New Delhi needs to think strategically about the next generation of Millennium Development Goals

At the end of 2012, India completed its seventh two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. In a period that proved unexpectedly challenging for the principal organ of the U.N. system, India was actively involved in debates over crises in North Africa and the Middle East. On the more mundane but no less fundamental issue of international development, however, New Delhi has sat largely on the sidelines, paying insufficient attention to opportunities for addressing domestic priorities and enhancing India’s standing in international affairs.

Disconnect

Indeed, there is a fundamental disjuncture between India’s overwhelming domestic imperatives of equitable growth on the one hand and the nation’s external policies on the other. Too often we are content to act the part of a powerful and technologically sophisticated nation without actually pursuing a foreign policy that might serve our basic developmental goals. Nowhere are such failures more evident than on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Signed into existence in 2000 by 190 countries, they represent a historic global framework and universal goals (with specific targets and indicators) in the areas of poverty, gender, health, education and the environment for all signatories to achieve by 2015. Powered in part by the MDGs, 600 million people have been lifted out of poverty, 56 million more children go to school and 14,000 children escape death each day.

Work on next goals

With the 2015 deadline approaching, the international community is now starting to develop a framework for the next generation of development goals. The U.N. Secretary-General has appointed a 26 member high-level panel to advice on the new framework. Simultaneously, the U.N. is facilitating national consultations in 100 countries (including India) to make the process as participatory as possible. The panel and consultations will feed into inter-governmental negotiations preceding the adoption of a new framework in September 2013.

This process is clearly important for both poor and rich countries, yet most members of India’s foreign policy establishment and the informed public remain oblivious to its significance. It is easy to dismiss a largely U.N.-driven negotiation that could set arguably unrealistic targets for all countries to meet. India is a sovereign nation that need not take direction from any constellation of international actors. The goals themselves are not immune to internal inconsistencies and contradictions, and will be variably relevant to India. Moreover, a fixed set of overarching goals may constitute an unwise approach to development policy in general.

What MDGs stand for

These critiques notwithstanding, the MDGs represent an unprecedented international consensus on priorities and targets for equitable growth. Developing the next set of MDGs affords the international community an opportunity not only to take stock of achievements since the turn of the millennium but also to establish norms and principles that will define and influence the next stage of global development. India can and should play a key role.

Two principal opportunities beckon India. First, in the domestic realm, significant efficiency gains would derive from aligning the next generation of global development goals with India’s goals, only some of which overlap with the MDGs. Rather than having parallel bureaucracies for the implementation of two different development agendas, the government can do more with less by influencing global post-2015 debates to reflect Indian concerns and priorities. This may be all the more readily achieved because India is widely seen as the ultimate laboratory for development. Moreover, many developmental challenges — for example, sustainability, financial inclusion, information and communications technologies — can no longer be effectively addressed within nationally circumscribed approaches.

The second major opportunity lies in the international realm. The post-2015 effort offers emerging powers, particularly India, an opening to shape the rules of the game at a critical juncture of global institutional development, which can be significantly influenced by a positive Indian vision for national and global economic and social progress. If we can establish our own international aid agency and trumpet the merits of Indian “soft power,” then we must also actively participate in the post-2015 process. As a rising power desirous of a seat at the global high table, India can accumulate influence through constructive leadership in international institutions, which often requires creating original solutions and forging consensus around them.

Three ways for India

As things stand, the Indian government could do more to engage with the post-2015 process. There are at least three ways in which the present level of involvement could be improved. First, the Ministry of External Affairs — the government’s first point of contact with the U.N. — should urgently consult the relevant line ministries and State governments and commission a white paper on its own recommendations that can then be deliberated in the public sphere. Second, to be genuinely inclusive, the government should go beyond traditional civil society to engage faith-based groups, trade unions and people’s movements in any discussion on development frameworks. Third, India should work towards building collaborations with other similarly placed countries in the international negotiations.

Whether India takes note or not, the global post-2015 MDG process has institutional momentum and will result in an outcome relevant to India. By not actively participating in its formative stages, we risk missing a vital opportunity to address key domestic challenges and to shape global norms in ways that protect our interests while projecting leadership in international affairs. In the final analysis, Indian diplomacy needs to think more seriously and creatively about India’s development.

(Shailey Hingorani is Advocacy Coordinator at Save the Children. Email: s.hingorani@savethechildren.in; Rohan Mukherjee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. Email: rmukherj@princeton.edu. The views expressed are personal.)

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