Towards a new development discourse and new development institutions

Development Policy18 Sep 2010Phil Vernon

The MDG Summit happening in New York next week is generating a lot of news on the need for a more effective international effort to support the efforts of poor people around the world to improve their lives. The draft summit outcomes document contains something for everybody: intellectual property rights, microfinance, anti-retrovirals, and higher development assistance budgets, to name just a few. But the overall brand of the Summit is that we need an ‘MDG rescue plan’ to ‘keep the promises’ made in 2000.

This is a problem, because while the MDGs are laudable goals, and an effective communication device, they fail to paint an accurate picture of what ‘development’ really means. Indeed, because they are such an effective communication device, they are skewing people’s understanding of what is really needed to help improve the lives of people in developing countries. As argued in a recent International Alert report, Working with the grain to change the grain, the MDGs are too narrow and too technical. They are acting as perverse incentives, guiding development efforts down the wrong road.

In this respect they exemplify a deeper problem within the development sector, which, in trying to accommodate a wide array of political interests and positions, has over the years retreated into an overly technical language that misrepresents the development challenge. This all too often leads to an incomplete diagnosis and the wrong course of action, especially in the complex environments known as fragile states. People in the sector know this, but they are constrained by the institutional framework within which they work, rather like surgeons operating in a dimly lit room. We need to turn up the lights and come up with a more honest and effective approach to development, and a replacement for the MDGs by 2015.

The first step in this process is to harness the best development practice and thinking which is out there, seek out other new ideas, and create a new development discourse. This means we need to provide space for different voices to contribute to a conversation about what ‘development’ – or human progress – is, and how it happens. Clearly this will include the economic and social themes of the MDGs, but we must also reach much wider and deeper. We need to look at history, asking ‘how have more developed societies made progress; what were their mechanisms of transformation?’ rather than just the hypothetical question ‘how might societies change?’ Needless to say, this conversation should be an inclusive one, not limited to the usual suspects, including people from diverse fields such as anthropology, history, culture and of course ‘ordinary citizens’ in developing and more developed contexts. I see this as an enabling conversation, designed to allow people to think outside the confines of the development discourse that currently prevails.

Out of this conversation, with the right leadership, a new model to replace the MDGs will emerge. Let‘s base this on an idea – a generic vision – of what a ‘developed’ society looks like. There is obviously an ideological element to this, so this will need to be argued over, but International Alert’s contribution to this debate is a vision of a society which allows equitable access to justice, security, political voice, economic opportunity and well-being. We argue that progress towards this vision requires, above all, the development and strengthening of a set of values and institutions in society, and that the development enterprise is as much about figuring out what these are, and how they can be established and strengthened, as about the ideas contained in the MDGs.

This means we need to make substantial changes to the terms of reference of the UN and the other international development assistance institutions. These institutions – especially the larger agencies – find it very hard to change. They find it hard to accommodate the radical new ideas that frequently emerge in the development sector, most of which therefore get rejected by default, or massaged to fit the current paradigm, rather than transform or replace it.

A vision-based approach to development assistance focused on values and institutions, and learning the lessons of history, is very different from the mainstream approach represented by the MDGs. Instead of asking ‘how can our existing institutions implement this new approach’, we need to ask ‘what kind of institutions do we need, to do so?’ This will lead to major changes in the way our international institutions – NGOs, bilateral and multilateral agencies, etc. – are organized to make them fit for the new purpose. They will need to operate more politically than is currently the case, and develop long-term, adaptable strategies designed to support, enable and nudge incremental changes in the direction of the long-term vision, based on a thorough analysis of the political economy. This means major changes in the way they are organized and held accountable. A tall order, but one we must attempt.