A world without poverties – are MDGs helping or hindering?

Development Policy17 Jun 2009James Taylor

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a visionary statement. They have focused the attention and intention of the world towards the challenge of our time. But they are a product of our past and as such are simultaneously unhelpful as they distract and misdirect our energies away from where they are most needed in the future.

At this peak in our ability to understand and shape our world our challenge lies in humankind’s propensity to impoverish. In our ongoing striving towards creating wealth to meet human need we have arrived at a crisis of poverty. I understand the term ‘poverty’ as describing the condition of a living system. A poor system is one that is not capable of optimal ongoing progress towards achieving the fullness of its potential. A poor system therefore is unable to contribute fully towards shaping the larger systems of which it is an interdependent part. The word ‘development’ describes this innate life process that drives the ongoing progress of living systems towards achieving and contributing their fullest potential. The crisis of our time results from the many poverties that limit and threaten human and ecological development.

Behind the use of goals and indicators as means of directing human energy lies a belief that what is needed now (to put it crudely) is better project management. The underlying assumption is that poverty can be managed away, if only we can clarify our goals, identify good indicators, and coordinate efforts and resources towards achieving them.

While it is right that human and environmental poverties should be centre stage, they are not the problem – they are symptoms, the consequences of the problem. The problem is that the dominant ways in which humankind organises itself have a strong common tendency towards impoverishing. I use the word ‘impoverish’ as opposed to ‘poverty’ to focus on the act of making poor rather than on its result. I believe it is in the ways we organise ourselves to act in, and on, the world that the problem lies. The MDGs direct us towards what we need to be acting on, but reinforce the ways in which we have been acting in the past that have contributed to causing the problems we now face.

New forms of organisation – based on principles and practices that do not detract, diminish, exclude, and control – must be sought. The key to the new organisational forms that are now needed lies in the way power is used to achieve organisational goals. The future demands that we rely less on using power ‘over’ and start using power ‘with’. We have overused organisational forms that concentrate power and resources as a means of exercising power over people and nature. We are now in search of more effective organisational forms that use power to include and maximise the potential of all.

For the MDGs to have any chance of being realised they need to be pursued through new, more effective organisational forms and practices. In pursuing the goals, change must start not with the poor but with the rich who use their power to shape the world. They must direct more energy towards innovation, creativity and leadership and rely less on managing. They must lead the world in learning its way towards organisations that enrich, empower and include. To succeed, those at the centre will have to enter into new relationships with those residing at the margins. Perhaps a (still rather clumsy) hint of the new organisational forms we are searching for is captured in MDG 8 as “partnerships for development”.