In an attempt to make a breakthrough in addressing pressing global challenges such as extreme poverty, hunger, and gender equality, the UN tasked a panel to outline a framework that will replace the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015. This High-Level Panel submitted a report to the UN Secretary General on May 30, 2013, with a feeling of “great optimism” about the possibility of ending extreme poverty through five “transformational shifts,” including forging a new global partnership. While actual developmental progress will ultimately depend on the relative success of domestic policies, the international environment of cooperation will play a critical role in encouraging and facilitating appropriate national policy responses. The report, however, sets the global partnerships of the future up for failure by investing too little and expecting too much.
The current MDG framework, which has been heavily criticized for being externally imposed, has predictably fared the worst on MDG 8: developing a global partnership for development. In an effort to address this failure squarely, the Panel calls for a “new spirit of solidarity, cooperation and mutual accountability” to underpin the post-2015 framework and achieve the twelve new goals it puts forth. The Panel recommends forging a new global partnership that can bring different stakeholders to the table, including the private sector and multilateral institutions, to address specific problems highlighted in the report. The report also argues for a peer review process to hold countries accountable for their progress and “dynamic partnerships” comprised of “marginalized communities, women, indigenous groups, multilateral institutions, national governments, civil society, and private philanthropy.” It tasks these partnerships with determining aid flows, coordinating and monitoring global progress on achieving the goals, and course correcting when necessary.
However, these new global partnerships are doomed to fail for three primary reasons: a lack of attention to changing international dynamics, differences in stakeholder’s relative power and interests, and the perils of peer review for tracking progress and accountability. First, the Panel fails to take into account the changing international dynamics that engender the need to balance the world of old Western donors and new donors such as India and China. Without addressing these changing dynamics, the kind of authoritative and representative international body that can provide direction and accountability to the framework that the Panel seems to have in mind will remain a reality on paper only. The potential deadlock that can be caused between old and new actors is already evident in the relative disengagement with the post-2015 discussion by the G77, the UN grouping of developing countries, and the vociferous way in which they are insisting on the Rio+20 conference goals, particularly the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Second, the Panel fails to account for the difference in power and relative inequality between the stakeholders that will be the centerpiece of the new partnership. The report is unclear in its explanation of how a deliberation between people, local authorities, national governments, businesses and international institutions can be conducted on an equal footing for all the participants and be simultaneously motivated by “equity, solidarity,” and “shared responsibilities in accordance with capabilities.” The current freeze in climate change talks is a prime example of how self-interests of different stakeholders are difficult to sacrifice at the altar of mutual benefit. It remains unclear how the Panel accounts for vastly varying motivations of different actors.
Finally, global partnerships that have the legitimacy and ability to coordinate and monitor progress globally will have to be based on a strategy other than peer reviews. The international experience with peer review has been mixed at best. Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a UN Human Rights Council mechanism of appointing a “troika,” three countries that peer review the performance of a country’s record on human rights. Countries are known to take offense at recommendations made by their troika and are often not able to put their political differences aside. Furthermore, recommendations are often not implemented or not carried out in the spirit in which they were intended. India, for instance, has still not managed to implement several important recommendations from its first UPR in 2008, including ratification of the convention against torture and the ILO conventions against the worst forms of labor. The Panel did not reflect on this experience before suggesting peer review as its prime mechanism for monitoring.
Before the start of inter-country negotiations in September 2013 at the General Assembly, the UN should either address these concerns or have more realistic expectations from the proposed global partnerships framework. Otherwise, the new framework will not be able to bring about the transformations it envisions, and a historic opportunity to convince countries of the efficacy of global partnerships will be lost.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @burntcognac. Views expressed are personal.