Global goals, local application: reinstating the local in development

by Joseph Markus

There is much value in the countries of the world getting together, every few years, and knocking out a set of common goals. Every once in a while it is valuable to define, with some precision, what it is that we stand for. The leaking—some time back—of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be agreed at the Rio+20 Earth Summit suggests that those goals are going to take at least a slightly different approach to the previous group of Millennium Development Goals. That is, at face value, a good thing.

The issue of development goals has been pushed back onto the agenda with Ban Ki-moon’s request, a few days ago, of David Cameron to chair a new UN committee tasked to establish a new set of MDGs.

Amongst the proposals for new Development Goals is one from the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. He suggests that future goals must address and incorporate all relevant human rights standards. Human rights and accountability are painted by De Schutter as one of the key ways in which the global community can meet the deficiencies of the MDG regime.

The main problem that I can see with this is a recurring theme in much of development praxis: the goals are to be designed and implemented from the top-down. This distance is exacerbated by the fundamental indeterminacy of human-rights language (a right to food? What’s that mean?). A second recurrent theme—this one in the human rights field—is the disengagement of activists from critical scrutiny of the movement. Human rights are just another form of (meta-)law. Like any law, they can be a force for good or bad. Yet activists and human rights practitioners tend to stand dazzled before the disarming brilliance of the idea: this is not useful.

Salutary statements of principle are generally not to be disparaged unless, that is, they can be shown to hinder the cause in whose name they are stated. I’m not suggesting that we resist the application of all or even some human rights to development, at least not just yet. What I am saying is that the linkage between the two is not unimpeachably and obviously good (and even if it were, that should be grounds for scepticism not relaxation). Might even there be a risk, through putting our efforts into producing those statements of principle, of over-bureaucratising the sharing impulse and undercutting other positive development projects? The effect of this proposal deserves to be analysed.

As a starting point, a perennial difficulty within the development movement is that decisions about aid, and about conditions for aid, are frequently decided from the outside. International financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank disburse vast quantities of financial assistance, the majority of which comes with stringent conditions. David Cameron is also rumoured to believe that upscaling conditions should be the route forward in any new set of goals.

These days—in a change since the structural adjustment and shock therapy of the 1980s—there is at least a surface commitment to the idea of participation of those who are affected in development decision-making. This has been the thrust of the partnerships created between those institutions and developing countries in reforms such as the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). Each of these are, at least, premised on the wide-ranging participation of the affected communities. Unfortunately that has not been the experience on the ground. Imposition of conditions—albeit in a less obvious and more diffuse way—appears to continue.

The problem of structural adjustment was the imposition of a core set of reforms, implicitly suggesting, first, that one particular political-economic regime is objectively superior to others and, second, that that regime is universally valid. The obvious oversight is that, much as with political governance and the Arab Spring, economic governance is an integral element of self-determination.

A related problem, and one that is taken from the human rights movement, is the persistent idea that human rights advocates, and anyone else who is able to speak the language of rights, know what justice is always, and for everyone. Sustaining this idea, doesn’t it seem somewhat odd that a statement of eight separate sentences can accurately define global goods? Returning to food: yes, food is good. And a right to food is also (generally) good. But what does it mean and where does it go? What kind of food are we talking about? How much should each person get? Should everyone get the same amount of food? The fundamental difficulty is that ‘rights-talk’ is unspecific. It (often) leads nowhere. So when advocates suggest that human rights would make an impressive new development goal, the immediate reaction should be ‘how?’

It seems to me that these two problems might be linked to some degree. Both are suggestive of a global elite carefully controlling development through exacting statements of principle. The reality must be far from this. Development happens locally. It is experienced differently by different communities and (arguably) the needs of different communities can be expressed differently too. No one set of goals or principles (or activist-technocrats) will ever be sufficient to reflect the heterogeneity of a brilliantly diverse world.

Although I may be at risk of understating the ‘human’ side to development in the face of what is likely to be a renewed focus on the importance of the ‘economic’ angle under Mr. Cameron’s watch, the fact remains that both approaches—the global development and the human rights discourse—lay claim to knowing best. My initial reaction: they’re both wrong.

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