* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Poorest countries say debate on Sustainable Development Goals is still largely limited to the global elite
Is it really possible to hold a global conversation? Not everyone will want to take part, and no matter how hard you try, some people will feel left out.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and its partners have been attempting to do just that, to find out what we think should feature in the new development agenda that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire at the end of 2015.
It has been an interesting and innovative exercise, including face-to-face consultations in 88 countries and an online survey in which close to 1.44 million people from 194 nations have voted for their post-2015 development priorities. The survey results so far show better job opportunities and an honest and responsive government following closely on the heels of a good education and better healthcare.
Yet, despite what seems like a real effort to involve real people, not everyone is satisfied with the process.
Youba Sokona, a sustainable development adviser at the South Centre and member of a group of independent experts working to ensure the post-2015 agenda takes account of the perspectives and needs of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), told me this week it's good the U.N. conversation has been taking place - after all, nothing like that happened with the MDGs.
But there's a problem with the way it has been implemented at the national level, said Sokona, a native of Mali. "None of our parliaments have started discussing the post-2015 agenda," he noted, referring to the 49 LDCs. "All the debate is in Europe and the United States, and the U.N. system."
The focus is still too much on the end product - a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - with not enough attention to the process, he argued. "Unless the population buys into it, nothing will happen," he stressed.
'EVERYTHING RELATED TO EVERYTHING'
Sokona was speaking after a conference in Britain last week at which the group of LDC experts, backed by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, got together with officials from donor governments and the U.N. to explore how the needs of the poorest can be put at the heart of post-2015 development plans.
Before that meeting, Tom Bigg, head of partnerships at IIED, warned of the danger of U.N. agencies and New York-based diplomats "steamrolling ahead with their own agendas, while drowning out the voices of countries that will be most heavily impacted by the new goals".
The UK gathering highlighted how "everything is related to everything" in the poorest countries, Sokona said, and issues cannot easily be separated. "It will clearly be very difficult if you have a huge level of illiteracy to build a good governance system or achieve economic growth," he said.
Equally the impacts of climate change cannot be separated from development in the LDCs, because they are hitting the poor hard. "For the time being, climate change is out of the (post-2015 development) discussion, and we think this is a big mistake," Sokona said.
When it comes to climate change, a key U.N. working group and a high-level panel have both underlined its importance to development, but governments are split over how far the SDGs should address it, given that the world is due to agree a new deal to limit global warming at the end of 2015.
Other important development areas that bubbled up at the recent conference include employment for young people and women, agriculture, economic growth and governance, Sokona said.
But the expert group is also keen to change the narrative around the LDCs, which has largely focused on "poverty and desperation", he stressed.
Bhutan, for example, has a very good governance system, suggesting that weak and corrupt institutions aren't a necessary evil in all poor countries, Sokona said.
The LDCs have indeed made some progress towards achieving the MDGs - albeit some more than others, according to a September 2013 paper from the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in Bangladesh.
It analysed LDC performance on 14 out of 49 MDG indicators, concluding that while the group as a whole may not meet any of them by the deadline, they "have generally made some progress in most indicators".
One problem is that the apparent impressive economic performance of the LDCs in the 2000s did not lead to significant development of their productive capacities, depriving them of the chance to transform their economies. Secondly, they were hurt by the global financial crisis and volatile food and commodity prices in recent years, the CPD said.
Digging the LDCs out of their development hole clearly requires a monumental effort by all - from their own citizens up to the U.N. Secretary General.
But one key group of people that has been overlooked so far - particularly in developing states - is journalists, wrote Rosebell Kagumire, a Uganda-based writer and member of the LDC Independent Expert Group, in a blog post for IIED this week.
For example, at a workshop she helped organise in Kampala on covering the post-2015 development process, none of the 35 journalists present had even heard of it.
"This is a huge gap," she blogged. "The media is a major development actor because of its ability to inform and educate. If journalists are left behind, it will take longer for messages on development to reach the ground."
Efforts to expand the global conversation could certainly begin by waking media up to the fact that it's happening, in a way that makes them want to find out more.
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