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Policy coherence in post -2015 agenda should be based on human rights, UN expert says

Despite commitments to enhance coherence of development, financial, monetary, trade, investment and other key policies, global economic policymaking remains fragmented and incoherent. “Coherence among the various areas of international policymaking is critical to ensuring that actions in one policy area do not undermine the goals or actions in another,” said a report released by the UN Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights, Mr. Cephas Lumina (“the Independent Expert”) and prepared for the General Assembly.

The report, framed around an assessment of Millennium Development Goal 8, the Global Partnership for Development, offered valuable and timely reflections for the ongoing deliberations on the design of the framework that is expected to succeed the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.

Goal 8, the focus of Mr. Lumina’s report, is the one goal that encapsulates commitments by rich countries on debt relief, trade and aid, in addition to access to essential medicines and technology transfer. According to him, the Goal was not framed and has not been implemented in a manner that is consistent with the responsibilities of States outlined in international human rights treaties and the Declaration on the Right to Development.

After a survey of progress on each of the issues covered by MDG 8, the report reached similar conclusions as other assessments of similar nature have: there has been little progress to report on this goal.

The Independent Expert reserved, though, the strongest criticism for the progress on debt relief. The commitments on debt relief were implemented mainly through two debt relief initiatives, the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative. In the Independent Expert’s assessment the initiatives have generally not reduced the vulnerability of heavily indebted poor countries, with many remaining deeply dependent on foreign borrowing and investment.

To explain why this has been the case he draws on a wealth of experience gained observing debt issues up close during his six-year tenure. His first comment was that, in terms of making debt sustainable in the long term, MDG 8 omitted a key indicator: a permanent sovereign debt workout mechanism.

He also mentioned the nature of debt relief mechanisms as entirely creditor-driven and “disproportionately focused on correcting perceived imprudent debt management on the part of the recipient countries without addressing the underlying causes of the debt problem.” This singular focus was not consistent with the principle of shared responsibility.

While debt sustainability has focused on repayment capacity, Mr. Lumina called for debt sustainability analyses to evaluate the level of debt that a country can carry without undermining its capacity to fulfil its human rights obligations and to pursue its own national development agenda. Indeed, a lighter version of this had been part of the Monterrey Consensus, where countries agreed to link the measurement of debt sustainability to the Millennium Development Goals. However, the World Bank/IMF interpretation of that commitment turned it on its head. Only a few years later, World Bank officials had perfected a separation between debt sustainability and MDG financing needs. Officials from the institution would claim that assessments of MDG financing needs were a useful tool to determine the amount of grants countries required but should not influence the “technical” judgment on how much of such financing countries should be allowed to cover through borrowing.

The policies required from countries in order to access debt relief were also criticized by the Independent Expert, who in previous reports delivered under his mandate has addressed the ineffective and harmful impacts on poverty of removals of certain subsidies and privatization of public services.

The restrictive eligibility requirements for debt relief under the initiatives have excluded many countries that have high levels of poverty and often pay more on debt services than on basic public services, he said. Mr. Lumina, thus, addressed an issue that is coming back to the forefront of the agenda. The political and social costs of crushing debt burdens in Caribbean countries afflicted by enormous vulnerabilities, but yet passed over by the debt relief initiatives because they do not qualify as poor countries in terms of per capita output, is becoming impossible to keep under the carpet. Only since 2010, five countries in the region underwent debt restructuring (Jamaica, in fact, twice). In a recent statement on the situation of debt in Grenada, civil society organizations said that only a reduction of two thirds of debt stock could bring Grenada’s debt back to a sustainable level.

The report advised on the importance of drawing lessons from the examination of MDG 8 for the ongoing discussions on the post-2015 development agenda. In the context of such discussions, the areas covered in Goal 8 remain highly relevant to the establishment of an enabling environment for development, it argues.

The report attributed the failure of MDG 8 mainly to the lack of a strong normative foundation, as it “failed to integrate international human rights obligations, including the duty of international cooperation for development,” which also enabled States to report on their progress without reference to their human rights obligations.

Other reasons were the MDG 8’s lack of clear, quantitative and time-bound targets, accountability deficits – enabling different actors to blame each other – and the perpetuation of donor-recipient type of relationship.

Consistent with this analysis, among the factors necessary for the successful creation of an enabling environment in the post-2015 development agenda the Expert emphasized the extent to which the partnership is consistent with the international human rights framework. More than 300 CSOs [ ] have called for such alignment in the post-2015 development agenda.

The report also called for coherence across the international monetary, financial and trading systems. It is in achieving this very coherence that the alignment with the human rights framework can play its most valuable role. As put by the Expert: “international human rights standards, which provide universal values, are legally binding and aim to promote human well-being, should be the benchmark for policy coherence.”

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