The next anti-poverty agenda: Nothing on inequality?

Post 2015Aid and development wonks waited with bated breath for the release of the the so-called ‘post-2015 framework’ – the international community’s next set of anti-poverty and development goals – from a panel convened by the United Nations.

That day is finally here, and we have a do-gooders dozen.

Yesterday, the UN High Level Panel, led by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, released the report that seeks to set the global agenda in the wake of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expiry in 2015. The MDGs became the de facto development benchmark when they were developed in 2000.

“We need a new global partnership to finish the job on the current MDGs, tackle the underlying causes of poverty and champion sustainable development,” said Cameron upon the report’s release.

The UN uses the development goals to track progress, aid organizations talk about how their programs are supporting the attainment of specific goals and major donors targeted money, programs to ensure goals are met in developing countries, and the countries targeted by the MDGs set forward their own development plans that more or less echoed the MDGs.

In short, the MDGs became the focal point for development for more than a decade. As the target date of 2015 approaches, when the goals are supposed to be met, what follows is of great importance.

These goals, framework, ideas or whatever is determined to take the place of the MDGs will again likely set the global development agenda.

“The post-2015 process is a chance to usher in a new era in international development – one that will eradicate extreme poverty and lead us to a world of prosperity, sustainability, equity and dignity for all,” said UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon in remarks following the receipt of the framework.

That is why the UN appointed the high level panel to hammer out the development agenda. It would included a group of global leaders from donor countries as well as developing countries. A move the reflects criticisms of the development of the MDGs largely without the consultation of developing country leaders. In an effort to meed the needs and wants of individuals, the UN’s Development Programme collaborated with the ONE Campaign and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) to hear directly from people around the world in the My World 2015 survey.

The report came yesterday and experts lined up to offer their praise and criticisms of the body of work. It features 12 new goals and the early reactions are mixed.

A call to end extreme poverty by 2030, the same call made by the World Bank a few weeks back, is getting a lot of attention and differing reactions. It is a part of what are called the ‘zero goals,’ targets that aim to eliminate something (poverty) or provide universal access (water and energy). ODI’s Claire Melamed shared optimism for the inclusion of the zero goals.

This is a step up that’s well supported by various consultations – the My World survey, where governance is ranked third in importance, or the lessons from the Participate project. Most importantly, it echoes what poor people have been saying for years. There is, of course, the ever-present risk of a Christmas tree wishlist, but the panel have done a good job of combining clear goals with more complexity at the target level.

Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development shared concerns about the zero goals, pointing out that it will be hard to even know if some are met. “Many of the zero targets are proposed without much if anything in the way of backing that they are plausible and how they might be met.  That’s particularly stark in the case of the gender goal, for all of its strengths –perhaps because it confuses rights and goals,” wrote Kenny. Others pointed to the lack of information on how to end extreme poverty.

“The HLP clearly understands that 50 percent of people living extreme poverty are in fragile and violent contexts, but the report fails to identify how we will achieve an end to poverty for those who have been excluded from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” said Adam Taylor, vice-president of Advocacy, World Vision USA.

Kenny previously shared concerns with the potential inclusion of zero goals in the Post-2015 framework. He worried that setting zero goals would be in some cases too ambitious and muddy the gains made by countries that had a tough task to meeting the target. He says that there is plenty of good news and even reason to celebrate when goals are not met. For example, the world will not likely meet the MDG on reducing child mortality, but child deaths are down by 5 million. A doubtless victory, says Kenny.

Other areas of the report garner attention from various groups, but it is one thing that is left out that is causing widespread disappointment: inequality. “The Panel has failed to recognize the growing consensus that high levels of inequality are both morally repugnant and damaging for growth and stability. Without targeted efforts to reduce inequality, social and economic progress will be undermined,” said Oxfam’s Deputy Advocacy and Campaigns Director, Stephen Hale.

There were hopes that inequality would feature as one of the main goals in the Post-2015. Oxfam and other experts say that inequality must be tackled as a part of poverty alleviation in order to ensure a sustainable development path for countries and a more equitable world.

Alex Cobham of CGD was equally shocked by the lack of inclusion of an inequality goal. He admitted that he was preparing for conversations about how to adequately measure inequality as a part of the Post-2015 goals, not expecting inequality to be off the agenda entirely.

That very discussion is why Melamed says it may be better not to have an inequality goal. She worries that an inequality goal may rely on inefficient measures that will obscure the many factors that contribute to inequality. Measuring specific areas like education, health and rick of violence may be a better way to target areas where inequality exists, she argues.

Amid the disagreement and concerns regarding the Post-2015 is the reality that the report’s recommendations will have to become reality. That means getting NGOs, governments, corporations and civil society to agree on what comes after the MDGs.

“It’ll be interesting to see how quickly we can work together globally to break the political deadlock which has so far prevented this vision from becoming reality,” says Tearfund Chief Executive Matthew Frost.

The real discussions are only just getting started. Building a consensus will be no easy task.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]

  • Kate Dooley

    Thanks for highlighting the inequality gap in the HLP report,but “inequality” means much more than income inequality! The concerns flagged by those you quote above, by my own organisation, Save the Children, and others such as the Beyond 2015 campaign, relate specifically to the absence of a recommendation to address income inequality. The Panel copped out on this, saying it was a matter for national policymaking – well, so is practically everything else they’ve suggested. Civil society will be challenging this and taking our arguments in favour of a common global commitment to tackling income inequality to national governments when they deliberate the future development goals at the UN.
    What the report does do, and deserves enormous credit for, is ensure that other types of inequalities that exist and are holding back progress for the poorest and most marginalised people are tracked, so those being left behind can be better targeted. By recommending that targets will only be considered met if they are met by all relevant social and economic groups (requiring disaggregated data across the targets), the Panel’s approach would ensure that people won’t be left out of development progress, won’t be more likely to die of a preventable cause, or miss out on schooling or a decent job because of their gender, age, disability, ethnicity, location or income. This would mean really targeting those who need services and support most, addressing systemic discrimination and more equitable societies that benefit us all. This would really be a fundamental shift. It would be substantially strengthened by a target to reduce income inequality, which underlies many other inequitable outcomes, but is an important step in itself that shouldn’t be overlooked.

  • Mary Anne Mercer

    Doesn’t it seem as if we have been here before? The problem with including a goal to reduce inequality is that it sounds like it would hurt a bit more — hurt those who have resources, requiring that they share with those who don’t. Reducing poverty is a more comfortable term, something that might be done by simply ‘improving the way things are done,’ rather than implying a shift in power structures.

    • Xiaohan Zhang

      Hi Mary,

      You make a good point that reducing inequality for the sole purpose of transferring wealth would do more harm than good; economic, social, and moral arguments have been made against this act.

      Instead, reducing inequality would have a net positive effect if inequality is a cause for lower productivity and an inefficient allocation of resources. For example, the entire premise of the 99% campaign was that income inequality shifted control to a small population whose interests weren’t aligned with those of the public.

      Going back to your point, it’s definitely important to remember that “reducing inequality” shouldn’t be an ends; it should be a means to an end.

  • Mary Anne Mercer

    Hi and thanks for your response. I definitely agree with the premise of the 99% movement. Given the vast and unprecendented levels of inequality in the world (including of course in this country) I don’t see any way that poverty could be eliminated without a direct effort to reduce the huge gaps between rich and poor. That gap itself seems to be self-perpetuating.