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The future of the MDGs – from global poverty to national development?

David Hulme | 20 September 2010

The end of the first day of the MDG-fest at the UN General Assembly and everyone seems to be promising more and better partnerships: between the public, private and civil sectors; between international agencies (the IMF and ILO had a love-in in Oslo last week, but I see that their report has separate IMF and ILO chapters as they could not agree on a joint text); and, between the rich and the poor worlds. But, from what I saw at the side events, the African and Asian delegates seem to be mainly in the audience and not on the podium. That is probably no surprise, as the MDGs were always a mainly rich-world product aimed at consumption in the rich world.

Which sets one pondering: what has 10 years of the MDGs achieved, or ‘Ten years of war against global poverty’? On the positive side: one, they reversed the post-Cold War decline in foreign aid; two, they helped promote the understanding that ‘growth is not enough’ and that growth plus basic needs is the minimalist credible strategy (even though it is not enough); three, they helped re-engineer social norms in the UK (anywhere else?) and get the three main political parties to commit to increasing and improving the quality of aid.

But, there is also a negative side to these laudable goals, and it is a big negative – they allowed world leaders to make big promises and then carry on with business almost as usual. A reformed and pro-poor set of trade policies have not been agreed at the Doha Round (and, arguably many of the recent bilateral agreements are not progressive); the rich world has not taken responsibility for climate change mitigation and adaptation (the Copenhagen fiasco); and, innovative forms of ‘finance for development’ remain at the discussion stage. Similarly, the leaders and elites of poorer countries have not honoured their promises of improving governance and delivering more effective basic services to poor people. In Africa, the promise that was NEPAD has fizzled out.

So, what should we do? First, be realistic but do not despair. Progressive change is unfolding – witness the rise of ‘social protection’ in more than 45 developing countries – and life has got a little better for hundreds of millions of poor people since 2000. The problem is that this has been much slower than it needed to be – and, post-2007 rises in food prices have caused big setbacks.

Second, we all need to focus on the massive accountability gaps that the MDG process has uncovered – how can leaders and governments make such promises and then walk away from them? How can the IMF commit to the goals and then apply models that assume that constraining social expenditure is good for the poor (ask your country’s IMF rep if current IMF pressures are to ‘reduce the public sector wage bill’, also known as laying off teachers and nurses)? As an IMF staffer advised me: ‘We cite the MDGs in the introduction to all our reports, but if we let them influence our analysis we’ll be in trouble’. How does Dominic Strauss Kahn get away with this? How can Berlusconi (and Italy) be taken seriously in the EU when he nods and smiles about the MDGs and slashes the aid budget? And how have African leaders been able to tolerate Mugabe (and his cronies) highly effective poverty-creation policies?

Third, should we think radically and put ‘global poverty reduction’ back in its box, and return to a primary focus on ‘national development’ as the best concept for helping poor people improve their prospects? Most of us probably believe that it is getting things right at the national level that transforms the prospects of poor people. The MDGs focus on foreign aid and external actors has become a diversion from the primary determinants of poverty reduction.

Relatedly, can we imagine anywhere in the world where a democratic political process would permit politicians to focus exclusively on poverty reduction? Democratic politics demands a broader vision of the national agenda – such as national development. Poverty reduction and/or welfare for all need to be promoted as central to such national agenda … but, ‘Poverty Reduction Strategies’ (especially when they are dictated by the IMF and World Bank) are not a platform for the evolution of political settlements that will assist poor people in the long term. Rather, we need to accept what developing countries (Bangladesh, Ghana, Uganda, Vietnam and others) are telling Washington – they want national development plans that incorporate a poverty reduction strategy. The horse must go before the cart.

Thinking longer term, I think the focus must shift from top-down goals, plans and programmes (the Jeffrey Sachs approach) to the issues that led to the establishment of the Millennium Campaign – changing individual, group, national and international social norms. If poverty is to be genuinely tackled, then an international social norm must be promoted – extreme poverty is morally unacceptable in an affluent world. The sorts of process that made slavery, apartheid and stopping women from voting (‘they don’t have brains that could make such decisions’) morally unacceptable need to be promoted in the fight against extreme poverty.

The 1990s were an era of voice – UN summits and conferences, debt relief campaigns, social movement mobilizations. But in the 2000s, this has been replaced by sophisticated but arbitrary hyper-measurement (from dollar-a-day to happiness) and a bewildering number of reports (mea culpa – I have been part of this). We now have the pretence that a science of poverty reduction will yield ‘evidence-based policy’. I am an academic – measurement and evidence are incredibly important for understanding social and economic processes – but there is no evidence that is not based in some way on value judgements and theory. Neo-liberalism has failed (as a theory and ideology) but so has the anti neo-liberalism, which critiqued it but failed to come up with an alternative. It looks like we shall have to explore the more messy terrain of ‘varieties of capitalism’ to find national strategies that can promote growth and welfare for all (and, in the future, be ‘green’).

So, post-2010 we must crank up voices again (real voices, not externally controlled ‘voices of the poor’ at the World Bank) at the national and international levels. We need to crank up that voice in poor countries and in rich countries – but, also in the emerging powers (Brazil, China, India) and emerging middle powers (Turkey, Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria, Vietnam and others). Closing the accountability gap, focusing on national development and promoting an international social norm – extreme poverty in an affluent world is morally unacceptable – are key ingredients of the post-MDGs agenda.

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David Hulme

David Hulme is professor of development studies, head of the Institute for Development Policy and...

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