Should we be celebrating or commiserating the high level agreements of the UN from 2015?

Posted by Nathan Cantley

Thu, 31 Dec 2015

I am student at Queens University Belfast and had various roles within Medsin over the past couple of years at a local and national level. Contact me at

2015 has been a big year for international development- well... depending on who you ask.

12 months ago in December 2014, a lot of the papers and pundits in intl dev were looking ahead to the big year of 2015 and the many high level discussions that were to take place in the various foums of the UN. But, how successful have they actually been? Here is a summary of some of the big agreements from the year and some of their feedback.

A year of international agreements in review

(1) January- 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, Sendai-

Disaster Risk Reduction is the concept within intl dev of agencies at all levels (from domestic to international) to have mechanisms of mitigating against and adapting to the effects of man-made and natural disasters. This conference was the first big high level meeting of the year and couldn't have been more opportunly timed with natural disasters in the South Pacific hitting the news.
Looking at the agreement itself, much praise was given to the inclusion of health and how it is impacted on by disasters. Furthermore, the inclusiveness of statements about gender equality, young people and the disabled are to be recognised. However, as will become the theme with this blog, finance was a big sticking point for the negotiations and where money should come from to finance all the adaption and response mechanisms proposed. To read more about reactions to Sendai have a look at this pretty positive blog by Thomson Reuters Foundation and this not so positive blog from Oxfam
Overall rating- 5/10

(2) July- 3rd World Conference on Financing for Development, Addis Ababa-  

Financing and working out where money should come from is one of the biggest problems that international development faces. It is a constant battle of wills between high income countries and medium to low income countries as to who should make the commitments. And when commitments are made, it is even harder for last minute negotiations to not water down the % GDP or GNI that countries initially commit.
Ahead of the post-2015 development agenda to being potentially agreed upon in September, the Addis conference provided both an opportunity to make sure there was enough money in the pot to fund the various goals being put forward, as well as a potential thermometer of how other finance depenedent agreements like the Climate agreement in December could go. Unfortunately, the resounding feeling from the majority of pundits and followup blogs is that Addis was not the best of sucesses. 
Some of the bigger shortfalls noted by many is the failure to agree the formation of an international tax body that would make sure decisions on international tax standards would include the voice of developing countries. Tax is a huge source of money internationally, and domestically can make the all the difference to certain intiatives being funded or not in the long term. The tightness of tax regulations are also of crucial importance as a loopholes create huge amounts of money lost for many developing countries from big multinational companies escaping paing their dues. As such the deficiencies in the commitments made in this area was a major sticking point for some. Furthermore, whilst some welcomed the involvement of private sector involvement in financing mechanisms, others warned of the potential for this money not to reach those who need it most. 
Overall, the sentiment of "well at least they tried" is one some leave this year feeling with regards to financing development but it is clear this battle is one that will be hard won at any point in the near future. Have a read of this good summary report from The Guardian or this other excellent summary report from Brookings
Overall rating- 4/10

(3) September- The Sustainable Development Summit- New York

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a concept is one that by the time September had arrived, had been trudging on for over 3 years since the Rio+20 conference back in June 2012. Since then, a 12-18 month period of high level panel discussions (which David Cameron did an underwhelming job being co-chair of), 13 sessions of the Open Working Work Group (OWG) on sustainable development and 7 sessions of final Political discussions had taken place culinating in a document that contained 17 goals and 169 targets had been concocted and adopted by the UN member states at an informal negotiations at the end of July. Considering both the successes and abject faiures of the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs had a lot riding on them. In the end after pontificating speeches by officials and celebrities alike, the final SDG agreement passed without a hitch- but is it any good? Well amongst the 17 goals are a wide range of intl dev subjects such as Health, Gender Equality, Education and persevering to eradicate poverty in all its forms. Whilst this is all well and good, the more disappointing elements of the agreement again came back to aspects of Means of Implementation, a policy area that includes our old friend financing. Another huge area of disappointment was the loss of strong language in the 11th hour of negotiations in July on human rights language and the protection of it in the 17 goals put forward. Simarily, whilst some marginalised and vulnerable groups got good coverage, others like migrants continued to lose out. 
Have we got a truly ambitious agreement and one suited to the 21st century? For the most part, yes. But MY own personal worry is that we collectively may have overcooked it. 8 MDGs proved way too much to handle with few and far between targets and goals met after 15 years of action. Whilst the SDGs are certainly tuned more to the needs of todays populations, 169 targets seems a huge amount to try and meet within the same timeframe, despite the renewed interest there is in intl dev as a whole. Some light reading on evaluating the SDGs can be found here from Devex, in this blog hosted on, this blog from World Briefings and this one from Huffington Post
Overall rating: 7/10

(4) December- 21st Conference of Parties (COP21)- Paris

Despite the amount of intl development concepts included in the post-MDG agreement, the Paris Climate talks carried with them a much higher perceived significance with them as well as media interest- much more than the media converage afforded to the previous 3 aforementioned meetings combined. What also "raised the stakes" so to speak about these talks was the overhanging legacy of the failed talks of Copenhagen in 2005 and the potential for these talks to follow in their footsteps. 
2 weeks in early december were dedicated to the talks with "the biggest collection of world leaders in a single place" being a maybe over emphasised point of coverage. As with the previously discussed meetings, finance once again reared its ugly head. Yet, this time instead of the biggest countries like the US and China taking the brunt of the criticism it was the place of the developing countries like Brazil and India that took the heat (pardon the pun) with regards to financial commitments. Oil producing countries like Saudi Arabia even scared some people that the talks may fail at the final hurdle. A final major sticking point was the question of whether the agreement should aim to limit global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels to 1.5oC or 2.0oC. In the end, after many many delays and overnight negotiations, an agreement was made. 
How successful is it? Well, if you believe the mainstream media, it is "historic" and I almost wonder if the copyright was suddenly taken off the word "historic" judging by some of the reactions of people to the agreement. If you talk with Civil Society, including some of the big hitters in climate circles, the agreement is historic for the wrong reasons. Getting an agrement of this nature on such a "hot" topic (I'm sorry I really will stop now) is quite a feat but there are more holes in the commitments made than a sieve. Phrasing such as "as soon as possible" with regards to reducing carbon emissions and a lack of text making the agreements legally binding (at the behest of the USA amongst others) means it is as best as it was going to get but nearly good enough. 
What will be the legacy of this agreement? Only time will tell. For now, you can read other analysis from the Friends of the Earth, the Atlantic. It is also worth skimming your eye over this analysis of the national commitments made by countries ahead of the Paris talks by the guardian
Overall rating: 6/10

So at the end of the day, does any of this matter?

The above question is one I have been ultimately reflecting on reading about all of the meetings you have just read about above. When you take all of the above into consideration, what is the point of these big international agreements?

Ultimately, whenever people think about international development, they think about these big meetings held in the dusty halls of the UN and the big (or not so big) commitments countries make towards fighting development issues. NGOs spend an inordinate amount of time making concerted efforts to ensure international agreements are the best they can be and commitments are as bold as they can be. Yet, very little attention (relatively speaking) is actually given to what happens within the dusty halls of our own governments. It is also important to recognise that in many cases, negotiating parties going to big UN meetings have already decided what they are going to accept in the final agreement long before they ever step onto the plane. 

That is why I think the resounding lesson that needs to be learned from 2015, is that we as a civil society need to take the battle to the doors of our own parliaments and be much more proactive in tackling our countries position so that the commitments they bring with them to these meetings are the best they can be- rather than waiting untill the meeting itself to approach delegations and try to change their mind. 

2016 doesn't nearly bring with it the same carnival of high level meetings but it does bring with it a number of domestic battles that can be waged. The international development committee of the House of Commons has several inquiries open at the minute which I invite you to look at and engage in. In addition, on an international scale, the World Humanitarian summit provides the biggest high level meeting for civil society to get its chops into. Engaging DfID NOW with regards to what they bring to the table there should be something to be considered.

With that I wish you the very best of New Years and a Happy 2016!!

1 comment

  1. Issy Marks

    Monday 4 January 2016, 15:12

    Great summary Nathan!

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