17-23 May 2013 #656

Weak states, strong societies

What after the Millennium Development Goals?
Daniel Nelson in London

It has started life with the worst name ever dreamt up for a pressure group – Independent Expert Group for Least Developed Countries on Sustainable Development Goals Post-2015 – but its aim is to be a nuisance.

“If you don’t have a nuisance value you won’t be listened to,” says Dipak Gyawali, former hydropower minister and researcher. “But being a nuisance is not enough, you need substance, too.”

Substance is what the 12-strong group hopes to inject into the slow-rolling UN process that is negotiating a successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Specifically, the group wants to ensure that Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflect the perspectives and priorities of the 50 least developed countries. And no, that doesn’t simply mean more aid.

“The age of aid is over,” Gyawali told a handful of journalists at a briefing after the group’s first meeting, in London last week. “After 50 years, development has failed much of the South and least developed countries in particular. Shortage of money is not the problem, most have tons of money but it’s being spent in all the wrong places, self-reliance is what we want. We are conventionally seen as weak states, but we are strong societies.”

Such a view will not endear him or the group to the developing country representatives charged with teasing out a list of SDGs at the UN. As in almost all international negotiations, they will be fighting for what they perceive as their national interests and that is most easily defined in terms of aid and finance. Even Gyawali’s fellow group member, Youba Sokona from Mali, says more cautiously, “We are not against aid. But let us start with what is in our pocket.”

The expert group is not bound by national government positions. It is made up of individuals, not government representatives, though many have worked in government and the co-chair, one of five women in the group, is a former prime minister of Haiti. Its members also include Farah Kabir (Action Aid, Bangladesh), Chime P Wangdi (secretary general of Tarayana Foundation, Bhutan) and Saleemul Huq of the International Institute of Environment Development (IIED).

Huq of IIED which hosted the London meeting, cites as achievements the two funds established by Bangladesh, one of them funded with its own money to tackle climate change. Huq said it is “an example of a country not waiting for others to help”.

Nepal, for example, spends 125 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings on the import of fossil fuels.

“One action we’ve debated,” adds Huq, “is solidarity, part of which is the poor helping the rich to live better, without drawing down on resources.”

A third point will be the responsibilities of countries such as India and China, which may be urged to play a bigger role in helping move the world towards sustainability. A fourth area of focus, Huq indicated, will be greater involvement of local governments, mayors, and districts in the drive to sustainability, rather than leaving it to central government ministers. The group aims to publish its first paper in June.

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