Tanvir Muntasim writes from the Third Financing for Development Conference (FfD) in Ethiopia, where he represented ActionAid International and the Global Campaign for Education.
I arrived in Addis Ababa to attend the Third Financing for Development Conference full of optimism and high expectations. The Conference was expected to adopt a concrete set of principles and commitments that would set international financial systems on the right track, and outline how the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals agenda will be financed.
However, the reality turned out to be quite different. An impending sense of disappointment was pervasive during the CSO Forum that took place before the main event. Information kept trickling in that civil society’s presence (let alone participation) was being severely restricted. We then realised that most of the key decisions had already been made, and the remaining open issues would be decided behind closed doors with very select participants, while the discussions at roundtables and side events would have no impact on the final document. Additionally, during the plenary session, country delegations would read through speeches that have more to do with self-appreciation than the agenda at hand. Even here, however, civil society would have very limited space and rare opportunities to articulate their experiences and expectations. Under such a restrictive environment, civil society representatives demonstrated their innovativeness and commitment by finding various entry points to the country delegates and lobbying tirelessly for the one agenda that mattered beyond the reassertion of past rhetoric. That agenda is the formulation of a UN Intergovernmental Tax Body, to which every country would be a member, and would have an equal role to play in reforming deeply flawed global tax policies.
Countries are losing an incredible amount of resources through illicit financial flows, tax dodging and other underhand methods practised mostly by multinational companies. They exploit the loopholes of international tax policies and take away resources that could have been invested to strengthen public services such as education – hiring and training more teachers, better school infrastructure and other quality inputs. GCE (Global Campaign for Education) and its members have been very vocal about this issue – GCE’s 2013 report A Taxing Business gives an in-depth analysis of increasing domestic resources through taxation. Even in the strategy meeting held in Addis, the GCE allies decided to strongly support this proposed tax body, which has been a long-standing demand of developing countries. However, the most dismal outcome of the Conference was the strong resistance to this – primarily from OECD countries – and how this overpowered the demand of the majority. As such, the opportunity to make a groundbreaking commitment to concrete action to address systemic inequality was lost, and Addis ended as just another Conference without any progressive contribution to the ongoing development discourse.
While the Conference failed to deliver on these expectations, there was still further cause for concern. There were calls to strengthen the role of the private sector, including private finance and public-private partnerships, in order to help finance the post-2015 agenda. There is a fundamental contradiction in expecting private companies – whose aim is to maximise profit in the shortest time possible – to deliver on basic human rights. The private sector is given to invade the space previously reserved for state intervention, but without any clear regulatory, accountability or transparency mechanism. A joke that has already begun to circulate sums it up: the ‘Financing for Development’ conference has become ‘Developing for Finance’.
One paragraph in the outcome document is dedicated to education, and basically summarises previous development commitments, but with one important exception. It talks mostly about children, blissfully overlooking the almost 800 million adults who are still not literate. There is also no specific benchmark for financing public services; rather some very soft rhetoric about how States will be ‘encouraged’ to ‘consider’ setting appropriate spending targets.
All in all, the outcome on July 16th was hugely disappointing: a lack of genuine political will has been glaringly visible, corporate interests have been served, and the battle for realising basic rights and securing resources for development goals is far from over. The only bright spot in this dismal process has been the incredibly strong sense of solidarity among civil society, and the constant demonstration that we will not give up. We will continue the struggle because we are fighting for the highest stakes possible – the future of humanity.