Frans Bieckmann: A fruitful start to the new development narrative debate

Development Policy25 Jun 2009Frans Bieckmann

Looking back on, and having briefly chewed over a long day of interesting talks and debates at the High Level Policy Forum in Brussels, I will share with you some of the threads and trends that I distilled from this:

– The MDGs have resulted in a globally internalized poverty discourse, and to a certain extent in a new policy rhetoric, but positive impact at the level of the lives of the poor people themselves has not so far not been rigorously proved. Not enough research has been conducted to establish what the impact of the MDGs has been. Although some of the indicators of some of the MDGs do show positive outcomes, little is known about how these results were achieved.

– Among the hundred plus attendants there was a general feeling that we need a new paradigm, or a new narrative, to guide worldwide development policies. However, the MDGs themselves are not a paradigm, they are embedded into, and molded to fit into a specific paradigm. This development paradigm is essentially still the Washington Consensus, with a social or human face. A new guide line for future global development implies that the MDGs (seen as a set of indicators) have to be adapted to a new narrative.

– The current moment in time, which sees the world shaking due to several simultaneous crises, was broadly seen as THE moment for a new paradigm or narrative to replace the current neoliberal focus. Several elements of such a new narrative kept emerging during the conference (see below for more details). Essentially it is a combination of on the one hand a much more global orientation – which would include setting up new innovative global institutions – and on the other hand a localization of development policies. It is in the lives of the (poor) people concerned and according to their perceptions that development policies have to be rooted: a bottom up approach instead of the current top down approach that characterizes traditional aid, including the MDGs.

Before going somewhat deeper into these aspects, let me add a more personal remark: although I was enthusiastic about the depth of discussions and agreed with many of the views and insights that were presented (both in the keynote speeches, the debates and the papers, and in the blogs and comments on the Broker site), I simultaneously had a feeling of unease. It was the same feeling I’ve often had in recent years when attending gatherings of the development community: as if we were maneuvering in a kind of parallel universe of ideals, without taking into account that outside something else is happening. There were some remarks made about power and political economy, but in general this subject seemed a kind of taboo. I noticed, as so often, a reluctance to address those interests and processes that to my personal opinion have inhibited and will always inhibit development aid – old or new paradigm – to really help the poor.

This ugly outside world did pop up sometimes; it was for example used as an indeed very strong moral argument for aid, when opposing aid budgets to the hundredfold higher expenses for arms trade or for the bailouts of banks. But there was no real analysis of the power relations that direct today’s global processes, about how to fight all those other interests and power structures that keep things as they are.

The impact of the MDGs

The very first talk of the day, by Salil Shetty of the Millennium Campaign, outlined very clearly most of the main arguments pro and con the MDGs that later re-appeared during the discussions. There seemed little disagreement about his list, which was a good thing: the debate didn’t get stuck there and could move on to a next level. Shetty started with the negative side of the MDG coin:

– Formulation errors: mainly donor and state driven- Conceptual errors: technocratic and does not address structural causes, ignores the ‘how’- Normative errors: human rights blind and no criteria and targets for MDG8. Lacks justice.- Errors of omission: climate change, security, governance/political economy issues, financial architecture

On Shetty’s positive scorecard: the MDGs are the single most durable set of global development commitments by governments. They withstood 9/11. They established a human development and poverty focus in important global processes and conferences (Monterrey, Accra, Paris, Doha, etc). His assertion that the MDGs provide a counterpoint to the Washington Consensus was questioned later on by several speakers.

The most important gain of the MDGs is that they steered all countries into the same direction. Which, according to Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, was also the only real impact of the MDGs: they have become an ethical imperative, which has now been internalized worldwide. This huge impact on the normative level has to be taken seriously, she stated.

Future of the MDGs

There was a shared conviction that we strongly need a new paradigm or a new narrative to lead the way after 2015. Enrico Giovannini best summarized this opinion of many by stating that ‘to find a new narrative we need to go beyond the concept of development…. We should head for an integrated approach, in this interrelated world, towards equitable and sustainable wellbeing in a global context.’

A clarification: the MDGs as such are not a paradigm, but a set of indicators. So the MDGs are not and cannot be an alternative to the Washington Consensus or to a neoliberal economic order; they are embedded in it and only add a social dimension to it. This current development paradigm was described as the Washington Consensus plus social investments (or ‘with a human face’). According to Fukudu-Parr ‘the MDGs have been redefined into a neoliberal development paradigm’. This narrative, she said, ‘undercuts what should be the new narrative.’

Several elements or outlines of such a new narrative were put forward. Some exclude the other, but most of them can be combined. I will sum up some of the proposals and ideas that perhaps, in a much later stage and after thorough debate and scrutiny, can become part of a new narrative. We can already detect some common ground:

– Fukuda-Parr described the new narrative as a more inclusive globalisation with equity, global partnerships, human wellbeing, dignity and rights as its central features.- Louis Kasekende also made a plea for more equity: income inequality had resulted in social tensions throughout Africa, and should therefore be included in MDGs.- Charles Gore stated that we need to move to global sustainable development, with innovative global institutions, and a change of discourse. Today we witness the emergence of a knowledge economy and knowledge society, which is part of the move into a new (Kondratieff) cycle. According to Gore we should focus on building productive capacities in the field of innovative (alternative) energy, infrastructure and ICT. We should focus on productive capacities for this.- One of the workshops asked for donors to come up with green development policies and alternatives for growth.- Andreas Rechkemmer pointed out that climate change will have a disastrous impact on reaching the MDGs, especially Africa will be hit hard. A new narrative should integrate the ecosystem and human wellbeing. He made a strong plea for several communities – those active in the environmental and development fields, in civil society, government, and academia – to join forces. Coalitions of the willing should be formed, because forerunners are needed for an integrated global narrative.

In the area of global governance several proposals were put forward.

  • Clare Mehamed (and others) used the term ‘global welfare state’. Interdependency and globalization urge us to create global institutions that not only regulate free economic traffic, but also social globalization. Instead of charity, there should be the right to a basic minimum of income and services. National governments would still stay responsible for delivering.
  • There was a much reiterated plea for putting rights and justice, instead of aid and charity, central to global development policies.
  • With regard to the funding of development, Shetty spoke about ‘de-aiding’ the MDGs. Gore spoke of social and economic rights to be financed by new global financial instruments, global funds, global tax. Mehamed stated that instead of unpredictable aid flows we need predictable redistributive mechanisms, like global taxes.

The flipside of this ‘global governance’ coin was a strong tendency towards localization. The MDG targets should be decided and owned locally, by the people concerned, as opposed to the current indicators that are aggregated, depersonalized, and globally reported on.

  • The wellbeing concept was frequently cited, without going into it in-depth.
  • Quite a few speakers pointed to the need of embedding wellbeing indicators (instead of the current MDG indicators) into the new narrative. OECD statistics expert Giovanninni underlined this, but warned that these should be transformed into hard data. ‘You need a hard set of indicators for wellbeing. If these are too soft they will be misused by governments. We all know that politicians always pick the data that suit them best.’

These two sides of the coin – global governance and localization – were not understood as opposing or mutually exclusive. They were rather seen as mutually reinforcing.

  • In the civil society workshop one of the most important recommendations concerned the need to transform what? into social movements around or for global public goods. Civil society organizations (CSOs) in the north should address the problems and consequences of globalization in their own countries, as should southern CSOs in the south. International NGOs should become intermediates that can connect those projects and strengthen the voice of the south.

Follow up

After this very fruitful day I can distinguish five areas in which we can start a more focused follow-up debate. These are:

  1. Global governance. The ever growing interdependency urges for global arrangements. What should they look like? Should we aim for a global welfare state, or earth system governance, or both, and how to combine them? And how are these rather idealistic targets to be reached? Are there steps in between, concrete measures we can try to establish? Like those proposed in the conference, referring to other forms of financing development, and of worldwide redistribution.
  2. Looking over the fence of the self isolating development community. How can coalitions be established with for example the environmental organizations, or human rights organizations, or trade unions. Both at conceptual level and at a policy or strategy level.
  3. Localization: the (poor and marginalized) people’s day-to-day reality should be leading in all the policies. How to create new concepts (like Well being, or for example Civic Driven Change and how to translate them into hard criteria and concrete strategies?
  4. Knowledge and statistics. How to measure progress and overcome the divide between the quantitative and the qualitative. Results based management is focusing on hard data, but processes cannot be measured only in that way. New technology (web 2.0, social media) open up totally new horizons for gathering data and translating them into knowledge about concrete processes in the countries and settings concerned. What methods are emerging out there? How to guard quality norms in these new and unknown fields?
  5. Political economy and power relations. This one did not emerge from the conference, but struck me as a theme that was lacking. How to position our idealistic crusade within a much broader and mainly hostile global environment, with powerful interests dominating the scene?

Frans Bieckmann is the Editor in Chief of The Broker