By Steven Klees, University of Maryland.
The High Level Panel (HLP), appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, released its highly awaited report at the end of May this year: “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies Through Sustainable Development – The Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda”.
This deals with what are perhaps the most important questions in international development: where do we go post-2015, when current international goals expire? In their report, the HLP proposed an ambitious successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) involving 12 new goals with 54 measureable targets. The 12 goals are: (1) end poverty; (2) empower girls and women and achieve gender equality; (3) provide quality education and lifelong learning; (4) ensure healthy lives; (5) ensure food security and good nutrition; (6) achieve universal access to water and sanitation; (7) secure sustainable energy; (8) create jobs, sustainable livelihoods and equitable growth; (9) manage natural resource assets sustainably; (10) ensure good governance and effective institutions; (11) ensure stable and peaceful societies; and (12) create a global enabling environment and catalyze long-term finance. There are some very laudable aspects of this report, especially proposing the elimination of extreme poverty and hunger by 2030, not just their reduction, and tying these goals to across-the-board multi-sectoral improvements, including not just traditional areas like education and health but also areas like climate change and food security.
However, despite the spin doctors, the world has not been doing very well in meeting the MDGs, and there are many reasons to think that the HLP report falls significantly short of what is needed, especially in terms of a good understanding of what it will take to achieve its goals. Here I will focus on the education and economic goals and vision put forth by the HLP.
But let me begin by raising questions about the HLP itself. Why is such attention focused on a “high level” panel of “eminent persons?” While there was a scramble of many organizations to feed into the HLP, this was, from conception, basically a very elitist process, as the title of the panel and its report indicate. Although there was some attention to getting the views of grassroots stakeholders, those efforts were few and generally unsuccessful.
Let me turn first to education. While primary and lower secondary education are targeted as universal, pre-primary is not. Decades of research point to the substantial benefits of early childhood education, and how essential it is for primary school readiness and for the reduction of inequalities, yet pre-school targets are left to countries to decide their extent. Also, while the overall goal mentions “quality education,” in none of the specific education targets is educational quality mentioned. This lack of focus on quality was a significant problem with the MDGs that increased access, but often to educational systems of marginal quality.
HLP members might point to some targets having learning goals, but, at best, this only gets at outcome quality, not needed quality of inputs, resources, and processes. Moreover, learning outcome targets are very narrowly conceived. By focusing primary school on reading, writing, and counting, it ignores most of the primary school curriculum. And there is a lot of experience that tells us that in this high-stakes process what doesn’t get measured will get short shrift or be eliminated. The proposed primary school target will result in a neglect of most of the world’s primary school curricula, as did No Child Left Behind in the U.S.
The report also ignores what some consider one of our most significant global educational problems – adult illiteracy, which affects almost a billion people. There is also no reference to post-secondary education, essential in today’s world. While universal human rights is given a nod, it is hardly emphasized, and the right to education is barely mentioned. Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is included as a target, which some will be very happy about, but it comes with what is too often a narrow view of skills and jobs. Nor is there any mention of how too often TVET becomes a second-class education for those marginalized. Somewhat surprisingly, nowhere is education’s role for citizenship mentioned, a role that was central to Ban Ki-moon’s UN Education First initiative.
The HLP’s views of economics
Let me now turn to the HLP’s views of economics. Like I said, I find the goals to eliminate poverty and hunger laudable (and many of the other goals), as is the ethos of sustainable development that underlies the whole report. But unfortunately, the report is based on views that are too often superficial and ideological. The report acknowledges that the eradication of poverty has been “promised time and again.” But there is no recognition of the causes of the repeated failure to achieve this goal – causes that are built into our economic system. Poverty is not a failure of our economic system; inequality and poverty are the result of the successful functioning of our economic system.
At one point, the report does recognize the need for “structural changes in the world economy,”
yet, throughout, the HLP report just calls for more of the same. It takes almost a religious fundamentalist view of a market system and a pro-business ethos. It calls for an “enabling business environment.” It argues that “business wants, above all, a level playing field,” and is willing to pay “fair taxes” and “promote labor rights.” What nonsense! No business wants a level playing field. Wasn’t it Lee Iacocca, former chair of Chrysler, who said, “Socialism for me, capitalism for everyone else.” Profit-maximizing businesses naturally want any advantage they can get. If they can get away with it, and many do, they want to pay no taxes. And they certainly do not champion labor rights. The history of capitalism is one where business has been dragged kicking and screaming to give concessions to workers.
This is not a criticism of business, it is simply a description of its natural state in a market system. Our market system has been eulogized and subsidized for a long time, most especially for the past 30 years, yet inequality, poverty, and unemployment remain rampant. Why would we expect the market system to perform any better between now and 2030? Where are “decent” jobs (or the lower quality “good” jobs posited by the HLP) supposed to come from? How will “no person be left behind?” (Not to mention that that phrase comes from the utter failure that is No Child Left Behind.) The best that the HLP can come up with is the by now shopworn idea of a global partnership. But this is a false partnership; we are not all in this together. We live in a world full of conflicting interests, there are debates that permeate every aspect of policy. The report touches on none of this.
The role of governments
Key to the direction we need to take is the role of governments. For the past 30 years, the whole idea of government has been maligned. The report ignores this fundamental issue. While its 12 policy areas need significant government intervention, the report is silent on the continued attack that has left governments paralyzed, incapacitated, barely able to function. What needs to be front and center in our post-2015 efforts is the call for a large, vibrant public sector that puts limits on the market, that promotes and creates decent employment, that provides for the production of public goods, that develops an adequate and fair system of taxation, that redistributes wealth, not just income, and that is run as a very participatory democracy. If we were to do that, we would not have to wait until 2030 to realize the very laudable goals of the HLP.
Steven J. Klees is the R. W. Benjamin Professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Maryland. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org