Why India Needs to Worry About the Post-2015 Development Agenda?

21 June 2014, New Delhi - On June 9, the first articulation of the development objectives of the Narendra Modi government, as President Pranab Mukherjee delivered his inaugural address to a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament after the elections to the 16th Lok Sabha, he said, "My government will not be satisfied with mere poverty alleviation; and commits itself to the goal of poverty elimination."

And then two days later, the objectives were reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In his reply to the motion of thanks on the Presidential address, he said, "It is our responsibility to ensure that a poor man's child does not go to bed hungry."
The government's development priorities will resonate not only on the national stage, but on the international one as well. Three months from now, in September, Mr Modi is scheduled to be on a milestone visit to the US. The visit will coincide with his address to the UN general assembly session which is to decide the world's post-2015 development agenda. The final negotiations between different countries will begin in September and carry on for another year. At the heart of the global negotiations is the issue of sustainable development.

Both developed and developing countries have a different set of priorities and different expectations. If they bring something to the table they would like to take something away. 
India is seen as an important actor in the ongoing global process. It is one of the major voices from the Global South that is most of Asia, Africa, Central and South America.

Its early days yet but it is likely that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will draw attention to the challenges faced by the global South. His address is likely to reflect his government's commitment to do more and do better to meet the aspirations of the poor to get out of poverty.

In another part of the capital, at Indira camp, Kalyanpuri, the roof on Parvati's house has collapsed. She has no source of income, no family member to support her and no government pension either meant for widows or for old age.  Her neighbours allow her to sleep in a corner outside their house. They also feed her leftovers.  Another resident, Bhuchiya came to Delhi from Barabanki, UP, over 25 years ago. She and her husband worked as ragpickers. Though their work was indispensable and contributed to the city, they did not receive an equal share of its development.  Policies were designed without addressing their specific needs. Her family lives a life of deprivation. Her children do not go to school.  They have no toilet, as do nearly a thousand others in the settlement. So they go to the nearby jungle.

International goals influence local priorities, shape national and state budgets. Both governmental discourse and action start changing and aligning with the global agenda. So there is much at stake in the global process for the poor like Parvati and Bhuchiya.

A crucial meeting is underway in New York this week. The UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals is helping to formulate the post 2015 development agenda. The discussions are being conducted between government representatives and are open to observers and members of the civil society. 

This is one of the last times the group meets before its proposal is presented to the General Assembly in September. The new set of goals will replace the Millennium Development Goals or MDGs which will expire next year. In 2000, world leaders had committed to eradicating poverty, maternal mortality, infant mortality and reduce the number of cases of TB, malaria and HIV/Aids.
Eight MDGs were set, with measurable targets. Though they were drivers of change, the crux of the problem was Goal no 8. It referred to a global partnership for development through trade, technology and aid. It was the only goal to have responsibilities for the global North or developed countries. Developed countries failed to fulfil their commitment to provide 0.75 per cent of their gross national income to developing countries. The goal fell short of its promise since only 0.25 per cent was provided.

And now even before the new goals can be laid down, fault lines have emerged. Sustainable development is proving to be the mother of all issues as it ties in economic, political, social and environmental agendas of countries.

India, which has been actively engaged in the talks, wants the post 2015 agenda to remain a development agenda. It says primacy has to be given to poverty eradication and economic growth. India's stand is backed by G77 countries. Nearly 1.2 billion people still live in extreme poverty in the world of which India has around 400 million. 

According to Navtej Sarna, Special Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, "Well, we will be very actively engaged in this right from Rio+20 and then all the discussions that have followed. Our priorities are very clear this has to be a development agenda. And I stress the word development because this is what the Rio+20 agreed to we want the eradication of poverty to be at the core of this 2015 development agenda and that in itself is our major priority because so much has happened for the upliftment of people out of poverty that there still is a huge amount of work to be done. So naturally our priorities are based on development, on inclusive growth on other aspects of development like health, education, sanitation and essentially economic growth because you can't have development without economic growth so we want to keep the eye on the ball."

However, a significant number of developed countries want to shift the debate, bringing in issues of peace, security, human rights and good governance as a goal. They say without peace there can be no development. Indian officials counter this argument.

Amit Narang, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations, told the Open Working Group meeting, "We are not very convinced how much and to what extent can we actually put in issues of peace, security and conflict at the heart of this body which is tasked with creation of sustainable development goals, when we indeed have a large number of multi-lateral institutions devoted to the cause of international peace and security. In our view this group can address issues of peace, durable peace and stability but perhaps not by taking that onerous responsibility on ourselves, but by addressing the root drivers of that conflict by eradicating poverty, putting in conditions and promoting sustainable development. What is the real driver of conflict and lack of peace? Are there any societies which have actually managed to achieve stability and peace with rampant poverty and inequality and social inequity? We have been tasked to devise an agenda, a universal agenda which is equally applicable and valid and relevant to both developing countries as well as the developed countries, and my question to the panelists will be, how would you see the application of these issues that you have just raised to developed countries as well, for example there are many developed countries which face amongst the highest incidents of violence and crime, do you think that also is a deliverable part of when you discuss peace and security?"

Indian officials are on guard against the tendency to be prescriptive on the part of the global North, comprising developed countries. While peace, security and good governance are admittedly important, they say it cannot be on the global agenda.   

According to them, nations have to address these issues in accordance with their own priorities and by themselves. They argue that if there is a governance gap in the country, there is civil society and the media to bring it to the Government's attention.

Civil society groups however say good governance is critical. 

Amitabh Behar, Executive Director, National Foundation for India and member, Wada Na Todo Abhiyan, said, "Many of us in civil society believe that it is very important to bring questions of government accountability which would mean questions of rule of law, of insuring work against impunity, insuring no tax evasions and so on and all those things need to be brought in."

To address poverty, India is pushing for industrialization and development oriented economic growth, saying let's not talk of inclusive economic growth without having economic growth in the first place. It wants fair global trade rules and reforms in economic governance institutions like IMF and World Bank who they believe are manipulated by developed countries.

The rise of the South has implications for developed countries who have always tried to defend their dominance over the world. The North's ability to exert political leverage reduces with countries like India, China and Brazil increasingly being at the centre of trade, industry, and high level services. Analysts say the entire game is that of money. And about who wins and who loses. Developed countries have huge financial stakes in the development agenda. Take for instance the push on infrastructure or the increasing role of the private sector in the development agenda.
Everybody is looking at India, China, Brazil and Indonesia for global revival. These are emerging economies and the biggest markets in the world.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has over a billion dollar investments in India, is an important voice on the post 2015 development agenda. The foundation's interventions are mainly in the fields of health and agriculture. 

Mark Suzman, President, Global Policy, Advocacy and Country Programs, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said, " We think that the millennium development goals have been one of the most effective tools in driving political attention, resources and energy towards actually achieving real reductions in poverty, hunger, child and maternal mortality and infectious diseases. So our voice is more as a technical partner saying we think that this goal setting exercise has been tremendously successful and we think as the world discusses what should happen next and what should follow them after the deadline in 2015, please don't lose sight of that core mission and those core set of objectives because that agenda is not yet finished."

UNAIDS says the MDGs unfinished agenda to fight HIV must be continued along with other health priorities. High scale coverage will be needed to cover the last mile.

Says Oussama Tawil, Country Director, UNAIDS India, "Within the post-2015 discussions, health and universal health coverage plays an important role and here as well HIV AIDS should be looked at in terms of sustaining the response. There is whole social agenda that comes out in the experience from working on HIV AIDS that of social exclusion and inequities. And it's essential to use experience of AIDS in that context, to look at wider social inequities so that when we are talking about HIV response, obviously issues like social protection policy laws remain central even in the post-2015 scenario."

India shares its seat in the open working group with Pakistan and Sri Lanka, a pointer to the economic challenges shared by the three countries.

They say the post 2015 agenda has to be a universal agenda, not a series of quality prescriptions from the north to the south. Goals and targets within goals have to be framed for developed countries too. There are issues of relative poverty and lack of access to health services in the North. There are also issues of sustainable consumption and production, lifestyles that have to be changed to bring down the carbon footprint. 

In his presentation to the Open Working Group, Masood Khan, Pakistan's Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said, "Income equality at the global level is stark and estimated 8% of the world population has 50% of the world's income, while the remaining 92% earned the other 50%. In a report on inequality launched last week UNDP has established that at the global levels the richest 1% population controls 40% of global efforts. Oxfam findings indicate that 85 richest people in the world own the same amount of wealth as 3.5 billion poor people across the globe. It the same world where 1.2 billion people eke out their living on 1 dollar 25 cents a day or less. We are here to deal with inequality within nations and inequality amongst nations." 

But universality does not mean uniformity. India says the fundamental principle governing the talks is common but differentiated responsibility, a key issue since developed countries during their stage of development have been the biggest contributors to environmental degradation.

Says Navtej Sarna," Essentially it means that there are historically countries which have contributed more to the situation that we are in than others. And there are countries which have the means to remedy this on a global scale more comfortably than others. So while we do have a common responsibility towards the planet, we also have differentiated responsibility as to how much we have to contribute, given a responsibility, given our capacity."

India has argued that to address poverty, developing countries have a need to develop. They need to industrialize and create jobs.  Developing countries will emit a bit more because they need that space for industrial development. India maintains that the developed countries need to cut emission and take the main responsibility, not developing countries. India has also stressed that the technology required for cutting carbon emission is expensive. It wants developed countries to commit certain financial resources that can pay for better technology.

Many of the environment friendly technologies are developed by the rich countries and access to those technologies is blocked off by intellectual property rights. The technology should be made accessible to developing countries at cheaper rates. This is very contentious.

There are other complexities. The MDGs had been critiqued for being reductionist and not locating the entirety of the problem. Worse, while seven goals were directed towards what countries of the South should be doing, the countries were not involved in firming up the goals.

The current process, however, has been interactive and inclusive. It has been a long journey of over two years, as the UN held extensive consultations not just between member states but with citizens, civil society groups, farmer's unions, trade unions, business associations and think tanks.

In February, on the sidelines of the global process in New York, activists and academics called for the realities of caste based social exclusion to be part of the new international framework. Many shared their concerns with government representatives. A variety of voices have attempted to make the international conversations more meaningful.

Nikhil Dey, Activist, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) says, "If you look at the North, actually it is living a completely unsustainable existence but yet it wants to talk about sustainable development. If it wants to really have sustainable development, there are tough choices that need to be made. There are many contradictions, between competing interests, between the market and development, between sustainable development and growth. And they affect people, they affect their land, they affect their livelihood, they affect water, they affect energy, they affect development programs and therefore there is an understanding that what I do in my village is connected all the way up and what someone decides in New York is connected with what happens in my village."

There has been some progress on the gender goal. Says Julie Thekkudan, Lead Specialist, Gender Justice, Oxfam India,  "Definitely everybody has kind of acknowledged the fact that addressing issues of gender equality and empowerment are definitely very important to the success of the process and to the success of sustainable development, so how that actually pans out in the coming months when actually negotiations happen, that becomes very vital." 

Though perspectives may differ, business organisations believe industry can be an important stakeholder. K Jawaharlal, Director, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) says, "Development has always been an integral part of CII. In fact we were one of those few organisations who kept advocating that Corporate Social Responsibility should be a board room decision. The most important thing is you need growth before you actually talk of inclusive growth. We are very glad we are part of the whole process."  

According to Gagan Sethi, Vice President, Centre for Social Justice, "The debate has widened, deepened and therefore the governments have to give action plans. They are not just about final figures but how will they achieve it? Will they bring in policy changes at their local levels? So it in a sense deepens the discourse of development agenda and nations come together and agree on common things."

Clearly civil society groups will need to follow up actively with the government, not just in terms of international framework but also in terms of the national agenda. Issues like public health, social inclusion, poverty eradication and malnutrition need to be prioritized.

The sustainable development goals are aspirational and are not legally binding. But coming from a global community and having the backing of the United Nations, it has its own moral standing and force. 

It is being described as the big ticket, multi-lateral item at the UN in the coming years. In September this year the intergovernmental negotiations on the post 2015 development agenda begin. It is important to be part of the entire process. No developing country can tackle development on its own given the way the global economy and global liquidity is structured.