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How do we tackle inequality, unemployment and jobless growth?

Income inequality, youth unemployment and jobless growth were the buzz issues at the UN’s first post-2015 thematic consultation, hosted two weeks ago by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), International Labour Organization (ILO), and the government of Japan.

This two-day meeting, focusing on ‘growth, structural change and employment‘, included a motley array of academics, UN staffers, government officials, and the odd NGO and trade union representative.

All of those assembled agreed that these three issues needed to be at the core of a post-2015 framework, and lots of interesting examples of how to tackle youth unemployment (eg, technical and vocational training) and jobless growth (eg, supporting entrepreneurism and investing in inland/rural infrastructure) were proposed.

The fact that some attendees were emphasising these themes as part of a ‘market enhancing governance’ approach, which also emphasised property rights, for example, while others were pursuing them as end goals (for the fulfilment of rights and achievement of human well-being) was largely glossed over.

Indeed a hearty conversation about structural transformation was had, but the objective of such transformation – capital accumulation or human well-being – was the elephant-shaped argument in the room.

Addressing inequality

Other interesting discussions included the role of the developmental state and the good hand of government helping to redress inequalities in access to secure employment.

Related to this, an interesting and constructive proposal was that we establish a global norm on inequality and overcoming exclusion, perhaps funnelling this into the future development framework through an indicator on in-country inequality.

Themes like the care economy, social reproduction and employment ‘across the lifecycle’ were given some airing through Ruth Batani’s interesting presentation on time use and climate change in the Philippines, as well as in Save the Children’s presentation on child labour, youth employment and essential services workers.

Many people nodded their heads and umm-ed support but few were eager to engage in a discussion about the political economy of such issues. In my mind, a disconcerting reflection of how un-transformative the future framework looks likely to be.

Open and inclusive?

On process, a UN director referred to the meeting as both open and inclusive in an opening speech. I grant the conversation was diverse, but it definitely fell short of being inclusive.

Beyond 2015, the International Civil Society Organisation Coalition, and Save the Children were invited only a few weeks before and given one week to prepare a written submission. As one vocal Bangladeshi participant pointed out, there were almost “no actual practitioners” in the room.

Going some way to compensate for this, there were a number of detailed and interesting case study presentations. I particularly liked Chuluundorj Khaschuluun’s presentation on Mongolia’s rapid social and economic transformation as a result of the mining boom, as well as Prof. Wen Tiejun’s discussion of China’s employment history, highlighting the problems of migrant labour and employment volatility.

Japanese technological mastery also brought a good scattering of Asian participants into the room via video conference. But the congregation still fell far short of being representative.

There were only two participants from the whole African continent, in spite of the fact that 76.6% of people in sub-Saharan Africa are working in vulnerable employment and, unlike in Asia, this figure has risen since 2007 by 22 million people.

Lessons learnt

This was the first of the UN’s thematic consultations so a little learning was to be expected but going forward the process would benefit from a much broader set of minds around the table with a better geographical spread (we have the technology to avoid long-distance flights), as well as a clear process for how comments and subsequent inputs will be absorbed by the UN reflected in the official write up and communicated to the 2015-process politicos (the high level panel or United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG’s) office, for example).

For me, this meeting also set off political alarm bells. It flagged the necessity for key political leaders and those who will eventually sit around the negotiating table to start talking, now.

We need “a messy brainstorming phase amongst experts and development practitioners,” in the words of one UN director. The spectrum of ideas being floated and the tensions over our end goal – reducing poverty or reducing global inequality, stimulating growth or pursuing economic transformation – suggest that politics will be at the heart of this debate.

And if there’s one lesson to be learnt from the recent history of multilateral negotiation, it’s that two years really isn’t a long time.

To find out more, read After the Millennium Development Goals: our new report setting out the options and must-haves for a new development framework in 2015.

Originally posted at http://post2015.org/ on 1 June 2012

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