The UN Post-2015 Development Agenda: Getting poverty to zero
October-December 2015
By: Desra Percaya

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched at the beginning of the new millennium and aimed to cut global poverty in half by 2015. However, with poverty still prevalent globally, a more ambitious agenda is needed to get to zero poverty. Indeed, the plan to bring to life that vision has been conceptualized at the UN through the Post-2015 Development Agenda that will replace the MDGs with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This essay examines the lessons of the MDGs and how they influenced the conception of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. It strives to shed light on the importance of multilateralism in the face of complex development challenges and diverse interests. It will conclude with some thoughts on the way forward for the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

The MDGs: lessons learned

The Millennium Development Goals campaign brought impressive global improvements within developing countries, thanks to solid national commitments to achieve the MDGs during the target year. It was most encouraging that the world had already met the overarching goal of cutting extreme poverty and hunger by half. Despite its success, however, the MDGs were not entirely the golden egg. One can be easily impressed by the results of the development goals and forget that the framework is not solely responsible for all of the advancements of the past 15 years. As the MDGs were being implemented, other forces were at play. They included the growth of economies as well as the development of groundbreaking health and communications technologies.

As noble as the MDGs were, they weren’t conceived with wide participation among developing countries. They were intended for developing countries, yet provided no room for collaboration with them at the earliest stage. Instead, a limited set of UN experts and donors developed the eight goals, 18 targets and 48 indicators through a top-down approach with no consultation among developing nations. This approach failed to consider the intricacies of poverty and ended up with an oversimplified picture. For developing countries, being left out of the loop put them at a major disadvantage, as they had no head start in making policy and institutional assessments to accommodate the MDGs in their development plans. What is more, the MDGs were criticized for being unbalanced. The agenda focused too much on social indicators rather than on the broader economic transformation required for development progress.

What redeemed the Millennium Development Goals was the global partnership (MDG 8), which put a shared responsibility on developed countries to help developing nations meet the goals. The promise of 0.7 percent official development assistance, enabling developing countries to increase their domestic budgets for development through increased trade and smoother financial flows, gave the MDGs life. However, that Cinderella story did not last long, as action on MDG 8 was not even close to the commitment, once again leaving developing countries in the cold to resolve poverty. Nevertheless, even with their shortcomings, the MDGs gave a common rallying point to address development issues.

Fast-forward to 2012, three years before the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals. A chain of global conversations began to discuss the next step in putting together a common and universal platform that countries can continue rallying around to galvanize support and solidarity in a new development framework. There was a shared view that the new framework must reflect the successes and the less successful stories of the MDGs at all levels, while also bearing in mind new development challenges arising in the past few years. This is mainly because development challenges, existing and emerging, require a new global vision along with reinforced collective efforts unified in a global development agenda. The logical path was to continue on the MDGs basics, continuing with some of the goals while adding dimensions to reflect the complexity of development concerns.

Learning from the experience of the MDGs, governments were determined to shape a stronger and more ambitious post-2015 framework through an open, transparent and inclusive process. Formally, it has been governments leading the process to determine the contents of the agenda. However, UN member states made it clear that this was an agenda by the people and for the people of the world, and would include broader participation.

Leveling the playing field

Rio+20, or the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2013, was the first stop and a crucial milestone in the string of global conversations to develop the framework of the post-2015 development. Rio+20, and especially the process leading toward it, was one of the most open, participative and inclusive conferences that the UN has ever held. Civil society and major group representatives contributed significantly to the compilation document that served as a basis for the draft negotiation text, which leveled the playing field.

In the end, the outcome of Rio+20 may not have satisfied everyone, but all things considered it was essentially a multilateral triumph. It was a bittersweet triumph, given that Rio+20 was almost on the brink of failure, as government negotiators weren’t even halfway finished with the text a few days prior to the conference’s opening.

A precedent was also set by the conference, where not one but three dimensions were considered within the context of development. A 53-page document titled “The Future We Want” was adopted at the conclusion of the conference. It recognized sustainable development as a growth model that accommodates the three imperatives – economic, social and environmental – into a coherent development policy, as having a core function in global efforts to achieve the MDGs and beyond. It was particularly timely to return to sustainable development, considering that the current growth model is profit-centric and less friendly to people and the planet, as proven by the 2008 economic and financial crisis, along with the food and energy crisis.

Together with the revival of sustainable development, the outcome document had a number of main priorities that set the stage for future talks, by including the commitments by the leaders of governments to reinvigorate the global partnership for sustainable development and work together with major groups and other stakeholders to implement sustainable development. It stressed a development-friendly financial system, a facilitation mechanism that promotes the development, transfer and dissemination of clean and environmentally sound technologies, capacity building, infrastructure and a universal, rules-based, open, nondiscriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system as important enablers of sustainable development.

The conference also recognized the importance of strengthening the institutional framework for sustainable development. Therefore, a universal intergovernmental High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development was established to provide political leadership, guidance and recommendations on sustainable development, follow up and review progress in the implementation of sustainable development commitments and enhance the integration of three dimensions of sustainable development.

Rio+20 created the momentum on three main processes that were followed up by the UN General Assembly and that fed into the development of the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda: (i) Financing for development mechanisms that are indispensable for achieving sustainable development; (ii) an inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process to formulate the Sustainable Development Goals, which was assigned to an open working group, later to be known as the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG on SDGs); and (iii) climate change agenda and its related negotiations, in particular the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But there were many voices outside of the Rio+20 track that also influenced the multilateral debate. The purpose of these different tracks within and outside the UN system is to guarantee a broadly consultative process involving the relevant multi-stakeholders to support the design of the post-2015 agenda, in particular the SDGs.

Global involvement

While official government-to-government talks began at Rio+20 and were followed up later, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in July 2012 established the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. As mandated by the 2010 Millennium Development Goals Summit, Ban was requested to provide input for the UN process that would formulate the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The recommendations of the panel were one of the inputs to the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals.

Over the course of a year, the panel raised wider public attention on the post-2015 process through its co-chairs: President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain. There was also a team of 27 experts who were leaders from government, civil society and the private sector from developing and developed countries.

The panel’s input report, “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development,” called for a transformative and inclusive agenda based on commitments in five areas: leave no one behind; put sustainable development at the core; transform economies; build peace and effective and accountable institutions; and forge new global partnerships. A number of the main ideas by the panel were later integrated in the clean text of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, such as the vision to leave no one behind, which aims to include the neediest and most vulnerable.

Within the UN system, the secretary general mandated a task team to coordinate, in consultation with all stakeholders, the UN’s systemwide preparations for the post-2015 agenda. The task team produced a report, “Realizing the Future We Want for All,” which called for an integrated policy approach to ensure inclusive economic development, social progress and environmental sustainability, and a development agenda that responds to the aspirations of all people for a world free of want and fear. The secretary general also appointed a special advisor on post-2015 development planning. 

Outside of the UN system, seven million people from a wide spectrum of social groups, and hundreds of civil society organizations, academics and members of the private sector participated in debates and surveys through, inter alia, a powerful social network platform called My World Survey. The whole spectrum of input was later synthesized into a report by the UN secretary general, as mandated by the UN General Assembly, which was presented to the body in December 2014. With the Rio+20 outcome and the multitude of inputs in tow, the official government-to-government talks were ready to begin.

An open, transparent and inclusive process

As mandated by the Rio+20 conference, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals was established to formulate its goals and targets. It consisted of 70 UN member states and groups of member states, including Indonesia. The group worked for two years and conducted 13 meeting sessions before it finalized a proposal for the Sustainable Development Goals, which consisted of 17 goals and 169 targets. The UN General Assembly adopted a set of goals and targets for the Post-2015 Development Agenda in September 2014.

The features of the Sustainable Development Goals are significantly different from the MDGs, even though a number of goals from the Millennium Development Goals program were retained. Indeed, the most striking feature of the SDGs is that they are more comprehensive than the MDGs – an increase from eight to 17 goals. Also, because sustainable development features prominently in the agenda, it follows that there are more issues in the SDGs that have a close kinship to economic, social and environment challenges.

In addition, Goal 16 is all-encompassing and relevant to all elements of the agenda. It is also important in responding to challenges related to accountability, governance, genuine public participation, rule of law and strengthening institutions at all levels. However, this is not suggesting that the goals are exclusive of one another, where in fact each goal reinforces and complements the others.

The SDGs cover a wide and detailed spectrum of challenges and commitments that need to be addressed and implemented by all countries, both developed and developing, to address the root causes of the obstacles to sustainable development. Indeed, the list of goals represents the current situation, challenges and partnership that we, the people of the world, need to work in concert on in a relatively short time span to ensure that poverty, in particular extreme poverty, is eradicated; welfare and development can be equally shared; and the environment can be conserved in a sustainable manner. Granted, the SDGs are a huge and ambitious agenda, but are necessary to create the world we want.

Heart and soul

The Post-2015 Development Agenda is an important landmark within an era of development. It is an agenda intended to instigate sustained and inclusive economic growth in all countries, in particular in developing countries. It is further intended to ensure that development is taking place through a sustainable and equitable pathway for the continuity of the planet, as well as for future generations.

Negotiations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda rightly continued the open, transparent and inclusive practice of the deliberations on the Sustainable Development Goals, which involved all stakeholders including civil society, scientific and knowledge institutions, parliaments, local authorities and the private sector. After the SDGs were adopted by the UN General Assembly, the hard work of putting together the bones and meat of the agenda was almost complete. There was one crucial element that needed more work: the means of implementation, and a global partnership to drive the transformative change, enabled by financing, technology facilitation and capacity-building. This is the heart and soul of the agenda.

The cost per year to transition to sustainable development, as estimated by the 2014 UN World Investment Report, is in the range of $3.3 trillion to $4.5 trillion. That is roughly $37.5 trillion between now and 2030 to expand and maintain basic infrastructure (roads, rail lines and ports, water and sanitation), achieve food security (raising agricultural output and reducing poverty) and implement climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as for health and education.

At the core of the means of implementation is the question of who assumes the costs of the transition, and how are these costs assumed?

Getting down to the real work of finding the answers was not an easy task. It did not help that the political atmosphere was not truly conducive to putting together the essential elements of the means of implementation and global partnership. Developed countries were still nursing their financial and economic wounds from the global financial debacle of 2008. However, developing countries were not going to accept a repeat of the failure of the eight Millennium Development Goals, even if there was stiff resistance to discussing the related program.

Yes, more countries were emerging on the global stage as more economically capable and assumed to be able to share the responsibility, but that is like comparing apples and oranges. The emerging economies may have played a role in helping the global marketplace weather the 2008 storm, but they have hardly reached the economic cruising altitude that developed countries have enjoyed for more than a century.

Despite the strong resistance to discussing the means of implementation at the Post-2015 Development Agenda negotiating table, a compromise was found during the Third Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last July: flesh out the three elements of the means of implementation and report back the outcomes as complementary input to the post-2015 process. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda reaffirmed financing as a pivotal element, recognizing that the Post-2015 Development Agenda will require significantly increased investment, for which domestic and external financial resources are needed to achieve the goals and targets.

It included important policy commitments and key deliverables in critical areas for sustainable development. They include infrastructure, through commitments to fund infrastructure projects for energy, transportation, water and sanitation, as well as increased investment in agriculture and nutrition. A key input related to finance was strengthening domestic public sources through taxation. Although demands by developing countries for upgrading the UN Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters into an intergovernmental tax body were not met, nations agreed to work together to significantly reduce and ultimately eliminate illicit financial flows, as well as strengthen the capacities of developing countries’ tax administrations.

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda also underscored finding innovative ways and enabling environments to increase international private flows, including foreign direct investment and trade, and expand the participation of the private sector. Recognition was given to the growing role of emerging economies, highlighting the contribution of South-South cooperation in international cooperation for development. However, the premise remains that South-South cooperation is not a substitute for North-South cooperation.

While all components of the Addis Ababa meeting are vital to the future implementation of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the Technology Facilitation Mechanism, a UN program, was the high-water mark of the meeting. It will be a collaborative platform between UN member states, civil society, the private sector, the scientific community, the UN itself and other stakeholders. This mechanism is indeed very important to ensure that technology is available and accessible to support the development of developing countries.

The action agenda also spelled out an inclusive, robust and effective follow-up and review framework to track progress on implementing the commitments made in Addis Ababa. It does not replace commitments from previous conferences, but the outcomes of Monterrey, Doha and Addis Ababa should be seen as one mechanism that will be coupled with the follow-up process on the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. During the conclusion of the post-2015 deliberations, it was agreed that the concrete policies of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda would serve as an integral part of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, providing a supportive and complementary framework to its means of implementation, which were reflected in Goal 17 as well as all of its implementation-related targets.

As for climate change, the deliberation and implementation of commitments remains in the domain of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as UNFCCC. However, the Post-2015 Development Agenda injected the political impetus for urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. UN member states were called on to help achieve an ambitious global climate agreement, while avoid prejudging the outcome of negotiation at the UNFCCC conference (COP-21/CMP-11) scheduled to be held in Paris in November. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities in the context of Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development was underscored.

Finally, on Aug. 2 of this year, member states at the UN headquarters in New York witnessed a momentous event when the co-facilitators of this intergovernmental process pounded the gavel on the draft outcome document of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. After three years of hard work, the document, “Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” was due to be adopted by world leaders during a sustainable development summit at UN headquarters from Sept. 25 to 27, after Strategic Review went to press.

The main elements of the agenda have incorporated five interconnected sections: the preamble, declaration, sustainable development goals and targets, means of implementation and global partnership, as well as follow-up and review. The new outcome document of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is not legally binding, but it highlights the global aspiration for sustainable development that encompasses people, our planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.

This brings the entire process to the implementation stage. Surely, the implementation of the Post-2015 Development Agenda will involve a diverse set of actors. Multistakeholder partnerships, which can pool knowledge, expertise, networks, technologies and financial resources to achieve innovative and sustainable solutions, are key to delivering on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The agenda will be universal and apply to all nations as well as organizations: international, regional, national and local, meaning that all are expected to meet the goals and make adjustments. Yet, universality does not mean uniformity, and differentiation is the norm rather than the exception. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities was quite a difficult notion to keep alive during the negotiation phase, but is the cornerstone of implementation as it takes into account the different contexts of each nation.

The way forward

The wheels of multilateralism were certainly put to work during the last three years in fashioning the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The international community’s resolve to figure out a plan to get to zero poverty was constantly tested, but in the end multilateralism worked and answered the challenges to its function and effectiveness.

While we can expect the late September summit in New York to adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda, a pending matter in the negotiations is the development of the targets and indicators to support the follow-up and review of the new agenda. The targets and indicators to assess progress are still being deliberated by the Inter-Governmental Group and the UN Statistical Commission, but are expected to be completed by 2016.

With the agenda’s adoption, there will be no time to spare in taking action. After September, global efforts to get to zero poverty, by taking into account the three dimensions of sustainable development, will gain momentum and traction. At the end of the day, the successful implementation of the post-2015 agenda depends on all stakeholders working together in partnership and upholding their commitments. Governments, whether national or local, international organizations, the Bretton Woods Institutions, the private sector, civil society and philanthropists – all are part of this universal agenda and all have their own responsibility in getting poverty in all its dimensions, including extreme poverty, to zero.



Desra Percaya is an Indonesian diplomat and the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations.

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