The two sides of the universality coin

Development Policy27 Aug 2014Jonathan Glennie

How to really achieve development’s latest buzzword.

When I wrote a Guardian column in late 2010 suggesting that the goals to replace the MDGs should apply to all countries, not just so-called “developing countries, it was, as far as I know, the first time such an idea was touted. And it was thought to be a pretty radical idea. But four years later “universality” has become an accepted part of the post-2015 agenda.

The Sustainable Development Goals build on what went right/wrong in the MDGs and incorporate much progressive thinking. But it is their universal nature that marks a genuine paradigm shift. Since colonial times, the countries of the world have split themselves into developed and “under-developed”, “less developed” or, most recently, “developing”, depending on the politically correct jargon of the time. Bill Easterly, in his brilliant and provocative new book “The Tyranny of Experts”, argues that early development theory was formulated in a time of “racism, colonialism and imperialism”, and that we still live with the consequences.

The problem with the developing/developed terminology is twofold.

First, and most obviously, it entrenches a sense of us and them, those that need help and those that give it. While often well-intended, this has only served to solidify feelings of superiority and inferiority. Now, with goals that apply to all countries, the world is finally saying, we are all equals, and we are all in this together.

And second, while the classification of the majority of the world’s countries as “developing” is simply a statement of fact, the self-denomination of wealthier countries as “developed” is simply wrong. It implies that they have completed the journey of development and have nothing more to achieve. But they haven’t and they do. Development does not end. The changes that are required if the world is to adopt a fair and sustainable path are needed as much (if not moreso) in wealthier countries which consume the world’s resources at an unsustainable rate, as they are in poorer countries whose primary concern, of course, is poverty reduction and the transformation of their economies.

These kind of paradigm shifts may not immediately play themselves out in different political relationships or strategies, but this is at least the beginning of a new era in development thinking in which all countries are “developing” and all need to reach goals set for them collectively by the international community.

But setting goals is the easy bit. How will they be reached? The other side of the universality coin is that not only do all countries have to reach targets, but all countries have to contribute to this collective endeavour. Whereas in the MDG era, poorer countries would look to rich countries to pledge resources, this time around, all countries need to commit resources according to their ability to do so, and reflecting to some extent the rise of the emerging economies in the last two decades and indeed strong growth rates even in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Typically, however, countries are not massively keen to commit. While calling on wealthy countries to make significant commitments in terms of aid, trade policy, climate emissions and other things, emerging middle income countries are more reticent when it comes to their own promises.

And understandably so. They are home to many millions of extremely poor people and they are not, in the main, responsible for the global sustainability failures that jeopardise the planet. So morally they have a point.

But it is a negotiating strategy that may be leading to deadlock. And given that the poorer countries of the world are those that stand to gain most from the post-2015 agenda, in terms of human development as vulnerability to environmental impacts, that deadlock is not an optimal result for them.

So what if developing countries adopt a different, more surprising, approach? Rather than insist on bold commitments from richer nations while avoiding making any of their own, middle income and even poorer countries could instead make bold commitments themselves and try to shame richer countries into following suit.

Imagine if Sierra Leone or Bolivia committed 0.7% of its GDP to resolving regional and global public goods – it might not be a huge amount of money, but its symbolic value would be immense. And imagine if China and India made commitments on carbon emissions – the West would find it harder not to follow suit.

The risk, as we enter the stage of implementation and commitments, is that countries seek to commit as little as possible, worrying that they will lose out if they commit more than their peers. But by jumping first, by demonstrating true leadership, the poorer countries of the world would be leading the way at an historic moment, and enhancing the likelihood that richer more powerful countries would be gathered up in positive momentum.

Making strong commitments would be a bold move, but by undermining the old image of developing countries as victims and positioning them instead as equal and serious partners in change, it would demonstrate even more profoundly the nature of the development world’s latest buzzword, universality