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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: Universal Goals 

December 20, 2013 — By Ruth Levine

Like baseball, the world of international development has always had a peculiar take on geography.  Baseball has a World Series that includes only two countries, or maybe one country and Toronto.  The almost equally myopic field of international development applies the word “global” only to middle- and low-income countries.  The U.S., Canada, Old Europe and some Asian countries can routinely ignore various so-called global initiatives, like the Global Partnership for Education.  Except, that is, insomuch as they are asked to pay for them.

Now the stars are realigning. The emerging drumbeat around the post-2015 development agenda has upped the ante, calling not for global but for universal goals.  The High-Level Panel, Open Working Group and others are not reaching quite to Venus and Mars, but are laying out an agenda on the multiple dimensions of poverty that applies to all countries on the globe.

In doing so they are making a profound conceptual pivot. They are calling for goals that would apply as much to countries in the Global North as the Global South – albeit with country-specific targets – and they are breaking with the long-standing tradition of defining problems of social and economic development as those of “others.”  (Just search on the word “universal” in the High-Level Panel Report and you’ll get a sense of what this means.)

This is a switch that has been too long in coming, and helps build a bridge to the future-that-is-already-upon-us. It’s pretty clear by this point that there is not one irreversible pathway from underdeveloped to developed, nor are high-income countries immune from the governance and social challenges that we used to think of as “Third World.”  If we were not already stuck in a mindset of classifying countries by national income or declaring some parts of the world as “developing regions,” we would see more easily the common challenges faced by all countries:  how to foster social solidarity with effective, credible governance; how to reach those who live on society’s margins; how to enrich our lives without impoverishing our environment.

Over cocktails, most of us might be able to embrace the idea of universality. But the question will soon arise whether there will be agreement about this in the context of negotiations by member states of the United Nations.  When it comes to adopting a UN resolution, will the U.S., Norway, Canada and others be willing to commit themselves to the same type of poverty reduction and other ambitions as they might expect of their poorer co-residents of Planet Earth? 

This is not an academic question.  Right now any emerging consensus in the North about the post-2015 development agenda is occurring within Ministries of Foreign Affairs and development agencies. Domestic agencies like our own Departments of Health and Human Services, Education and Agriculture are paying attention only to the extent that they do any international work, as they might in the context of a USAID project.

To take but one example, I’m pretty sure that the U.S. Department of Education is not thinking very intensively about whether U.S. education goals are aligned with the “access plus learning” aims that are coming to the fore in the post-2015 consultations.  It is likely that officials in the U.S. Department of Education are not fully tuned into the fact that they might be asked to do something, even provide rhetorical support, for anything the UN is cooking up.  And if they don’t know about it, if they and their sister agencies are not engaged in shaping the U.S. position at some relatively early date, and if counterparts in other OECD countries are similarly out of the loop, the eventual negotiation will be complicated indeed.

So among the many other tasks on the countdown to 2015 “to do” list:  Bring the domestic policy community into the conversation.