Secretary-General's Synthesis Report on Post-2015 Agenda: A Missed Opportunity

The much-anticipated Synthesis Report of the UN Secretary-General on the Post-2015 Development Agenda was issued on Thursday. Entitled "The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet," the report articulates a "call to action to transform our world beyond 2015." A noble exhortation to be sure, one that, it is safe to say, absolutely no one can argue with. But unfortunately the report falls short of making a valuable contribution to the wider discussion around the new development agenda, particularly when it comes to navigating the difficult road ahead.

What the Synthesis Report adds is yet another vector, consisting of yet another numbered list, against which the new agenda should seek to operate. Now, in addition to 17 goals, and 169 targets, we also have "six essential elements," which will need to be assimilated and accounted for in the final agenda. Instead of making the work of the negotiators easier going into January, when the process of finalizing the new development agenda picks up in earnest, the Synthesis Report has made their work harder, which makes it all the less likely that the international community will ultimately deliver to the world an agenda that is practical, relevant, workable, and effective, something that the world sorely needs.

The problem is that 17 goals, and 169 targets, isn't really an agenda, because there are no priorities. A target to "promote sustainable tourism" is on a par with a target to "eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere," which are on a par with a target to "significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere."

There are 169 of these.

Despite falling short in a number of areas, the Millennium Development Goals, the predecessor development agenda to the Post-2015 regime that is currently being considered, have achieved a tremendous amount. In 1990, a decade before the Millennium Development Goals were launched, more than 12 million children died each year before reaching the age of five; in 2013, fewer than seven million did. Maternal mortality has fallen by almost 50% since 1990. 2.3 billion people have gained access to clean drinking water during that time.

The reason the Millennium Development Goals have been successful is that they served to focus world attention on a handful of goals -- eight of them, to be precise, articulated in 374 words. They communicated to the world that these eight objectives would be the world's priorities between 2000 and 2015, and as a result, billions of dollars in development funds flowed into efforts to tackle these challenges.

In a world of unlimited resources, perhaps a kitchen-sink approach that seeks to appease all of the interest groups might work. But in a world of increasing resource constraints, such an approach seems to be a recipe for disaster. Countries will cherry pick, or be subsumed, or throw up their hands and do nothing at all.

What is needed is an approach that takes into account a realistic assessment of the changed development reality, the consequent changed role that a development agenda needs to play, and then a realistic discussion about what can be achieved through development funds.

Unfortunately, the Synthesis Report did not contribute to this process, leaving it to the negotiators to craft an agenda that will work.