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Development in a downturn

Simon Maxwell
4 July 2008

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the blueprint of eight key areas where progress by 2015 would make a real difference to the lives of the world's poorest people, were agreed at the United Nations "millennium summit" in September 2000. This year, 2008, thus represents the pivotal half-term period - reflected in the way that international development agencies have carefully prepared a series of events to focus on the MDGs' delivery.

This moment has coincided, however, with an international financial crisis in which credit crunch, rising prices and economic slowdown makes governments nervous and citizens fearful: circumstances that create the risk of eroding political support for development. A shift of focus in the development message - one that makes clear that the MDGs are about "us" as well as "them", that development is in everyone's interest - is needed to maintain momentum.

Simon Maxwell is director of the Overseas Development Institute

Also by Simon Maxwell in openDemocracy:

"Inside the palace of glass" (27 June 2001)

"Chemical warfare in the bathroom" (15 August 2001)

"The global development agenda in 2007" (21 December 2006)

"Rome's food summit: a baton passed" (6 June 2008)

A fraying thread

The MDGs - from poverty reduction to universal primary education, gender equality to environmental sustainability - are about more than policy. They are underpinned by a sense of shared humanity. The same ethos is reflected in public concern for the victims of cyclone Nargis in Burma and the Sichuan earthquake in China. The threads of humanity cross national boundaries, and emergencies make real and active the commitment embodied in the Millennium Development Goals and campaigns such as Make Poverty History.

But there is a problem. For opinion polls routinely show that support for international development is simultaneously broad and shallow. In particular, enthusiasm for poverty-reduction overseas is vulnerable to how citizens in richer countries feel about their own economic prospects. The impacts of rising food and fuel prices, debt, unemployment and bankruptcy - including their social and psychological effects - are reflected in people's immediate concerns and priorities.

In Britain, for example, an Ipsos-Mori poll in April 2008 finds that 70% of people agree with the proposition that rich countries have a moral duty to help end global poverty; but when asked to name the most important issue facing the country today, the lead responses are crime, immigration, health and the economy. Poverty-reduction in the global south does not feature in the top ten.

The enduring threads remain intact, but the moment calls for a new messaging - one where the conversation returns from "them" to "us", where it is understood that social justice, inclusion and security can only be reached domestically if they are also achieved internationally.

A new narrative

The need for such a shift is highlighted by the failure of several donor governments - including France, Germany, Italy, and the United States - to meet the pledges they made at the Gleneagles summit of the G8 in 2005. If debt relief to Iraq and Nigeria is excluded, aid fell in both 2006 and 2007 to the extent that the global aid shortfall is now close to $30 billion a year. Meanwhile, the global trade deal promised by the Doha round of talks still looks elusive.

Also in openDemocracy on the G8 and global development policy:

Leni Wild, "China, Africa and the G8: the missing link" (11 July 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "The aid business: phantoms and realities" (18 July 2006)

Michael Hopkins, "Sustainable development: from word to policy" (11 April 2007)

Stephen Browne, "G8 aid: beyond the target trap" (6 June 2007)

Paul Collier, "The aid evasion: raising the ‘bottom billion'" (11 June 2007)

Kweku Ampiah, "Japan and Africa: a distant partnership" (6 June 2008)

Plus: "The G8 - power, protest, publicity" - a series of nineteen articles on the Gleneagles summit of July 2005 Here again, 2008 is a vital year in restoring momentum. It is a year since the then just-appointed British prime minister Gordon Brown declared a development emergency and issued a "call to action" on the MDGs. This has been taken up - by the European Union, at its Brussels summit in June 2008 (though this was overshadowed by the fallout of Ireland's referendum); by the G8, whose summit in Hokkaido on 7-9 July will discuss the MDGs; and by Ban Ki-moon, who has convened a "call to action" summit at the United Nations in New York on 25 September. A choreography of commitments - on education, health and new financing mechanisms - has been rehearsed. Alongside this, Gordon Brown has launched initiatives on reform of the international system, including a new role on climate change for the World Bank, and a more coherent approach to managing post-conflict transition.

But if publics in rich countries turn inwards, all of this may be put at risk. If the vital policy and moral agenda embodied in the MDGs is to be sustained - both the immediate targets and the long-term ambition - two things are now needed.

The first is to reinforce the moral argument and demonstrate that aid does work. Britain's aid programme alone is lifting 3 million people out of poverty each year. More than 2 million people are now receiving anti-retroviral therapy for HIV. An extra 40 million children are at school as a result of debt relief and other additional funding. The challenge amid the global economic turmoil in 2008 is to make sure that this encouraging progress is upheld.

The impact of rising food prices has the potential to be especially damaging. The president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, has estimated that the food-price spike could reverse the poverty-reduction gains since 2001. The poorest countries need urgent help to meet the extra $20-billion cost of food imports, as well as the cost of protecting the poorest from price rises. Food riots in close to thirty countries testify to the urgency.

The second requirement is to make clear the links between the development "story" and the immediate concerns of people in rich countries. The heart of the shift is to emphasise that international development is about self-interest as well as altruism, and that there is no contradiction between the two. A closer look at the Ipsos-Mori polling figures is revealing here: in response to questions about how important global problems are - specifically to voters themselves - 89% say that disease is important, 83% say war and conflict, 83% poverty, 79% climate change and 76% international migration. When people are then asked about how Britain might respond, the headline messaging of Make Poverty History - aid, a trade deal, debt relief - all come high on the list (with diplomatic and military options also being recognised).

There is self-interest here - people highlight these global problems because they are felt to impact on their welfare at home. The degradation of the world's environment, the threat of terrorism, the risk of a global pandemic, the fear of losing jobs as a result of increased migration - all these are "also" domestic issues. Many people in other rich countries, such as the unskilled or de-skilled voters who support protectionist platforms in the United States, express concerns about globalisation in ways that equally reflect the pressures of their own lives.

A new narrative on international development must find a way to reflect the self-interest in such sentiments while avoiding in any way pandering to the prejudice that can accompany them. There can be no compromise with racism; a progressive policy on immigrants and refugees is both a legal requirement and a moral obligation; the argument for trade and its benefits as against protectionism must be made.

The challenge is to construct a narrative that can accommodate and be relevant to both global south and global north, altruism and self-interest - a narrative that speaks to the realities in each and thus can sustain the development agenda in a time of economic downturn. This narrative must be:

* anchored in a framework of global social justice

* celebrates the progress being made on the MDGs

* builds political momentum behind the call to action.

But it must also:

* recognise the need for oversight of and cooperation on the potentially destabilising financial markets

* mobilise a range of economic, diplomatic and military resources to

tackle global threats

* engage internationally to make sure global institutions improve their performance.

A time to build

This approach, if applied, would - in the underlying content of development policy, or the structure and focus of development institutions - mean moving beyond "business as usual".

It would mean, for example, a better balance between instruments and geographies. Most poor people either live now or shortly will live in middle-income countries, whose aid delivery amounts to a tiny fraction of 1% of GDP and whose development agenda has less to do with aid and more to do with trade, financial flows and voice on the international stage. But the most enduring development problems are in fragile states, where to be effective aid policy must be allied with diplomatic and foreign-policy mechanisms. The region of Africa which encompasses the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, Somalia, Darfur, southern Sudan, and northern Uganda, Somalia - all of which need high-level political attention as well as aid - is a case in point.

The new development agenda also requires much more attention to the performance of the international system - whether in consolidating the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), improving the capacity to manage crises like Kenya and Zimbabwe, or building on Gordon Brown's agenda of new roles for the IMF and the World Bank. This is far from institutional tinkering: it is essential rebuilding to provide the infrastructure for a cohesive world society in the 21st century.

These ingredients in a new development narrative - of both policy and communication - are crucial if the Millennium Development Goals and the commitment they imply are to be fulfilled. The best way to keep international development on the agenda is to make the connections.

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