It’s time to take a deeper look at what we mean by 'development' and 'aid'

Heads of State will meet in New York on 20-22 September this year to review progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were agreed by UN member states ten years ago to inspire increased investment and effort to improve people’s lives in developing countries. These include important measures such as infant and maternal mortality, school attendance, household incomes and hunger, amongst others.

The MDGs, however, will not be achieved by 2015 as intended. Progress is especially slow in so-called 'fragile' contexts, where institutions are weak and there is a risk of violent conflict. A closer examination shows that the MDGs are in any case poor measures of development progress, and they represent an international development paradigm that is tired and confused. It is time to review what we mean by development: the very idea of human progress.

On the 8th September, Alert will launch a new report, Working with the grain to change the grain: Moving beyond the Millennium Development Goals, to explore this. In this report, we propose that a developed society is one with:

  • 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.

This list is quite different from the MDGs. But while it provides a vision of human progress, it does not provide guidance on how to get there: on what the process of development looks like. 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.

So the task of development and aid agencies 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: how to 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 instead tend to gloss over the political dimension.

Building on this, in the report we identify three broad areas for action. First, the development discourse needs to be reframed in ways which help create a better understanding of what constitutes development, and how change happens..At the same time, there is a 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. Finally, we highlight that it is essential to make international development institutions more fit for their purpose, which will mean a radical change in the way many of them operate.

The report will be launched at a public event in partnership with the Royal Commonwealth Society:


on Wednesday 8th September at 6.15pm at the Commonwealth Club, London.

On the panel:

BRIDGET KENDALL, BBC Diplomatic Correspondent (Chair)
PHIL VERNON, Director of Programmes, International Alert
MARTIN PLAUT, Africa Editor, BBC World Service News
BARBARA STOCKING, Chief Executive, Oxfam GB

The event is open to all and is free to attend. The debate will be followed by a wine reception.

To register for this event go to