After 2015: Critically Engaging with Global Development

Last week I had the privilege of spending two days at a thoroughly inspiring and engaging conference entitled ‘After 2015: Development and its Alternatives‘ held at the British Academy in London. As I am sure my academic colleagues would agree, the words ‘inspiring’ and ‘engaging’ are not always associated with some of the conferences we attend. Not least it has provoked me to write another blog post after a summer of inactivity!

The remit of the conference was to critically reflect on the state of international development policy since the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, which famously prompted the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There are eight headline MDGs and these are underpinned by eighteen statistical targets. With the MDGs due to expire in 2015 the second main focus of the discussions was to consider what development alternatives we might envisage in the future.

During the discussions on the first day, the MDGs were described by some as a ‘trojan horse’ that have allowed the broader challenges of development to gain more significance in the minds of policymakers. In particular, Jan Vandemoortele, who during his time working for the United Nations played a role in designing the MDGs, suggested that their simplicity meant they passed his “Grandma test”! In other words, his Grandma (i.e. the wider public) would be able to understand them. I am all in favour of resisting the attempt by many academics (and policymakers) to obfuscate. In fact part of the reason for creating this blog was precisely to engage with the wider public in a format that has broader appeal.

Nevertheless, simplifying the challenge of global development to eight goals with a range of associated numerical targets does result in a specific framing of how we understand and talk about development. For example, David Hulme in his presentation at the conference, highlighted how the MDGs have set a path of results-based performance management that is now largely uncontested. It has certainly struck me, over recent years, how many of the students taking my classes on ‘International Development’ were aware of the MDGs, but how few have felt it necessary to question their underlying logic. After all, who can argue against the goal of ‘eradicating extreme poverty and hunger’?

When we are considering the development chances of over 7 billion people, maybe the reality is that things aren’t necessarily this simple. As a number of participants at the conference convincingly argued, a focus on goals and targets distracts our attention away from interrogating the way the global political economy is organised. How is it run and in whose interests? It is only then that we start to discover many of the obstacles to human development.

If we are going to reflect on the contemporary prospects for global development then we would be better served by starting our analysis by considering the continued push to further embed the market and the rights of capital into all corners of the globe. For example, the rise of bilateral trade and investment agreements negotiated in the first instance between major trading powers and a number of developing countries/regions and now between the EU and the United States (the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) has tipped the balance even further in favour of transnational capital. It is only when we have put the politics of the global economy back into the discussion that we can have an informed discussion about whether these developments are more, or less likely, to achieve the kinds of development outcomes envisaged in the MDGs.

The second day of the conference began with a thought-provoking presentation by Carl Death and Clive Gabay. Rather than dismiss out of hand the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), proposed as the way forward after the expiry of the MDGs in 2015, their discussion considered the possibilities they might offer for transformation. They made a convincing case as to the significant differences between what is being proposed in the SDGs when compared to the MDGs. In particular:

  1. the global focus of the SDGs compared to the MDGs which were essentially aimed at the planet’s ‘bottom billion’;
  2. the inclusion of new issues such as labour rights and inequality that also pose direct challenges for Western states.

From this they concluded there was radical potential – with an emphasis on the word ‘potential’ – in the SDGs.

There is much to admire in their attempt to subvert the prospect of the SDGs turning into more of the same. The question I have is the extent to which the target-driven focus of the SDGs automatically prevents any radical outcomes. This is a caveat they acknowledged and it returns us back to the issue of targets and their impacts. The current plan for the SDGs is to increase the number of goals from eight to seventeen. The consequence of which is a dramatic rise in the overall number of targets. The experience of those of us working in an increasingly target-dominated public sector in the UK know only too well the subversive practices that result from a ‘measurement agenda’ and the setting of targets. James Scott had described this as the ‘audit society’ on the first day of the conference.

The question is whether global development targets are far enough removed from those on the ground to avoid the sorts of subversive practice that ensues when targets are used to audit human behaviour. Moreover, targets imply a conceptualisation of development in strictly quantitative terms and as many of the participants at the conference demonstrated, this limits our imaginations in a number of ways.

The final panel of the conference sought to take us beyond such limits. It included a range of first-hand accounts of lived alternatives to the mainstream development paradigm. Together they also demonstrated the potential consequences of a world that is further opened up to the interests of capital in the name of development.

Particularly inspirational for me was Carlos Zorrilla from Ecuador, who gave us a powerful account of his involvement in a long-running resistance movement against the prospect of open copper mines in the region of Intag. He highlighted how both World Bank policy and domestic state interests have conspired to encourage a vision of development that is both environmentally damaging and opposed by local people. He outlined the threats he has faced as a result, not least from the Ecuadorian state itself, but also the achievements that such collective resistance can realise. Carlos also alerted the audience to the 2008 film ‘Under Rich Earth‘ which documents some of these achievements.

Overall, I must thank the organisers of the conference for creating such an open forum for discussion over the two days. I returned home motivated and re-energised.