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MDGs disregard transformative power as the core of development

Maarten Brouwer | 03 February 2013

The MDGs tend to disregard processes of change and the transformative power of that change. However, it is precisely that transformative power that is at the core of development issues, the primary goal of most development cooperation and the difference between a technical and a political approach to development.

The MDGs have served the purpose of setting a development agenda for the period 2000-2015. That agenda was, however, far from accurate. As many contributors to this website have advocated, the lack of attention to inequality bears witness to this. More problematic is the static nature of developments captured by the MDGs. By focusing on poverty reduction, the MDGs tend to disregard processes of change and the transformative power of that change. However, it is precisely that transformative power that is at the core of development issues, the primary goal of most development cooperation and the difference between a technical and a political approach to development. The focus on measurable results, beneficial in terms of accountability, has a disadvantage of bringing in static comparisons over time without capturing the processes of change that will fundamentally alter the perspectives of poor people.

Donor administrations have long felt that showing results without proper storytelling will discredit development cooperation more than it will credit its efforts to engage meaningfully in improving the wellbeing of poor people. What lessons are to be learnt from that experience? How can the transformative power be brought back in the development discourse? I believe that this can be achieved by introducing the concept of inequality. With all its weaknesses and all the difficulties involved in measuring it properly, changes in inequality do provide indications of changes in underlying social relations that are key to poverty reduction. Poverty reduction as an outcome and not as a deliverable seems to me a more appropriate way of telling the story about development cooperation and its merits or lack of them.

Advocating transformative power implies a shift from poverty reduction to development as the objective of international cooperation. It is the combination of the five dimensions in the OECD poverty definition (economic, cultural, political, security and social) that gives an insight into poverty reduction and the required underlying processes, not each of the dimensions on their own merit. By compartmentalizing each of those dimensions, development is implicitly presented as a deliverable, something to be imposed from outside. This is what we have done for the last 15 years, but it has not helped us better understand what development is all about.

If we start to measure the effect of income improvement on social status, or the effect of cultural positioning on access to social services, the specific transformation processes in communities or societies need to be understood and thus the development process itself becomes clear. For this reason, we should not compartmentalize each dimension of poverty reduction (as in the MDGs) but look for the interaction between the dimensions. Secondary and even tertiary impacts generated outside the direct field of intervention will give a much better idea of real development than just measuring the primary impact that was targeted. 

Transformative power shows itself when fundamental relations in society are affected. In the monetary world, in which development is measured as income, transformative power can be traced as changing inequalities. A reduction in inequality, whether in income or assets, is always the result of underlying forces that transform existing relations to achieve a new equilibrium in society. For development cooperation the main question is of course how to initiate transformative power. Basically two mechanisms can be put to work, collective or public action and private or individual action.

Examples of private actions that generate transformation include investments that increase productivity. Trade in itself generates mostly primary impacts that will cease as soon as the trade relationship stops. But productivity gains, by skill development, capital intensity or strengthened institutional capacity will remain even if the original investment relationship ceases to exist. If development cooperation wants to make use of private or individual actions it should focus on those activities that create such secondary or tertiary impacts. If successful, patterns of inequality should then change, resulting in less inequality.

Public or collective actions to promote transformation usually aim to reduce undeserved inequalities. Undeserved inequality addresses inequalities at birth, which are beyond the control of individuals and therefore have to be addressed through collective action. Factors that contribute to undeserved inequality are often related to ethnic, geographical, gender, economic and social disadvantages . Such disadvantages constitute a given context that can only be changed through collectively organized action. Collective action at national level can help to generate domestic transformation by creating public goods that will allow lower social strata to benefit from the same services or provisions that are enjoyed by the upper social strata. Collective action at international level may help to improve the provision of global public goods or to reduce global public bads.

The aim to generate transformation does not therefore prescribe public or private action. Both types of action can be followed, if only the generation of secondary or tertiary impacts is closely monitored. Efficiency considerations may determine the best type in any given context and for any intended objective. In poor countries targeted public programmes are often too expensive for governments lacking the required institutional capacity. Private action could then be the better option, either by civil society or for-profit actors. More general public action will warrant government interventions, especially in less developed countries with poorly resourced governments. Private action cannot be a sustainable alternative, again often for reasons of insufficient institutional capacity in the private domain. This notion is of particular importance in the highly politicized debate on budget support, a modality that is highly effective for financing (generic) collective action. The cost of generating transformation to resolve undeserved inequalities on a large scale through private action are very high and should be avoided in development programmes. Just as private actions are more efficient for targeted intervention, public actions are more efficient for generic interventions. There is not much politics in that observation.

A new MDG agenda should therefore focus on development interventions that provoke changes at secondary and tertiary levels. The imminent risk of scoreboard politics, as implicit in the current MDG agenda, is the lack of secondary and tertiary impacts, missing the point of reducing inequalities. This can be avoided by placing inequality at the centre of the post-2015 development agenda. We need to move beyond the current static MDGs for 2015 and revitalize a development approach that dares to challenge and confront by understanding and promoting deeper processes of change that will address inequalities. This would release development cooperation from its technical approaches and bring back the political questions that are part and parcel of any inequality debate. The implicit necessity to debate shared values, political solutions and the required partnerships will help development cooperation retake its former position at the centre of international policies.

Maarten Brouwer, who is ambassador at the Netherlands Embassy in Bamako, Mali, has written this blog post on his own account; it does not represent the view of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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