Putting the ideology back into development

Knowledge brokering23 Sep 2010Phil Vernon

So, the MDG summit is over, and all those with an interest in the outcomes will be taking stock and deciding if, on balance, the event has been a success. They’ll be scanning the outcomes document, the transcripts of speeches and news reports diligently, measuring how many times their particular issue is mentioned, and trying to figure out what it all means for them.

My prediction is that most will feel increasingly short-changed as the excitement of the event wears off. Those who wanted more commitments from donors will start to question whether the promises made are going to be enough, and whether donors will conveniently forget what they promised when they get back home, as has so often happened in the past. Certainly those like President José Ramos-Horta of Timor-Leste, who called for a different approach in fragile and conflict-affected states, will go home disappointed. Even those whose calls for greater efforts on child and maternal health will – after celebrating a successful event and new commitments of US$40 billion – no doubt begin to question whether the additional attention and money will really make as much of a difference as they claimed, given the complex web of different factors which keep children in poor health, and women from safe pregnancy and childbirth.

From my perspective, the summit would have been a success if it had made these kinds of interventions more likely in conflict-prone or fragile contexts:

1. Development policy and programmes to be designed primarily around the need to build a peaceful and well-governed society, rather than focused mainly on poverty eradication and the very technical MDGs.

2. National policy makers, businesses and international institutions to change their economic focus and, instead of aiming for rapid economic growth, to set themselves the task of building national and international economies that support peace. This means, for example, less reliance on minerals, forestry, etc., and a stronger emphasis on economic sectors which provide widespread employment and value-adding opportunities. It may mean forgoing opportunities for rapid growth based on minerals, in favour of a more sustainable but slower growth in other sectors.

3. Greater and sharper international efforts to limit the ability of narcotics traffickers from operating in fragile contexts, through creative new efforts that address problems of supply and demand.

4. Development strategies designed to support the emergence of institutions and values that allow citizens – men and women, young and old – to give voice to their political concerns without fear or favour, live their lives more safely, and have fair access to justice.

5. Building a sense of national identity which co-exists easily with the other forms of identity that people hold, such as ethnicity, religion, region, etc.

6. Strategies to foster the evolution of impersonal private and public organizations, e.g. those which are owned by shareholders rather than ‘big men’, and those managed by office holders rather than patrons.

Of course, these are just examples and plans need to be developed specifically for each given context, not devised generically in New York for countries thousands of miles away. But they are illustrations of the kinds of things we need to see more of, if the international community is serious about promoting genuine and sustained human progress in fragile contexts.

Looking at the Outcomes Document, and following the news reports and speeches of the past few days in New York, I am sorry to say that I am one of the disappointed ones. Because I don’t see much evidence of the political will needed to create an international framework which would enable these kinds of strategies and interventions.

There are plenty of reasons for this, but one of them is clearly that UN summits and similar processes have a habit of stripping the politics and ideology out of the development discourse. It is hard to think of anything that could be more ideological or political than ‘development’ or ‘progress’. After all, it’s what pitted West against East during the Cold War and, despite the premature claims that were made in 1989, we haven’t reached the end of history yet.

What this summit tells me is that it is time to put the ideology back into development; time to start debating whether this or that is the right way to go about improving peoples’ lives, instead of accepting – pretending, actually – that we have agreement. Of course this will put a dent in the hard-won agreements made in Paris and Accra, on closer partnerships and greater harmony among donors and between donor and recipients. But surely, at times, allowing discussion and disagreement is more helpful than making an agreement around the wrong approach?

Ban Ki-moon has committed to start work on a new development framework for post-2015. So let’s start working now to have a more genuine discussion about what human progress actually means, instead of going along with the idea that history can be described, and progress measured, only in terms of poverty, health, schooling and the like. Let’s put the politics and the ideology back into development.