Back to the future

Development Policy17 Jun 2009David Sogge

The business of working up successive development agendas and policy formulas has beset the aid system from its beginnings more than sixty years ago. The MDGs are the latest in a long parade of earnest exhortations. As the “After 2015” exercise clearly implies, they won’t be the last.

Do these repetitions of anti-poverty intentions actually make a difference? Certainly the MDGs have changed the talk. Few policy idioms are now more widely spoken in the aid system. But as shown by anthropologists of policy such as David Mosse, who have followed policy precepts down the aid chain, gaps between utterance and outcome can be very wide, indeed sometimes perverse. Think of the claims that economies grow faster if they are guided by IMF policy formulas; it turns out that the contrary is more often the case: economies steered by Washington Consensus formulas tend to grow more slowly than those without them.

The MDGs were supposed to shift the priorities of donor governments, who are their chief target group. But today, eight years later, evidence of an overall shift toward MDG-relevant sectors (basic health, basic education, water & sanitation) is pretty meagre. More importantly, whereas donors were supposed to have abandoned the failed policies and coercive approaches of the structural adjustment era, evidence offered by policy activist organizations and heavyweight economists like Dani Rodrik shows that Western donors continue marching in lockstep to the beat of Washington’s market fundamentalist drums.

The line of march remains roughly the same: toward lower labour costs (both in formal and informal wages and in the “social wage” of public services and social protection) and toward public regulation subservient to the big players in the private sector, especially its financial titans. Given that the MDGs imply more and better employment and more and better public services, campaigning for them is like trying to walk up an escalator that’s going down.

Why market fundamentalism prevails is apparent if we follow the money. Poor countries have been royally subsidizing the rich since the late 1990s. The recorded flow of finance from sub-Saharan Africa to rich countries in 2008, net of aid and investment flows to Africa, was a breathtaking $126 billion; recorded net flows from Latin America and Asia are much larger. These lucrative arrangements, which also redistribute wealth to poor country elites, reflect what is essentially predation. Here the MDGs have a compensatory function, something with echoes of the past. A basic relationship of feudalism, as described by the French historian Marc Bloch, was predation compensated by charity.

That the MDGs propose no real break with the past is apparent in the eighth and most elaborate goal, “a global partnership for development”. This has little to do with ending predation, bullying and neo-feudal relations, let alone creating a new pattern of downward instead of upward redistribution. On the contrary it calls for a bigger version of the status quo, meaning expanded access for the private sector (especially telecoms and big pharma) and expanded resources for official aid system — which, as Ashwani Saith suggests, at the end of the day is the main point of the MDG project.

Could the “After 2015” discussion go beyond a focus on the poor, to grapple with the skewed relationships that continually reproduce poverty? By turning attention beyond stylized facts and tweaked-up techniques to the political economy and politics of poverty, such a discussion could help us get off today’s down escalator, and stop compensating predation with charity.