome document is unclear as to how this can happen in the context of an ongoing global economic crisis, when the slowdown of progress actually happened during the previous decade of exceptionally high economic prosperity.

Richard Kozul-Wright, Director at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) emphasized the enormity of this challenge in his later remarks. “Just looking at the historically very high crude growth figures,” he noted, “the last decade should have been ideal for meeting the MDGs.” The problem is that it was the wrong kind of growth which was driven by increased financialization, debt-driven consumption and boom-bust macroeconomic policies – all of which were not conducive to meeting the MDGs. Instead, these policies contributed directly to growing income inequalities, jobless growth and to the major MDG setbacks caused by the recent food and economic crises.

All these lessons have been well understood, but unfortunately did not find there way into the outcome document, he added, pointing the risk of a return to “business as usual.”

Many participants emphasized that the challenges of finding new sources of more equitable and employment-intensive growth in this period of recession, is compounded by the imperative of environmental sustainability – which underpins the viability of any future development. As Ms. Srinath emphasized: “What purpose will be served if we achieve Goals 1 to 6 and then see those gains quite literally washed away as a consequence of failing to address Goal 7 [on environmental sustainability]?”

Moving forward through strengthened human rights-based accountability

Peter Splinter, Head of the Geneva Office of Amnesty International, outlined a comprehensive human rights agenda for moving forward in the next five years in spite of what he viewed as the paucity of actionable recommendations in the outcome document. “Fortunately, the failure of the summit does not prevent individual States from implementing their human rights obligations in their own national and international MDG efforts.” He emphasised six key steps that Amnesty International believes governments must take in the five years remaining:

  1. Ensure their MDG efforts are consistent with human rights standards: States should individually take the initiative to carry out a review of their MDG efforts, including existing laws, policies and strategies, to ensure these are consistent with international human rights standards, especially under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); and making sure that the views and experiences of those affected by MDG initiatives are heard and taken into account.
  2. Eliminate discrimination and combat exclusion: States should ensure that their MDG efforts are inclusive, in line with their legal obligations; and take full account of the need to end discrimination, guarantee gender equality and prioritize the most disadvantaged groups.
  3. Setting national targets for real progress: States should go beyond the global MDG targets and set national targets, adapted to national contexts and aimed at fulfilling legal obligations under the ICESCR, such as to “take steps to the maximum available resources.”
  4. Guaranteeing full and informed participation: Governments must guarantee freedom of expression, association and assembly, the right to information and promote and protect the rights of human rights defenders; and ensure the free, meaningful and informed participation of people living in poverty in the planning, implementation and monitoring of MDG efforts, “as the best guarantee that these efforts actually benefit people.”
  5. Stengthening national and international mechanisms for accountability: State should ensure that courts, regulatory bodies and national human rights institutions have the mandate, independence and capacity to carry out independent monitoring and to provide remedies for failure to fulfil human rights obligations associated with the MDGs; strengthen parliamentary oversight; and integrate reporting on MDG implementation to the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review and relevant international human rights treaty monitoring bodies.
  6. Aligning International Cooperation with the realization of human rights: Among key steps that States in a position to assist must undertake to meet their obligations under human rights treaties and the UN Charter are: providing development assistance to ensure the realization of at least minimum essential levels of economic, social and cultural rights for all; and adopting adequate safeguards, monitoring and accountability mechanisms to ensure that development cooperation complies with human rights standards.

To access Amnesty International’s full position paper click here.

During the ensuing interactive discussion, many participants called for the need for a more “mature” debate on the relationship between human rights and development, especially in light of the reported resistance by some Member States during the negotiations to simply acknowledge existing human rights treaty obligations they had already ratified. Among those:

  • Would human rights-based MDG reporting imply an “additional layer” of reporting for developing country governments that are already overstretched with multiple donor-driven reporting requirements?
  • Should the human rights community address more forcefully what many describe as the need for a “roll-back agenda” on certain corporate rights that have gained very significant ground in recent decades, often to the detriment of fulfilling human rights obligations?
  • In a globalized world, how to ensure more balanced accountability between the different levels of State obligations, including the human rights impact of unilateral national policies in other jurisdictions, or collective State responsibilities related to the policies of the international financial institutions, unfair trade rules and failure to comprehensively address the apparent incompatibility of the current global financial order with the principle of progressive realization and non-retrogression?

The challenges of policy coherence and coordination at all levels

Katherine Hagen, Executive Director of the Council for Multilateral Business Diplomacy emphasized that a key achievement of the summit was to place jobs at the centre of forward-looking MDG strategies. “Full and productive employment and decent work for all” was missing in the original MDG framework, yet it is through expanding better jobs and livelihoods, including by supporting the capacities and credit access of small businesses and farmers that significant reductions in poverty happen on the ground, she said.

Alice Ouedraogo, Deputy Director of the Policy Integration Department at the International Labour Organization (ILO), said there were indeed many limitations with the outcome document, but one “glimmer of hope” was the marked shift in favour of aligning economic and social policies with full decent employment and social protection floors. This implied major challenges for policy coherence at all levels.

At the national level, she noted how employment and social protection goals could feature more prominently in initiatives such as the UN Development Programme (UNDP) “MDG Acceleration Framework,” (which aims to provide a systematic way of identifying national-level bottlenecks and solutions to address them), or implementation of the Global Jobs Pact in pilot countries.

At the international level, Ms Ouedraogo stressed the importance of making the policies of the international financial institutions more coherent with employment and social protection objectives. She highlighted the key message that resulted from a Conference in Oslo organized by the ILO and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) just a week before the MDG summit, which in effect concluded: “To avoid the risk of a new economic crisis and address global imbalances, it is imperative to focus on a much more job-intensive recovery, stronger social protection and higher wages for average workers.”

It was noted that this view converged with the core message of the UNCTAD Trade and Development Report 2010, released also the week before the summit. Of particular concern is the rush to fiscal austerity in many European countries in response to pressures from financial markets, which may cause a “double-dip” recession or even a deflationary spiral. If this was to happen, the prospect of achieving the MDGs would look even bleaker than today.

A renewed focus on Goal 7 and Goal 8

The thrust of the 4 October meeting suggested that much of the MDG summit follow-up must take place at the national level. Many civil society organizations were planning to mobilize around concrete demands on national governments to turn the summit’s “aspirational agenda” into more concrete policy and legal reforms.

However, intensified international action was seen as essential to make decisive progress on the MDG goals and targets that showed little or no progress to date and that by their nature require international action. Among those, the failure to meet the target of significantly reducing biodiversity loss by 2010 or achieve a just and meaningful global deal on climate change were of particular concern. This pointed to urgent breakthroughs needed at the upcoming Conferences of the Parties (CoP) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Japan (18-29 October 2010) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Mexico (29 November-10 December 2010), as well as at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) planned in Brazil in 2012.

In addition, the commitments on aid, trade, technology transfer and debt under Goal 8, have shown little or no progress, or even have shown clear signs of regress. Roberto Bissio noted in this regard: “All of us know that aid is going down, either because it is being affected by budget cuts or…[because] since the economy of so many countries is shrinking, the percentage devoted to aid is shrinking with it in the best scenarios.” While one of the targets under Goal 8 was to deal comprehensively with the debt problem of developing countries, the absence of a fair sovereign debt workout mechanism has now become dire problem for many developed countries as well.

As Richard Kozul-Wright noted, the quest for new and more sustainable development paths is primarily a “national project.” But the international constraints that limit the scope for meaningful national action (whether due to lack of financial resources, inappropriate external conditionalities, unfair global rules or absence of rules) need to be urgently addressed. It was seen as imperative in this regard to make much more progress on the UN’s financial and monetary reforms agenda, outlined notably in the outcome of the 2009 UN Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and its Impact on Development.


This article is also availabe in French and Spanish.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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