The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be achieved by 2015. Progress is especially slow in fragile contexts, where institutions are weak and there is a risk of violent conflict. But a closer examination shows that the MDGs are inadequate measures of development progress, and as such they represent an international development paradigm that is tired and confused. It is time to review what we mean by development, i.e. the very idea of human progress.
A more useful way to consider human progress is to consider a “developed society” as one with a defined set of characteristics, and to create from these a vision for change. Building on work by others, we propose a generic vision comprising six key characteristics:
- Equal access to political voice, and the legitimate and accountable use of power.
- Equal participation in a vibrant and sustainable economy.
- Equal access to justice, and equality before the law.
- Freedom from insecurity.
- The ability of people to maintain their mental and physical well-being, to have aspirations and make progress towards them.
- The self-reinforcing presence of institutions and values that support and enable equitable progress and peace.
While these characteristics provide a vision of human progress, they do not provide guidance on how to get there. This has to be defined at a local, rather than a global level, and in figuring out how to do this, we need to learn lessons from history. History shows us that societies that have made substantial progress have done so by:
- Opening up access to political and economic opportunities, and developing an increasingly dynamic civil society.
- Establishing states accountable to and with a strong sense of membership by the people, and which adopt “developmental” goals and policies.
- Establishing, gradually extending, and eventually universalising the rule of law.
- Evolving from personal to impersonal forms of participation in the economy, politics and civil society – e.g. from personal to shareholder ownership of companies, and from “big man” political leadership to the idea of “political office”.
- Achieving sustained and shared economic growth.
- Developing a culture which supports the exercise of initiative and encourages creativity.Transferring control of organised violence from the hands of powerful individuals or factions, to the accountable state.
- Adopting increasingly democratic or representative and broadly accountable forms of government.
These changes have historically come about through a combination of circumstances, leadership, negotiation, effective relationships, and when incentives for those in power were aligned with the direction of change. The task of those aiming to achieve and support human progress in fragile contexts is to lead, promote, harness and catalyse processes that produce comparable changes. To do so, they need to figure out how to work with the grain, to change the grain; i.e. work within the power dynamics of the political economy, while promoting changes to it. This is a much better way to conceptualise “development” and “development assistance” than the MDGs which tend to gloss over the political dimension.
With this framework in mind, we can see that some progress has been made since the millennium: for example the number of extremely fragile states has reduced, and this is influenced – partly positively and partly negatively – by a number of global trends. Because of the fluidity and mixed consequences of these global influences, and the challenges inherent in endogenous processes of change, there are good reasons to question whether the reductions in fragility so far achieved are sustainable, and whether people in other fragile contexts can make such improvements. The challenges remain immense. It is critical for the international community to adopt effective approaches to support development in fragile contexts. But despite the good ideas they often produce, international development institutions are failing to rise to this challenge, not least because of their own inertia and resistance to change.
We identify three broad areas for action:
- The need for the development discourse to be reframed in ways which help create a better understanding of what constitutes development, and how change happens. Because of the inertia in the aid system, this will require good leadership from within the sector, and from politicians and in the media.
- The need to create a new development narrative to replace the MDGs, based on a global vision for change, in which development is recognised as a local, endogenous process while the role of international agencies is to promote, catalyse and nudge change, based on a sophisticated understanding of the political economy.
- The need to make international development institutions more fit for their purpose. This means first of all being clearer about their purpose, which we argue should be based on the vision-based approach outlined in our report. Organisational arrangements, staffing, incentives etc. will need to be aligned with the purpose. This will mean a radical change in the way many of the international institutions operate.