Reimagining development in the post-MDG landscape

by Joseph Markus

A recent editorial in The Guardian made the argument for a new battery of global aims to follow on from where the millennium development goals (‘MDGs’) left off.

This global ambition is certainly the right one. Contrary to the focus of the MDGs on development aid—reducing down to largely financial assistance—global aims could also promote an effort to curtail the worst excesses of developed nations, which continue to impede progress towards a sustainable future. In fact a useful way of thinking about development can be to subvert the usual analysis, thinking about the problems in terms other than just scarcity.

But more than this, global goals could give the lie to the semantic assumption that developed nations are, in some abstract sense, ‘complete’ or ‘finished’. Being in the end-stage of development—as the developed world, by definition, is—seems to suggest, on some level, that no further improvement of that world’s economic policy, social conditions, political relationships is possible. Francis Fukuyama, in the early nineties, wrote that we had reached the end of history. What he meant by this was that our political and economic evolution had reached a natural end-point; capitalistic liberal democracy was, in his view, the future for all humankind. His insight can extend to the vocabulary of development. By assuming the present state of modern, Western countries to be the natural form for development to take, we encourage people—citizens—to close their minds to any alternative vision.

The fixity of thought that the developed/developing dichotomy instils is just another limiting factor on social change. Its cost may not be that great or even necessarily quantifiable, but the way language can dictate behaviour is still important. One of the central difficulties for the left—and something experienced by Occupy movements around the world—is in imagining a future absent what are perceived to be the big evils.

A problem with Fukuyama’s thesis, and with the idea of a natural end-state of development, is that, first, we can never be sure that we’ve reached it. And, second, once we have accepted that our social arrangement actually is the pinnacle of human capability, we inevitably close our minds to the suffering and disadvantage that continues. Indeed any continuing disadvantage is, to an extent, justified as a necessary price for the chosen system. At best we are resigned, on this view, to tinkering around the edges when what is actually required is a systemic overhaul.

Development, amongst other things (perhaps the subject of a future post), seeks to raise up the world’s poor. To its credit, it has done this in part. An ODI report observes that the percentage of the world’s population living on less than $1.25 a day has fallen from 42% in 1990 to 25% in 2005. It is further projected to fall to 14% in 2015. (Though the success in reducing income poverty is heavily concentrated in China, which dominates the global average. The absolute number of poor people in South Asia actually rose slightly between 1990 and 2005; and in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of poor people rose from 300 million in 1990 to almost 400 million in 2005. Worryingly, globally, outside of China, there are predicted to be more people living on less than $2 a day in 2015 than there were in 1990.) But inequalities, both within and between nation-states, have been growing.

This is a very real concern. The most unequal societies are the ones, broadly speaking, with the most crime, the most disharmony and disfunction.

The distribution of wealth and opportunity in a society might also seem unjust. The OECD’s recent report on inequality finds the bottom 30% with just 3% of UK wealth. The top third, by contrast, controls 75%. Over 23 years, from 1985 to 2008, the OECD records that the Gini coefficient for the, then, 27 member states worsened. The only countries in which the coefficient improved were Turkey, Spain, Ireland, Greece and France, many of which now are in the doldrums of economic crisis.

This is not a sign of a healthy society; it should not be taken to be a sign of a society successfully reaching the ‘end of history’. It is pathological. It demonstrates, at minimum, the failure of the current method of politico-economic governance. Developed nations should not, simply by reason of that prefix, avoid introspection: we must think what it means to be ‘developed’. (Because it’s the New Year) it is something that any future set of goals must resolve to address.

  1. Introducing new dichotomies into the new MDGs will be vital. For instance, human rights should be one of the basic assumptions for development goals – this is a goal that applies equally well to ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, particularly as the international community (hopefully) continues to move away from the ‘war on terror’ narrative that was so dominant in the last decade.

  2. josephmarkus said:

    I agree that it is desirable that we move past the ‘war on terror’ narrative of past years and also, we could say, past the prevailing neo-liberal consensus.

    I’m not sure I follow when you say we will need to introduce new dichotomies. That human rights should apply equally doesn’t seem to be a dichotomy, rather it subverts a distinction that currently exists between the treatment and scrutiny of developed and developing states.

    I’m conscious, as well, of the risks of human rights being drawn into development praxis. They already are to a certain extent part of the development movement, through the work of the UNDP, World Bank and IMF, and their attraction to a conception of ‘human development’. But the problem with them is that they’re indeterminate and plastic standards; they can warped and shaped to fit a large number of different outcomes depending on the political impulses of the interpreter. Will having them, at such a very general and vague level, in a set of global goals be useful?

    One other point could be that global goals may not very well address local concerns. A single prescription of what rights (or development, for that matter) mean may not hold always and for everyone. But, that said, human rights could be a fruitful paradigm within which to see development in the future (I’m definitely going to try and write something more concrete about it at some point!).

  3. Josh M said:

    Indeed, it seems that somewhere in our subconscious we (developed countries) ‘got cocky’, believed we’d reached the development endgame around the early 1980s, and as such in terms of meaningful development it’s been all downhill from there 🙂

    So Fukuyama merely pronounced formally what we already all knew.

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