Moving the MDG debate on

A failure to reconcile a concern for human development with genuine economic development will make the High Level Panel’s already difficult task much harder.

Will Paxton
9 January 2013

Last November David Cameron hosted the first gathering of the grandly named “High Level Panel” on the future of the Millennium Development Goals – the key targets which have guided development efforts since the turn of the century and which come to an end in 2015.  Along with his co-chairs, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and President Yudhoyono of Indonesia, he faces an enormous test of his leadership skills. If fashioning agreement between his Tory backbenchers and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats was hard, what about the small matter of helping forge some global consensus on the future direction of development policy? But a renewal of the world’s development vows ahead of 2015 would represent an enormous prize. For the first time in global history there is a very real prospect of condemning raw and debilitating poverty to the history books.

However, the looming obstacles to agreement are large. openDemocracy has already showcased some critical MDG arguments – Phil Vernon has written on both the substance, but also the importance of the consultation process and in a fascinating piece, Erwin Van Veen urges integrating state failure into post 2015 thinking. I want to take forward oD’s discussions by considering some of the barriers to achieving any agreement and the possible implications for the contours of debate. One possible framing for the post-2015 discussions may command a critical mass of international support – a reuniting of ‘human development’, which has predominated in recent decades, with genuine ‘economic development’.

Barriers and complexity

So, let’s start with the bad news for the High Level Panel – the barriers and obstacles.  As panel members scan the world around them it looks very different from when the current MDGs were devised; there’s a more contested world of ideas and a more complicated global politics.

The current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were developed at the height of western governments’ confidence.  The Cold War had been won and the global economy was generally benign.  The US was the global power – a form of ‘G1’.  Some famously even went so far as to argue that we had reached the end of history.   As a result the dominant economic and ideological ideas were both less contested and essentially western creations which were, relatively speaking, easy to foist on the world.  On economic policy this saw the ‘Washington Consensus’ dominate.  And on development thinking, grounded in rights-based approaches, the focus of developed world NGOs and development agencies was ‘human development’.  Some, perhaps slightly cynically, went so far as to describe the 1990s development agenda as the ‘human face’ of neo-liberalism, arguing that “the MDGs are universally called the Millennium Development Goals.  But in practice, there is nothing developmental about the MDGs apart from the fact that the poverty and human development outcomes should be achieved in “developing” countries.”  

The economic context and the ideas which are shaping debates, have, however, been transformed since the 1990s. Shifts in global economic power have already been fundamental and, while predictions of America’s decline are almost always overstated, they will hasten in the coming years.  Some regions of the world, including much of Africa and South Asia, remain extremely poor, but a defining feature of the world economy since the early 1990s has been the convergence between developing and developed countries, the motor of which has primarily been Latin American, East Asian and Chinese growth. 

This power shift would have fewer implications if emerging powers had similar ideas to those which predominated in the 1990s. But this looks unlikely.  China, Latin America, Russia and India all have national interests and intellectual traditions which suggest that a power shift will lead to an ideological shift with important implications for development policy and wider global governance. 

Firstly, these countries’ experiences suggest partial at best support for Washington Consensus economics.  Latin America achieved higher levels of growth during periods when it protected its manufacturing sector from international competition, lower growth after the adoption of neoliberal policies. It now adopts a mix of policies to promote growth, some of which involve greater state intervention in markets.  Aping the growth strategies of Japan and the East Asian Tigers before it, China now uses the maintenance of a weak currency and trade barriers to nurture infant industries and restrictions on capital markets to promote growth. So the power shift is leading to a world of ‘alternative economics’ and a much more contested and pressing debate about how best to secure future prosperity.

At the same time the power shift is leading to more complicated attitudes towards the very idea of global deals and agreements which infringe on nation states’ room for manoeuvre. In contrast to the willingness of western liberal thinkers to intervene globally in the name of human rights or a conception of global justice, emerging powers look set to bring greater scepticism towards interventionism. Brazil, for example, is reluctant to assert a positive position in world affairs – witness its lukewarm position on the Responsibility to Protect.  South Africa tends to favour either national solutions or in the case of Africa a boosted role for the African Union.  And China still tends to favour the ‘Peaceful Rise’ doctrine of Deng Xiaoping.  This sees economic growth as the priority and as a result has led to prioritising the maintenance of a favourable global economic environment, not asserting Chinese power too assertively and avoiding conflict with the US.  And in relations with the developing countries it has led to ‘non-interference’, no-strings attached development support and a growing sense from African governments that the Chinese respect them more than do western governments

Added to the complexity created by the shifts in power, world leaders’ in-trays are overflowing right now. The impact of 2008-09’s Great Recession continues to reverberate, with few clear ideas of how to inoculate the world economy from future shocks.  Some are predicting a Chinese slow down as the world’s largest nation continues to struggle with corruption, poor governance and rocketing inequality. As the Eurozone, UK and US struggle to balance austerity with returning to growth, future prosperity looks far from assured. Furthermore many developing nations are facing accelerating urbanisation without industrialisation, or as some put it, ‘jobless growth’.  In Africa between 2000 and 2007, economies grew at an average of 5.4% annually, but the number of jobs only increased by 3%, all in the context of rapid demographic change and youth bulges.  When you add these economic troubles to new challenges, less apparent in the 1990s, such as climate change, resource scarcity and poor governance, the complexity and scale of the challenge facing world leaders is considerable.

So how, given this context, should we be thinking about development policy? What conception of development might command widespread support, be in enough countries’ interests and consistent with different ideas and traditions of thought?

Clearly there are no easy answers to this, but one option is to look to reunite human development and economic development. This could be fruitful given that whatever their differences, pretty much all countries share a common concern about how to secure future prosperity. Rather than there being a neat divide between social issues – poverty, health, education and so on – and economic policy, they should be brought more comprehensively together.  In a previous openDemocracy essay Roger C Liddell describes the twists and turns in thinking about development and aid. He describes the current paradigm as being underpinned by “’human development’ and ‘rights-based’ approaches to development which, in turn, informed the shaping of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the achievement of which provides, today, the main reason for giving aid.” But he also notes how alien this kind of approach would have been to an earlier generation of thinkers:

“Until the mid-1970s, the word “poverty” did not appear in discussions of the merits of providing aid, and no one would have thought to have asked whether the aid provided reached the poor. Then, the purpose of aid was to fill (resources, skills and financial) gaps and to build the infrastructure to enable recipient country economies to grow more quickly.”

No-one would suggest regressing to being agnostic about poverty and other social issues.  But it might be possible to return to a situation where human development is conceived of in a way which more clearly supports equitable and inclusive economic growth. 

In part this underpins the resurgence of interest in income inequality witnessed in recent years.  Save the Children recently published evidence on inequality being higher for households with children than the wider population, arguing persuasively that this holds back not just the prospects for wider human flourishing, but also economic growth. A line-up of unusual suspects has also been banging the inequality drum – even bastions of orthodoxy such as the IMF and OECD are questioning indifference to inequality.  And it is hard to ignore the accumulating evidence that inequality contributes to economic instability and poor governance which can hold back growth. Reuniting human and economic development could also have implications for the overall shape of the post-2015 framework, with for example, a renewed focus on jobs and youth unemployment in particular.

Education, education, education

But there are other issues which should sit at the nexus between human and economic development. One in particular, currently conspicuous only by its absence in debates, is education.  There are a number of possible reasons for its lack of prominence in current debates: rapid improvements in getting more children into school up until 2005 led some to think that the issue had been cracked, and too few people have noticed that the data head in the wrong direction; there are some misguided ideas circulating that basic education should not be the focus and that the action should be with secondary schools despite the wealth of evidence that basic education remains critical. Many development economists have rather forgotten about education and skills in their rush to focus more on issues like institutions, governance and an economies infrastructure. 

But this is a mistake.  No country has given real prosperity to its people without investing in their skills.  East Asian success was build on ruthless improvement of educational standards.  Just glance today at China’s relentless focus on lifting themselves up the international learning league tables.  As long as more years of schooling translates into genuine acquisition of skills – in other words learning is actually taking place – the evidence that better education leads to growth remains robust.  Indeed, a global learning goal, like that which Save the Children have recently proposed, could be at the heart of an adapted development paradigm which is grounded in a concern for global justice and fairness, but also more fully supportive of the global concern for governments’ desire to provide sustainable and fair growth.

The MDGs, for all their faults, are an increasingly rare beast – a global agreement of real substance.  No-one should overstate the chances of pulling off a similar trick in today’s more complex and less benign world.  A core contention of this essay is that a failure to reconcile a concern for human development with genuine economic development will make the High Level Panel’s already difficult task much much harder.

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