Post-2015: Policy and Public Relations

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Marina Drummond, International Intelligence Unit, FGV

un-pin150Oft-cited, Bill Gates called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) “the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that I’ve ever seen.” [1]

Everyone appears to agree on this point: that the MDGs were a fabulous awareness campaign. The concepts behind each goal seized the world’s attention, making everyone sit up, listen and believe.

In short: momentum was generated. Generated to such a degree that now, with the post-2015 agenda in full swing, stakeholders everywhere are participating and aware.

This, alone, is invaluable. And makes it understandable that many international players should feel that the MDG model of aspirational goals would serve the post-2015 agenda equally well.sdgs

Awareness is, after all, a very good thing. And in today’s world, when attention has become commoditised, awareness and media-friendliness are nearly synonymous with success.

“Tweetable [2]" goals are the new darlings of international development communication.

Less frequently mentioned is what Gates continued to say: “Of course, attention alone can’t help us change the future.”

Despite the (very real) value of awareness-boosting, it feels like time to move past aspiration into action. Most people (and governments) exhibit one form or another of ‘stealth denial’ - accepting the (abstract) need to implement policies addressing environmental concerns, without actually modifying their own behaviour [3].

In such a situation (in which the need to act is already taken as given), promoting awareness does not appear to be the best recipe.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a spot of rallying, but rare are those reports that frame the ideal within the tangible; that argue for the pursuit of clear-cut strategies; that look for the pathways to a solution.

Policies about what to stop

Phasing out subsidies to fossil fuel burning and/or producing industries.

Phasing out marine dumping and the use of oil dispersants.

Ceasing to measure progress by GDP without accounting for natural capital.

A speaking illustration of what not to do is perhaps the recent decision to allow three million cubic metres of sediment from dredging for the expansion of a coal port to be dumped into the Great Barrier Reef marine park.

Again: Coal port. Marine Park.

…and policies about what to start

Increasing the number of Marine Protected Areas (MPA).

Internalising externalities in the pricing of consumer products.

Creating an international Ecological Patent Commons to enable the sharing of environmentally-beneficial technologies.

The menu, of course, stretches far beyond this meagre sample.

In such discussions, many warnings loom vulturishly overhead.

One of the Co-Chairs of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) voiced one of the most common concerns: “development is a complex process of structural change…there are no magic bullets” [4].

And it is true. There is no such thing as an international development Tinker Bell; global environmental sustainability, peace and prosperity cannot be brought about in one spectacular flash of fireworks.

But if anything that statement reaffirms the need for an action-oriented plan – for a series of bullets, all of them unashamedly grounded in reality.

Another frequent warning is that of falling into the trap of believing that one size fits all. Detractors of policy goals seem to see the international community potentially stuck – toddleresque - determinedly hammering square pegs into round holes. In other words: what if policy X is applicable to Country A, but not Country B?

Well, yes.

Expecting science-based-GMO-and-Environmental-Impact labelling on all consumer products in a country in which a considerable portion of the population is still dying of hunger may not be entirely appropriate. Equally, designating resources to the creation of Marine Protected Areas might not, one might say, be of prime relevance to a landlocked state.

But, like aspirational goals, policies too can be adapted to national contexts: in both substance and timeline. And of course, some policies in some states may not need to be applied at all. A set of policy targets for post-2015 would present governing bodies with a menu of clear-cut objectives - catalysing as opposed to stifling the national policy space.

Instituting a Rebate Mechanism for the international carbon pricing of shipping, for instance, already takes the differences between developed and developing countries into account [5].

And even that most enticing of policies: the removal of subsidies to fossil fuel ought not to be divorced from domestic considerations. Timelines ought to be more flexible in less wealthy countries; international funding, made available for pro-poor policies and low-carbon energy alternatives included in technology transfers.

Moreover some policies, such as the protection of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) from damage and exploitation seem beyond any domestic consideration.

Consensus is a rare flower at the best of times, even more so when disparate parties and diverging interests jostle around the same table. It is perhaps easier to rally around intangibles.

The power of the MDGs, it is so often said, lay in the fact that they used simple concepts which “everyday people” could understand.

And - so say many - the post-2015 agenda should follow suit:

End poverty. Reduce inequality. Ensure Good Governance. Ensure Stable and Peaceful Societies; Manage Natural Resources Sustainably. Combat climate change; Foster a renewed Global Partnership [6]. (…) Yes, there are numerical targets behind these fine words, but they are targets of measurement, not action; of ‘what’ and not ‘how’ [7]. They measure the degree to which rivers are polluted, or the rate of biodiversity extinction. They do not measure whether or not phosphorus and nitrogen use in agriculture is being curbed, or whether or not REDD+ mechanisms are being effectively instituted in tropical forests.   

In fairness, the SDGs have made a serious effort at determining means of implementation – much more so than other post-2015 initiatives - , but the proportion between ambiguous statements and effective policies still feels unbalanced [8]. It is certainly harder for the international development marketing department when the catchphrases mention technical terms such as market-smart micro-subsidies, rebate mechanisms, public procurement, or the endless list of acronyms: CSR, CSV, SRI, PRME, EPR, BBNJ and REDD+, to cite but a few. 

Yes, a policy agenda may perhaps be a hard sell to a public hungry for simple concepts and glorious aspirational goals.

However, a realistic strategy towards the Future We Want must, inescapably, be comprised of policy: with clear-cut plans, time-lines, concrete action and results-oriented planning, even if it means laying the elixir of unrestrained, starry-eyed hope (momentarily) aside.



[2] The Rio+20 outcome document specified that the SDGs must be easy to communicate, reinforced by a delegate of the Open Working Group, who stated they ought, ideally, to be “tweetable.”


[4] The Co-Chair to the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals warned precisely against this danger:

[5] Ships and planes pay for their emissions; developing countries obtain rebates and the remaining revenue is directed to climate change action.

[6] High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (Post-2015 HLP):

-UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN):

-UN Global Compact (UNGC):

-UN Development Group (UNDG): The Global Conversation Begins:

[7] As a recent report put it, “although proposals to date may agree strongly on the ‘what’ – i.e. that [these] are important priorities deserving of a place in a post–2015 framework – there is still a job to do in these areas to agree remaining detail on the ‘how’, in terms of which specific wording, targets and indicators will make future goals in these areas most useful and effective.

[8] Some examples from the OWG Focus Area Report: A more equitable sharing of the benefits of growth; Ending all forms of discrimination against women of all ages, Eliminating harmful practises; Improved indoor and outdoor air quality…


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