For Post-2015, International Community Should Focus on Enabling Sustainable Development

Now that the high-level meetings have concluded, and the echoing of motorcade sirens has faded from the canyons of Manhattan's East Side, it is time for the international community to roll up its sleeves and get to the business of deciding the world's new development agenda, known as the Post-2015 Agenda, the successor to the Millennium Development Goals which expire at the end of next year.

The United Nations has undertaken a host of preparatory processes to get to this critical juncture. Rio+20 kicked things off in Brazil in 2012, resulting in the Future We Want Outcome Statement, which sets forth an ambitious vision for poverty eradication through sustainable development. That fall, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon initiated a High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which was led by British Prime Minister David Cameron and which issued an 81-page report with recommendations. The UN has conducted the My World Survey, an unprecedented effort to hear from citizens from around the world about their priorities for development. The UN has also convened the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing for Development, which issued a report in August. And finally, and most influentially, there has been the Open Working Group for the Sustainable Development Goals, a two-year process which culminated in August 2014 with an Outcome Statement that set forth 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals, with 169 specific targets.

The next and final step at the UN, before the negotiations to settle the framework through which billions of development dollars flow each year begin in earnest, is for the Secretary-General to prepare a "Synthesis Report," due in November.

But what is a Secretary-General to do in the face of the complex, enormously ambitious proposal that confronts him? A proposal that is many things - noble, exhilarating, deeply moral, profound - it is also vast, byzantine, and unrealistic. It reads as though it were a stitched together quilt contributed to by the full range of stakeholder groups that constitute the world of international sustainable development, which indeed is what it is.

Seventeen goals, 169 targets. This document cannot be what the Secretary-General endorses for Member States to negotiate. A development agenda as vast as this is a recipe for countries to treat it as a buffet from which to pick and choose the challenges they take on, or even worse, to do nothing. Entire new bureaucracies would need to be erected to begin to grapple with this agenda. Governments, including our own, would never be able to pass legislation that would make the agenda meaningful at national and local levels. This issue is beginning to be signalled by global leaders to the wider constituency, with David Cameron, among others, calling for a more "simple" - "not more than 12 goals, preferably 10" - inspiring, and relevant agenda.

In the face of this challenge, the Secretary-General should go against what may be a natural inclination to seek to appease all interest groups and take the opportunity created by his Synthesis Report to present a cogent and more practical point of view of what a new, post-2015 development agenda should look like. A priority for such an agenda should be on fostering the creation of an enabling environment in which sustainable development can thrive.

This agenda would prioritize goals focused on improving governance and rule of law, and on the creation and strengthening of effective institutions and organizations as the drivers of global development. It would promote peace and security, and freedom from violence and corruption. It would seek to foster the empowerment of the people most impacted by development by seeking out, and acting on, their voices. In short, the agenda would focus on ensuring that good rules of the road for development are in place, and followed, while allowing individual countries and their citizens to advance their own development priorities.

The rationale for such an agenda is not simply that it may be the best way for a post-2015 development agenda to be relevant and to survive. Such an agenda is also a reflection of the reality that the world has changed dramatically since the last go-round with the global development agenda, in 2000. China and India get most of the headlines when it comes to successes and the Millennium Development Goals. The big story, however, and the one that matters most right now, is Africa. The size of the African economy has tripled since 2000. Nine of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are located on that continent, which had an average growth rate for 2013 of between 4 and 6 percent. Trade and investment, above and beyond traditional aid, is what many African leaders are calling for.

The new development agenda should be responsive to this changed reality, and to the calls of these African leaders and the voices of the My World Survey participants, who have made "an honest and responsive government" a priority. There is support for this approach in each of the processes to date: proposed goal 16 relates to peaceful societies and rule of law; the Rio+20 Outcome Statement prioritized peace and security; governance and effective institutions were prominent in the High-level Panel report.

Such a development agenda would not seek to be all things, for all people, as the current proposal is. And no doubt there would be substantial resistance to such an approach from a range of interest groups, who lay claim to chunks of the development sector pie. But to do otherwise runs the very real risk of the international community delivering a development agenda that is largely unmanageable and irrelevant.

In order to have an impact on the process, and indeed, in order to shape it so that the agenda will be effective and able to anticipate the dramatic changes to come over the next 15 years, the Secretary-General should set forth a vision for a practical development agenda. Such an agenda should focus on enabling development and should exemplify the profound moral understanding of the current proposal while providing a realistic starting point for Member State negotiations.