International Development CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Professor Simon Maxwell

How to Achieve Lift-Off for Post-2015 Global Goals

It is just extraordinary how much effort is going into designing the next generation of global development and sustainable development goals—but, really, there is only one question: what will the goals have to be or do in order to generate the kind of global enthusiasm and commitment that inspired Make Poverty History and the Gleneagles G8 Summit of 2005?

To my mind, the only answer to that question is that they will need to focus on environmental questions, specifically climate change—and that they will have to be universal in coverage, not restricted to “developing” countries. More poverty reduction, education, health care and gender equity in poor countries—yes, all should form part of the exercise. But by 2025 or 2030, much or most of residual poverty will be in middle income countries that can afford to tackle their own problems, a difficult sell for a global “project”. Climate change, on the other hand, looks very likely to be even more screamingly urgent in 2030 than it is today—and meets the key test of being a genuinely shared and global challenge.

Lessons from the MDGs

The experience of the Millennium Development Goals taught an important lesson: that the virtue of global goals is as much political as technical. For all that they were rooted, most of them, in UN Conferences of the 1990s, the MDGs were incoherent. Some were genuine outcome goals (“reduce poverty by half”), some were more like processes or activities (“increase primary school enrolment”), some were pure process (“ensure environmental sustainability”), and one, Goal 8, dealing with international issues, was just a mish-mash of concerns, from debt relief to small island economies. Even for proper goals, like poverty reduction, the emphasis on measureability led to problems: was poverty only about monetary income, or also about other aspects of well-being and political autonomy?

Clare Short understood this political feature of the MDGs, and that I didn’t. She fixed on global goals before she became the UK development minister in 1997, when the goals were still the OECD/DAC international development targets. She played a big part in driving the idea through the international organisations, including the World Bank, the EU and the UN.

Despite the problems, the MDGs, and the Millennium Declaration in which they were embedded, have been successful in mobilising public opinion and in providing a focus for increased aid since 2000. Not all the goals have been met, as indicated on the latest progress chart published by the UN, and of course aid is far from the only driver of progress. However, many millions are better off.

Why a poverty focus for next generation goals won’t wash

Since there is unfinished business, it would seem logical just to carry on: to set new goals for 2030, say, that finish the job on the 2015 goals and raise the bar in the same areas. Thus, goals could be set to eliminate absolute poverty altogether, or improve educational outcomes. This was the approach taken by members of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Benchmarking Progress, in a Report entitled Getting to Zero: Finishing the Job the MDGs started. (Declaration of interest: I am a member of the successor body). The proposed goals are in Appendix 1.

The zero goals are fine as far as they go. Many people are involved in similar exercise—see, for example, new work published by ODI on education and health. The post-2015 website has many resources. Inequality is a new and recurrent theme.

However, it does make a difference where the target groups are. If they are all in low income countries, and if the new goals are essentially a justification for continued aid, then fine. But if they’re not, then the idea of global goals as a political project becomes quite problematic. Are they intended to be universal, applying to all countries, and with equal accountabilities? And is this then a “development” project?

The question of where the poor are and will be is much-debated. In a recent contribution, reviewed on my website, Kharas and Rogerson, argue that high per capita income growth and falling population growth in large, dynamic middle income countries will shrink the global poverty pool drastically—with $2 per day poverty falling from over 2 billion in 1990 and over 1 billion in 2010, to only about 500 million in 2025. At the same time, income stagnation and high fertility rates in selected low-income and fragile countries re-establish them as the main locations of global poverty—with over three quarters of the total in this category by 2025, mainly in Africa.

On the other hand, Sumner questions the analysis and presents different findings. He argues that three quarters of the poor already live in middle income countries, and that half of global poverty will still be found in such countries in 2030 (see figure).

It is a testable proposition, but it would be pretty hard to generate global excitement about poverty reduction in middle income countries. To throw the problem into sharp relief, think about the “Poverty in Saudi Arabia” question. There may not be too much poverty in Saudi Arabia, though gender differences abound. But say there were poverty in such a rich country, would ordinary people wear white wrist bands, march in their millions, and demand that their governments take action? Probably not. And if not Saudi Arabia, then where is the cut-off drawn? For India, where there are many, many poor people—but where the country is rapidly and rightly graduating from aid, because it has foreign exchange enough? For Ghana, recently graduated to middle income status, and also now with oil revenues about to flow? For Nigeria?

And why climate change will

Compare this with climate change, where the problem is genuinely urgent and shared—and where political momentum is badly needed.

The “old” news on climate change is that emissions need to fall sharply if warming above 2 degrees is to be avoided. There are many ways of representing this, but one is in the Figure below, taken from a report by the German Advisory Council on Global Change. In brief, there is a budget of 750 Gt of CO2 emissions for the period 2010–2050. This amounts to 20Gt per annum on average—and with current emissions in excess of 30Gt p.a., rapid reductions are necessary. The earlier those happen, the better. More sophisticated analysis can be found, for example in UNEP’s annual Bridging the Emissions Gap Report (another declaration of interest: I am on the Steering Committee of this year’s report). The conclusions are broadly the same.

The “new” news is evidence that the impact of climate change may be happening earlier and more sharply than earlier foreseen. Advances in the science of attribution have made it possible to see that some recent extreme weather events cannot be dismissed as random, but must be linked to carbon emissions. The full report is on the website of the UK Metereological Office, but Fiona Harvey in the Guardian summarised the findings as follows:

“Climate change researchers have been able to attribute recent examples of extreme weather to the effects of human activity on the planet’s climate systems for the first time, marking a major step forward in climate research.

Last year’s record warm November in the UK—the second hottest since records began in 1659—was at least 60 times more likely to happen because of climate change than owing to natural variations in the earth’s weather systems. The devastating heatwave that blighted farmers in Texas in the US last year, destroying crop yields in another record “extreme weather event”, was about 20 times more likely to have happened owing to climate change than to natural variation.

But the researchers also said that not every extreme weather event could be attributed to climate change. For instance, the extremely cold British winter of 2010–11 was owing to variations in the systems of ocean and air circulation. Although such cold winters are now only half as likely as they were several decades ago, owing to a generally warming climate across the world, extremely low temperatures of this type are still possible depending on circulation effects—in this case, a negative North Atlantic Oscillation, the circulation system that is a key determinant of European weather.

Floods in Thailand last year, another example studied in the research, were also not judged to be due to climate change but to other factors such as changes in the management of local river systems.”

Another important contribution to the debate comes from the Climate Vulnerability Monitor, arguing that the current costs imposed on the world by the carbon economy are greater than previously thought, and may amount to as much as 2% of global GNI (Another declaration of interest: I am a member of the Advisory Panel). This changes the economics of intervention significantly. It makes no sense to invoke the precautionary principle when the costs of climate change are not far distant, but felt today.

Bringing the MDG and SDG processes together

The fact that dealing with climate change is urgent does not in itself justify the adoption of new global goals. It might be better just to plug away in the UNFCCC negotiations. On the other hand, environmental policy processes have given strong impetus to global sustainability goals). The UN High Level Panel on Sustainability reported back in January and made some sharp recommendations to this effect.

The Zero draft of the Rio+20 outcome document, also published in January, was less ambitious in general, but also had a focus on goals, and usefully identified the themes and topics which might be covered: food security; water; energy; cities; green jobs; social inclusion; oceans and seas; natural disasters, climate change; forests and biodiversity; land degradation and desertification; mountains; chemicals and waste; sustainable consumption and production; education; and gender equality.

The Rio Conference did not repeat this list, but made a commitment to designing SDGs and established a process. The relevant extract from the Outcome document is appended.

In principle, this presents a complication, in that two separate discussions are now underway, the first dealing with the successor regime to the Millennium Development Goals, the second, about Sustainable Development Goals. At first sight, the MDGs and SDGs might be thought to be separable—the MDGs, after all, deal mainly with poverty and welfare issues, the SDGs with the environment. However, the MDGs contain an environmental goal, and sustainable development is an omnibus concept, covering economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability. Anyway, it is hard to imagine mass movements mobilising to support two sets of goals at the same time. Both technically and politically, it would seem necessary to have unified goals.

Indeed, this seems the most likely outcome from the processes currently underway. The processes are summarised on the post2015 website as follows:

1. High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post 2015 Development Agenda

A High-level Panel of Eminent Persons was appointed by the Secretary-General to advise him on the post-2015 process. The Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on post-2015 convenes from July 2012 to provide recommendations on possible components of a post-2015 UN development agenda, as well as to contribute to the overall political process. The Panel will deliver its report in the second quarter of 2013. A full list of High Level Panel members and their Terms of References can be found here.

2. UN Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General on post-2015

The UN Secretary-General appointed Amina J. Mohammed of Nigeria in July 2012 as Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning. Ms Mohammed will advice the UN Secretary General and serves as an ex-officio Member of the High Level Panel on post-2015. She will also provide the link to the UNGA Open Working Group on sustainable development goals.

3. UN General Assembly (UNGA) Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals

One of the outcomes from the UN conference on sustainable development “Rio+20” is the establishment of an intergovernmental Open Working Group to work further on sustainable development goals which are an integral part of the post-2015 development framework. The Open Working Group will consist of 30 UN member country representatives nominated by different regions and starts its work in September 2013 with the initial input and support from the UN Secretary General. The Open Working Group will produce a report to the General Assembly during its 65th session (September 2013-September 2014). The Open Working Group is supported by an inter-agency technical support team and expert panels (possible overlapping with the UN task team below)

4. UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda

Following on the outcome of the 2010 High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly on the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations Secretary-General established the UN System Task Team in September 2011 to support UN system-wide preparations for the post-2015 UN development agenda, in consultation with all stakeholders.

The Task Team is co-chaired by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and brings together senior experts from over 50 UN entities and international organizations to provide system-wide support to the post-2015 consultation process, including analytical input, expertise and outreach.

The first report from the UN system on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, published in July 2012—Realizing the Future We Want for All—recommends that new goals should build on the strengths of the Millennium Development Goals, apply to all countries, and be based on the fundamental principles of human rights, equality, and sustainability.

All the indications are that the process is New York is highly politicised, even down to the question of who will work in the Secretariat. There is also what looks like a desperate overload of something like 50 country studies and as many as a dozen global consultations on thematic topics, from the Task Team alone. It is good news that Homi Kharas has been appointed as Lead Author and Executive Secretary of the High Level Panel. However, the key integrating role will obviously be played by Amina Mohammed.

Other actors can help. For example, it is important that the High Level Panel not interpret its role in a narrow way, and that it take full cognisance of environmental issues. It is the first out of the trap, with a report expected in June 2013: there will be an important opportunity to shape the discourse leading up to the General Assembly next year and in 2014, as other work streams come to fruition. The EU also has a role, not least since Andris Piebalgs, the Development Commissioner, is a member of the High Level Panel. It is notable that the EU is apparently bringing together its streams of work on poverty and environmental goals: there will be discussions at both the Foreign Affairs and Development Council in October 2012.

Lift-off by 2014?

In principle, and institutional wrangling aside, this is all quite encouraging. We might hope to have an integrated set of goals, universally applicable, and covering both poverty and environmental matters, certainly by 2014, and perhaps even sooner. That would be terrific. Both poverty reduction and environmental public goods need political and public momentum.

October 2012



1. Zero goal for income poverty

(a)Zero target for eliminating $1.25 per day extreme poverty.

(b)Ambitious target for reducing $2 per day poverty.

(c)Target for job creation in line with labour force growth.

2. Zero goal for hunger a. Zero target for child stunting.

3. Goal of basic health for all

(a)Ambitious target for child mortality (eg, 20 per 1000 live births).

(b)Ambitious target for maternal mortality (eg, 10 per 100,000 live births).

(c)Ambitious target for reproductive health.

(d)Ambitious target for non-communicable diseases.

4. Goal of education for all

(a)Zero target for illiteracy.

(b)Target for universal secondary education.

(c)Ambitious target for post-secondary education (eg, 20%).

(d)Target for learning outcomes.

5. Goal of gender equality

(a)Targets for political, scientific, and corporate leadership.

(b)Eliminate gender disparity in ratio of female to male births.

(c)Elimination of earnings disparities in the labour market.

(d)Targets for female political participation.

6. Zero goal for infrastructure

(a)Zero target for lack of access to safe drinking water.

(b)Ambitious target for lack of access to irrigation (eg, 50%).

(c)Zero target for lack of access to sanitation.

(d)Zero target for lack of access to modern energy sources.

(e)Universal access target for broadband mobile telecommunications coverage.

7. Goal of clean and sustainable environment for all.

(a)Ambitious target for air quality.

(b)Ambitious target for water quality.

(c)Ambitious target for chemical and toxic exposures.

(d)Ambitious target for waste management.

(e)Ambitious target for biodiversity.

(f)Target from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process on greenhouse gas emissions.

8. Goal of global partnership and good governance.

(a)Ambitious target for data quality and availability.

(b)Ambitious target for transparency in all public sector budgets.

(c)Target for domestic resource mobilization (towards above goals).

(d)Target for official development assistance.

(e)Ambitious target for civil society efforts, including private sector, scientific, and non-governmental “citizen goals.”

Source: Getting to Zero: Finishing the Job the MDGs started



B. Sustainable Development Goals

245. We underscore that the Millennium Development Goals are a useful tool in focusing achievement of specific development gains as part of a broad development vision and framework for the development activities of the United Nations, for national priority-setting and for mobilization of stakeholders and resources towards common goals. We therefore remain firmly committed to their full and timely achievement.

246. We recognize that the development of goals could also be useful for pursuing focused and coherent action on sustainable development. We further recognize the importance and utility of a set of sustainable development goals, based on Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, which fully respect all the Rio Principles, taking into account different national circumstances, capacities and priorities, are consistent with international law, build upon commitments already made and contribute to the full implementation of the outcomes of all major summits in the economic, social and environmental fields, including the present outcome document. The goals should address and incorporate in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development and their interlinkages. They should be coherent with and integrated into the United Nations development agenda beyond 2015, thus contributing to the achievement of sustainable development and serving as a driver for implementation and mainstreaming of sustainable development in the United Nations system as a whole. The development of these goals should not divert focus or effort from the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

247. We also underscore that sustainable development goals should be action oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries, while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities. We also recognize that the goals should address and be focused on priority areas for the achievement of sustainable development, being guided by the present outcome document. Governments should drive implementation with the active involvement of all relevant stakeholders, as appropriate.

248. We resolve to establish an inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process on sustainable development goals that is open to all stakeholders, with a view to developing global sustainable development goals to be agreed by the General Assembly. An open working group shall be constituted no later than at the opening of the sixty-seventh session of the Assembly and shall comprise thirty representatives, nominated by Member States from the five United Nations regional groups, with the aim of achieving fair, equitable and balanced geographical representation. At the outset, this open working group will decide on its methods of work, including developing modalities to ensure the full involvement of relevant stakeholders and expertise from civil society, the scientific community and the United Nations system in its work, in order to provide a diversity of perspectives and experience. It will submit a report, to the Assembly at its sixty-eighth session, containing a proposal for sustainable development goals for consideration and appropriate action.

249. The process needs to be coordinated and coherent with the processes to consider the post-2015 development agenda. The initial input to the work of the working group will be provided by the Secretary-General, in consultation with national Governments. In order to provide technical support to the process and to the work of the working group, we request the Secretary-General to ensure all necessary input and support to this work from the United Nations system, including by establishing an inter-agency technical support team and expert panels, as needed, drawing on all relevant expert advice. Reports on the progress of work will be made regularly to the General Assembly.

250. We recognize that progress towards the achievement of the goals needs to be assessed and accompanied by targets and indicators, while taking into account different national circumstances, capacities and levels of development.

251. We recognize that there is a need for global, integrated and scientifically based information on sustainable development. In this regard, we request the relevant bodies of the United Nations system, within their respective mandates, to support the regional economic commissions in collecting and compiling national inputs in order to inform this global effort. We further commit to mobilizing financial resources and capacity-building, particularly for developing countries, to achieve this endeavour.


Prepared 21st January 2013