Five takeaways from the MDG Summit

As New Yorkers cautiously take back control of the East 40s, and the NGO community struggles with a post-summit hangover, there is no doubt one question on everyone’s mind: Was it all worth it?

In the lead-up to the summit, ONE asked world leaders (PDF) to agree to a comprehensive road map to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 with accountable, measurable commitments from all partners. This included a focus on improving governance, spurring economic growth and increasing investments in programs that are delivering results.

So did we get it? The short answer is no. We have a new plan to tackle maternal and child health and an official “outcomes document” (PDF) that recommits leaders to meeting the MDGs, which has some great language on mutual accountability, national ownership and the role of trade and economic growth in development. But still we don’t have a broad, action-oriented framework that we can hold individual countries accountable to for the next five years.

The short answer is also a short-sighted one. It’s true that we don’t have a step-by-step game plan to take us to 2015, or a laundry list of grandiose pledges and new agreements coming out of the summit. But after 200-plus speeches (and three times that amount of side events), we do have some powerful signals of a shifting approach and a deepened commitment to development, that over time, could prove just as valuable for citizens in developing countries.

On that note, here are my top five takeaways from the U.N. MDG Summit:

1. There is a global plan to tackle maternal and child mortality.
The signature initiative of the summit — called the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health — is a comprehensive plan to save the lives of 16 million mothers, newborns and children by 2015. The strategy commits stakeholders to some critical policy objectives (like supporting country-led plans, fostering integration, building local capacity and monitoring for results) and includes $40 billion in funding.

While some details around the resources are outstanding (as Erin Hohlfelder points out), the diversity of partners who endorsed the plan and made pledges to support its goals is a clear and long-overdue signal that global leaders are ready to play their part in ending needless deaths of mothers and children.

2. The world’s biggest donor now has a development policy.
The excitement over the long-awaited results of the Obama Administration’s Presidential Study Directive is palpable in Washington, but there is no doubt that its impact on citizens in developing countries will be even stronger. A “modern architecture” for U.S. development efforts and new objectives like selectivity, sustainability and accountability will have direct implications on our relationships with developing countries and donor partners.

While the new U.S. Global Development Policy was in the works long before the U.N. summit, last week gave President Obama a platform to unveil his plan before developing countries, donors and the global community. Although the real test will be in the implementation (Larry Nowels points that out in this post), there is no doubt that this new U.S. policy will be “game-changing” for citizens in developing countries.

3. The development vocabulary has taken on some important new buzzwords.
The number of times that “results,” “accountability,” and “ownership” were mentioned last week -– by both rich and poor countries — is remarkable, considering that these terms were barely part of the development rhetoric when the MDGs were launched in 2000.

One reason we’re hearing them now is because the financial crisis has tightened budgets and heightened domestic scrutiny over spending, forcing governments to be scrupulous about where and how they invest. But another reason is that after 10 years, governments are getting a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Trial and error has taught us that a focus on results, investments from developing countries, transparency and follow-through by all partners are critical to ensuring that programs actually make an impact, and are sustainable in the long-run.

While we all still have a lot to learn, and a lot to do to make sure buzzwords are translated into action, I think the rhetoric last week is a sign that leaders are beginning to take stock of lessons learned and embrace innovation.

4. The roster of development champions is growing.
The spectrum of voices at the summit and side events this year was remarkable — everyone from Lupe Fiasco, Queen Rania and Ted Turner had something to say about the MDGs last week.

While the cynic in me says this means more crowded Manhattan hotels and a potential distraction from the policy dialogue, the truth is that the fight toward the MDGs is a long one, and we need a deep bench (with more than just policy experts) if we’re going to succeed.

And many of Africa’s “new partners” are demonstrating that their support is more than just rhetorical. South Korea reiterated its commitment to reach .25 percent GNI by 2015 and announced that it would be the first Asian country to make a commitment to the GAVI Alliance. Most importantly, at this summit –- perhaps more than ever before -– developing country leaders demonstrated that they are willing to be the strongest champions of their own development.

Their pledges to the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health and many of their speeches to the assembly (check out Ghana, Rwanda and Ethiopia) both demonstrated that countries are investing in development, and beginning to set their own targets for self-sufficiency.

5. Despite the financial crunch, developed countries are willing to stand by their commitments and ramp up support for smart, effective programs.
Though the number of “new partners” is growing, last week also confirmed that traditional donors not only have confidence in their investments abroad, but that they’re prepared to defend increases in those investments to their constituencies at home. The most explicit endorsement last week came from U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who not only reiterated Britain’s determination to reach .7 percent ODA/GNI by 2013 (and enshrine the target in law) but also used his speech to outline the case for development to British citizens, declaring that the MDGs are “the key to lasting safety and future prosperity for the people of the United Kingdom.”

Canada, France and Japan used the summit to announce increased resources for the Global Fund (which has its three-year replenishment in just a couple of weeks), while the U.S., Germany and a handful of other countries said that they remained committed to partnership with other countries.