Post-MDGs (2015): How southern think tanks can take the initiative

19 November 2012

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are one of the “UN ideas that have changed the world.” The state of actual delivery on MDG promises, however, remains a matter of intense debate.+  Nonetheless, with the 2015 deadline drawing near, the international development community is reflecting on the future of the MDGs. Indeed, it seems an understanding has emerged that the MDGs will continue beyond 2015 in one form or another. Consequently, questions are being asked about the process that will be followed to decide on the substance of the MDGs post-2015, or MDG Mark 2.

Discussions about MDG Mark 2 are taking place globally through a number of channels. The United Nations has initiated an inter-governmental process, complemented by regional consultations, with a High Level Panel to provide guidance. Civil society organisations, including issue-based advocacy groups, are meeting to voice their concerns regarding the future incarnation of the initiative. Academics and policy analysts are contributing commentary and suggestions.

Yet closer scrutiny reveals limited input from Southern arguments and ideas, and in particular those coming from Southern think tanks. Think tanks from the South face significant barriers:

  1. They do not have many obvious entry points into the global debate;
  2. Coordination across such a broad and diverse base is complex; and
  3. Moreover, coming together, and coming to relevant venues in meaningful numbers, is expensive (and often hindered further by unrealistic visa requirements).

The absence of Southern think tanks from the debate is a significant loss as they have a constructive role to play. Because they conduct research at the local level, they understand local contexts and can provide evidence to the discussion and give shape to the debate itself. They can help convene national debates that contribute to genuine local ownership of the global programmes. Think tanks in the Global South, through joint reflection, can contribute to improving the lives of citizens in their countries in the context of emerging global economic and financial scenarios.

However, for this to happen, these institutions also need to position themselves more effectively: at the national, regional and international levels. There are four ways in which Southern think tanks can contribute:

  1. They can feed relevant research into policy debates at the national level and convene national discussions;
  2. They can contribute to international debates on thematic issues such as inequality, environmental sustainability and climate change, education, and governance;
  3. They can test global development paradigms at the local level, to see what lessons can be learnt; and
  4. They can help monitor progress towards the achievement of global development goals and national development targets, since monitoring requires the rigorous, credible generation and analysis of data. As experience has shown, “what gets measured gets done.”

At the Center for Policy Dialogue in Bangladesh, we are working with other think tanks from South Asia, Latin America and Africa to prepare research on issues that have implications for the next set of MDGs. Issue-oriented research will be given priority, so that we can contribute to thematic debates. The research will strengthen the knowledge base for articulating the MDGs Mark 2 and highlight what lessons have been learnt at the national level. This is not just a matter of conducting new research, for which there is limited time, but also of pooling relevant existing knowledge to fill an important gap in global knowledge.

In addition to research, we will undertake policy analysis to understand how best to deliver and implement the next set of international development goals. These policy recommendations can draw on what has worked with the current MDGs, and how engagement, aid architecture, and global economic governance can be improved.

Our initiative will target policymakers at the global, regional and national levels to build awareness of these valuable contributions. Southern initiatives should link up, to create a stronger platform for Southern voices in inter-governmental processes. Web-based discussions and online publications will be particularly useful, given that we should try to engage people from different countries.

One immediate next step that we are working on relates to convening an expert group meeting, with participants from think tanks in South Asia, Africa and Latin America. Through this meeting we will develop an agenda and a work plan for a larger engagement of Southern think tanks regarding post-MDG international development goals.

As the “Southern Voice on Post-MDG” initiative proceeds, it will be filling in, at a certain level, the participation deficit in the global conversation on the post-2015 development paradigm. Admittedly, it will also pose critical challenges – intellectual and institutional – to the Southern think tanks involved in this initiative. We look forward to receiving contributions from all concerned in making this promising venture fruitful.