Making Agreements Work: 4 Lessons for Post-2015 Negotiators

Two years remain until the proposed 2015 High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development convenes to agree the world’s next global development framework. As with any international negotiation, there is a risk that the process for defining the post-2015 development agenda will become bogged down in procedural and political issues unless it is skillfully handled by governments and UN officials.

CIC has argued that in many ways, agreeing global goals and targets is the easy part. A major risk is that various ongoing processes will reach technical conclusions about the post-2015 agenda that do not address much broader political questions about development aid. The financial crisis and shifts in economic power away from traditional Western aid donors have raised concerns about the sustainability and relevance of many standard aid practices. International development budgets in the West are under pressure. Simultaneously, emerging powers are far more interested in new forms of mutually beneficial global development partnerships than they are in adopting traditional aid practices. High on their agenda are climate finance, forging public-private partnerships, diversifying foreign direct investment, boosting technology transfers and pursuing reforms to trade and migration. To succeed as a global framework, the post-2015 agenda has to appeal to a broad and evolving set of audiences and geopolitical priorities.

In this context, Emily O'Brien led a CIC study funded by the Overseas Development Institute last year looking at international agreements across three other policy areas – environmental policy, financial regulation, and human rights – to identify how successful agreements are designed, negotiated, and implemented. Our report set out a series of factors that affect the development of international agreements and argues that in order to make the post-2015 agreement work, officials and advocates should keep the following four factors in mind as negotiations advance.

  1. Clarity over the breadth and depth of an agreement: Negotiators need to have a shared vision over how broad an agreement should be and how deep it will be. CIC’s research suggests that agreements that are narrow but deep are likeliest to have the greatest long-term impact. The Rio+20, UN, and High Level Panel reports have all put substantive priorities on the table. The task for negotiators now is to carve out a galvanizing global package of goods.
  2. Effective format, sequencing and coordination of negotiations: International agreements can be forged in exclusive inter-governmental clubs or inclusive forums. Small groups can be more efficient but larger ones have more legitimacy. In many cases – as now over the post-2015 agenda – it is best to link together a mix of small-group and large-group discussions. But this requires deft sequencing to ensure that the different elements of negotiations lock together well, and coordination to ensure that the substance of the different discussions converge on a clear set of goals and partnership priorities rather than diverge. It will require intensive coordination work by UN officials and concerned governments to keep it on track.
  3. Political appeal to multiple constituencies: Effective agreements need to motivate at least three constituencies: (i) governments, (ii) international organizations, and (iii) civil society and the private sector. There has been progress on broadening the political appeal of post-2015 discussions. It is crucial that rising economies and aid recipients are fully involved in negotiations, and that political champions emerge to promote a new agenda that does not simply bolt on some new goals and targets to the MDGs.
  4. A focus on implementation: Ultimately, successful agreements need to involve a clear understanding of how to move from paper commitments to political action. There are major questions to be resolved over the implementation of whatever is agreed for the post-2015 framework. The growing complexity of the international development field means that it will be even harder to define concrete implementation plans. Addressing this problem should be a priority, not an afterthought, in post-2015 negotiations.

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Dec 05, 2013
Richard Gowan