Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Assessing the Report of the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda

David Satterthwaite
03 Jun 2013

Those of us who work on urban issues are used to having these issues ignored or misrepresented in global discussions. So how well does the new Report of the High Level Panel do? 

The positives

For those of us who work on urban issues, there were some pleasant surprises. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, the High Level Panel is committed to universal coverage for basic services and to eliminating hunger and extreme poverty − by 2030. It is fully committed to ensuring that global warming does not exceed 2o C and it recognizes that the unsustainable consumption patterns of the wealthy have to be addressed in order to achieve this.

Most of the myths about urbanization that are often included in international reports are avoided. The Report recognizes that a significant proportion of those in poverty live in urban areas. It also recognizes the many dimensions of poverty, which include the lack of health care, schools, safe water and shelter, security and voice, as well as the large preventable health burdens associated with these deprivations. It recognizes that income levels are a key influence on who avoids hunger and has food security, something that many discussions on food security forget. It does not contain the usual anti-city or anti-urbanization rhetoric and, in rather a nice summary sentence, it recognizes that the world in 2030 will be more urban, more middle-class, older, more connected, more inter-dependent, more vulnerable and more constrained in its resources.

The Report recognizes the key role of local governments (including city governments) in “… setting priorities, executing plans, monitoring results and engaging with local firms and communities” (page 10) and the role of many local authorities in delivering or supervising essential public services and disaster risk reduction. “Local authorities have a role in helping slum dwellers access better housing and jobs and are the source of most successful programs to support the informal sector and micro-enterprises” (page 11). The Report also recognizes that city governments “… have great responsibilities for urban management. They have specific problems of poverty, slum upgrading, solid waste management, service delivery, resource use, and planning that will become even more important in the decades ahead. The post-2015 agenda must be relevant for urban dwellers. Cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost … The most pressing issue is not urban versus rural, but how to foster a local, geographic approach to the post-2015 agenda. The Panel believes this can be done by disaggregating data by place, and giving local authorities a bigger role in setting priorities, executing plans, monitoring results and engaging with local firms and communities” (page 17). “Good local governance, management and planning are the keys to making sure that migration to cities does not replace one form of poverty by another, where even if incomes are slightly above $1.25 a day, the cost of meeting basic needs is higher” (page 18).

The point about disaggregated data is amplified later. “Averages conceal more than they reveal. The more disaggregated the indicator, the easier it is to identify trends and anomalies. If a target is universal, like access to basic drinking water at home, it is not enough just to measure the average trend and expect that will continue … Universal access requires sufficient disaggregation of the indicator to allow discrepancies from the average trend to be identified early on. We suggest that a target should only be considered achieved if it is met for relevant income and social groups” (page 58). It also emphasizes the importance of building data systems to measure progress at all levels (local, sub-national and national).

The negatives

The Panel does not acknowledge how misleading and inaccurate the $1.25 a day poverty line is for measuring extreme poverty. It claims that in the last 13 years, there has been the fastest reduction in poverty in human history because there are apparently half a billion fewer people living below the $1.25 a day poverty line. But this is a poverty line that has no validity at least for most of the urban population because the costs of even the most basic non-food needs are much higher than this. Apply this poverty line and there is virtually no urban poverty in Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and China and very little urban poverty in Latin America (as World Bank reports claim). I wish that the poverty experts who support the $1.25 a day would show us how to live on this in Mumbai or Lagos and cover the cost of food, rent, access to sufficient safe water and toilets, health care, keeping children at school and transport to and from work and services.

 But the Report does recognize that national poverty lines must also be used to measure poverty and assess progress, and that many poverty lines are above $1.25 or even $2 a day. This needs to go one step further and recognize that the income needed to avoid extreme poverty varies a lot between low- and middle-income countries and within countries, and this is especially the case in larger or more prosperous cities.

The goal regarding achieving universal access to water and sanitation is well-stated, unlike the Millennium Declaration that forgot to include sanitation. But the text does not fully recognize that meeting sanitation needs in large dense cities needs different forms of provision than in smaller less dense settlements. Also, it does not recognize the limitations of the UN statistics on provision for water and sanitation. For instance, it claims that: “Between 1990 and 2010, more than 2 billion people gained access to basic drinking water” (page 42) but the official UN statistics it draws on do not measure the quality of the water, so they do not measure access to drinking water.

It exaggerates the scale of the middle-class – for instance suggesting that 3 billion more people will be middle-class by 2030. It must be setting the income level at which people become “middle-class” very low.

And despite the inclusion of passages that recognize the essential roles of local governments in achieving many of its goals, it does not mention decentralization or discuss in any detail how local governments can and should be supported to allow them to contribute to the goals. Here, as in many other sets of global recommendations, there is no recognition that local governments should be included in defining and making commitments – especially regarding commitments that fall within their responsibilities.

Finally, the Report does not realise how much poverty reduction is served by representative organizations and federations of low-income groups; for those of us who work in urban areas, we see the importance in many nations of federations of slum/shack dwellers or homeless people and other social movements. The High Level Panel still sees urban poverty reduction as something international agencies and national governments do. There is still no consideration of needed changes in aid architecture to support and work with the organizations of “the poor”. National governments and international agencies need their knowledge, competence and capacity if the universal goals this Report champions are really to be met.

A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development, The Report of the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, United Nations, New York, 60 pages. This can be downloaded from http://www.post2015hlp.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/UN-Report.pdf