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The Audacity of Change: A Specific Example of How the UN Can Still Make a Difference


A poll worker at a voting precinct in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on the last day of the country’s 2015 presidential election. The author, a former UN specialist, tells the backstory about the creation of the UN’s set of development goals, showing how the institution can still “resolve the existential challenges to our people and planet,” especially in the pandemic. DULCIE LEIMBACH

GENEVA — One of the quiet pleasures of life is an early-morning cappuccino in the company of a good newspaper. That was before Covid-19 came along.

The pandemic and resulting disruption of newspaper deliveries and shuttering of cafes has obliged me to suspend my habits of a lifetime. Pending the resumption of normal service, I have gone digital. I now get my daily news fix online, which I admit has its advantages, including easy access to relevant collateral reporting.

That’s how a story on Covid linked me to the World Bank’s Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Atlas assesses progress toward the goals established by the UN in 2015. Covid is worsening the outlook. According to the World Bank, “The economic effects of COVID-19 may have pushed more than 100 million more people into extreme poverty — the first significant increase in this measure in decades.”

Fortunately, the goals remain a globally accepted set of aspirations that can guide countries to a sustainable, equitable future — even in the pandemic and in the recovery.

This was evidenced by a survey of global opinion commissioned in conjunction with the UN’s 75th anniversary. The survey indicated strong support for the SDGs, especially among young people, as well as for multilateral approaches to global problem-solving.

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Nevertheless, much of the commentary around the anniversary was quite gloomy. Many commentators doubted the UN’s ability to tackle the big challenges of the 21st century.

Yet the backstory of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — forerunners of the SDGs — and how they came about provides an encouraging experience that the UN can shape and achieve change, despite the prevailing orthodoxies.

That story starts in the 1980s and the so-called “Washington Consensus” — a term first used in 1989 by the English economist John Williamson. The consensus, largely embraced by Western economic powers, promoted balanced budgets, monetary constraints, market liberalization and a systemic effort to shrink the public sector.

These strictures, euphemistically labeled as “structural adjustment,” were imposed on developing countries as the price for securing International Monetary Fund and World Bank financing as they struggled to cope with low growth, high interest rates and mountains of debt.

Many of the countries subjected to structural adjustment were in Africa, including Benin and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), where I served as the UN resident coordinator. Both countries offered disastrous examples — nationalizing private enterprise, among them — of how not to manage an emerging economy.

That was not the fault of the IMF and the World Bank. But the orthodoxy of the Washington Consensus worsened matters as social expenditures were squeezed to meet fiscal targets. As a senior World Bank official said to me then, “We are treating a crisis of insolvency as a problem of liquidity.”

In 1985, Richard Jolly, the deputy executive director of Unicef, alerted a conference of the Society for International Development to the damaging effect of adjustment. His concerns were later amplified in “Structural Adjustment with a Human Face,” a study showing that after decades of progress through actions like immunization, children’s welfare was threatened by the Washington Consensus approach.

Jolly’s work led to the founding of the Human Development Report by the distinguished Pakistan economist Mahbub ul Haq and the Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen. Published in 1990 by the UN Development Program, the report argued that “People are the real wealth of a nation”; GDP growth alone was not enough to ensure sustainable development without investment in people.

The report profoundly influenced the concept of development and how aid should be used to promote it.

The end of the Cold War opened new possibilities for international dialogue and initiative, and the report was one example. Another was the decade-long series of global conferences and summits on issues ranging from child rights to environment and sustainable development.

These events produced an impressive array of goals and targets for national action and international cooperation. However, there was no conceptual architecture to integrate them into a coherent agenda.

Gus Speth, the administrator, or head, of the UN Development Program, proposed an integrated follow-up to the conferences, an approach that he pursued in the UN system and in the Development Assistance Committee, the Paris-based group of aid donors. In 1996, the committee published a reflection on the future of development cooperation in which the group contended that aid should be focused on a select number of headline goals derived from the UN conferences.

Fortuitously, a group of dynamic — women — ministers of development cooperation came into office around this time, a trend mirrored in the UN, where women led three of its four major development organizations. All were committed to reinvigorating and refashioning development aid.

Clare Short, the British minister for international development, was among them. I was present with Speth at the DAC when she pleaded for a road map for development. Short was committed to reversing the decline in British aid but cautioned that she would have to justify this approach to a skeptical public, including her working-class constituency at home. She was successful.

Speth pointed out that the goals and targets from the UN conferences and summits provided a set of coordinates for the map. The UN, World Bank, IMF and the DAC created a working group to follow up on this proposal, which I co-chaired with the latter on behalf of the UN development agencies.

The resulting document, “A Better World for All,” outlined seven development goals with poverty reduction at the apex, together with corresponding targets to measure progress over 15 years.

Mark Malloch Brown, who succeeded Speth at the UN Development Program in mid-1999, endorsed the draft report. On arrival to the UN agency from the World Bank, he had boldly declared that the UN had won the battle of ideas: human development was the way to go.

Kofi Annan, the secretary-general at the time, launched “A Better World for All” at the General Assembly session on social development in June 2000. The report was generally welcomed for its vision and as a platform to win global support for reducing poverty.

But the report did not escape criticism. Some critics perceived it as too much of a donor agenda. No targets were set, for example, for financial support (including debt relief) and access to markets. Other concerns were expressed over the limited reference to human rights and governance and the absence of a goal on HIV/AIDS. The one on the environment was criticized as being weak and lacking focus.

These were fair criticisms. John Ruggie, the strategic-planning adviser to Annan, who had persuaded him to sign off on the report, took note. He then adroitly developed and expanded key elements of the report, together with the critiques, to articulate the MDGs, adopted with acclaim at the UN’s 2020 Millennium Summit.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Clare Short, a former Secretary of State for International Development of Britain, during his official visit to the country, 2005. Short was instrumental in supporting the UN template that led to the Millennium Development Goals, with poverty reducation at their core. UN PHOTO 

So why did the MDGs succeed in firing up enthusiasm globally while other prominent policy initiatives of the era, like the UN’s Agenda for Development as well as the Comprehensive Development Framework, pioneered by the World Bank, did not? What does that tell us about how the UN can position itself to tackle the pressing challenges of the 21st century?

First, change — except in moments of dire emergency or catastrophe — takes time; the constituency for change has to be built, sometimes over decades. The MDGs emerged after a 10-year debate on development policy and the impact (and failures) of the Washington Consensus. That process progressively engaged national governments, multilateral organizations, civil society groups, nongovernmental organizations and academia.

Second: Keep it simple but not simplistic. Following the “Better World” model, the MDGs incorporated a limited set of goals and targets. This made it easier to monitor and report on progress (or lack thereof) to a global audience, reaching beyond development economists and aid officials.

Third, and crucially, the MDG process was incubated outside the formal intergovernmental structures of the UN. Indeed, I doubt that the MDGs would have materialized had they been negotiated through a wordy, tick-all-the boxes approach typical of UN negotiations. Innovative concepts are sometimes more easily nurtured through off-shore debate and dialogue before being brought into the UN arena.

All of which says, UN legitimacy counts. Its power to confer legitimacy is a unique asset for engineering global solutions to complex problems. Although the process that led to the MDGs started outside the UN intergovernmental structures, the building blocks for the MDGs emerged from UN-led initiatives.

Fourth, timing is critical. The MDGs caught the Zeitgeist. The international agenda of the 1990s was dominated by the aftershocks of the fall of the Berlin wall and conflict in the Middle East. However, by 2000 other international priorities emerged, including the African debt crisis. The MDGs both channeled and inspired a spirit of reform and renewal.

Finally, individuals make a difference. Some of them I have mentioned, but let me recount an anecdote to underline this point.

I first met Clare Short when she was the Labour Party’s spokesperson on international development. I briefed her on the Human Development Report, and a few weeks later, to my surprise, she proclaimed to the party’s annual conference that “socialism was alive and well,” citing the report.

That remark would have astounded Bill Draper, a staunch American Republican and highly successful venture capitalist, who had launched the original report as the head of the UN Development Program. But Draper, to his eternal credit, resisted American pressure to jettison the report because of some adverse commentary on the US (“poverty amid prosperity”) in the document.

It’s hard to imagine a more incongruous couple, Short and Draper, joined in a great and common cause.

The Covid pandemic has again demonstrated how vulnerable and unequal we are. Nation states alone cannot resolve the existential challenges to our planet and people. We need the UN. But to succeed, the organization must boldly encourage and emulate the ideals and principles that characterized the story of the MDGs: independence of thought, clarity of vision and audacity of imagination.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Alan Doss

Alan Doss is the chair of the advisory board of the Oxford Global Society and former president of the Kofi Annan Foundation. He is the author of “A Peacekeeper in Africa: Learning From UN Interventions in Other People’s Wars.”

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The Audacity of Change: A Specific Example of How the UN Can Still Make a Difference
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Kul Chandra Gautam
3 years ago

A faithful commentary on the evolution of MDGs. Having worked at UNICEF in framing the ambitious goals for children adopted by the landmark 1990 World Summit for Children, I concur with Alan Doss’s narrative and the key players involved. One important name missing in this narrative is UNICEF’s charismatic leader James P Grant who articulated the importance of ambitious but measurable & achievable development goals and convinced many world leaders to adopt them. Along with Richard Jolly, Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, Jim Grant was influential in convincing Bill Draper & Gus Speth to embrace HDI, HDR & the precursors of the MDGs.

Michael Platzer
3 years ago

Alan – great essay – I will make required reading for my classes!

Let us hope this “covid moment” will bring about great collaboration around “root causes”

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