The end of poverty?

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the UN Millennium Summit of September 2000, and a consequent, decade-long focus on the Millennium Development Goals, chief among them being the goal to halve global poverty by the year 2015.

The occasion provides an apt opportunity – if not an obligation – to search for lessons and solutions (see below) with renewed vigour*. The UN development agencies’ approach represented by the likes of Mr. Jeffrey Sachs is well outlined and focused on ‘poverty’. Their results however are quite questionable.

In terms of its message, the kind of remedial action that Mr. Sachs espouses (e.g. debt relief, fighting malaria and doing good) is essential but it largely ignores the imperative for wealth creation. The kind of wealth that is needed to pay for national malaria programmes, or better still to establish a national health care system, would have to come from the local economy or else it would be unsustainable.

Similarly, the tired old World Bank and UNDP insistence on ‘good governance’ has received untimely support from the American president who took the UN General Assembly podium a few days ago to claim it rather unconvincingly as ‘a new approach to development that unleashes transformational change, and allows more people to take control of their own destiny’; whatever that pretty sounding statement means.

His approach includes ‘changing how we view development’, but it still hinges on handouts for welfare. In addition, he will ’seek partners who want to build their own capacity’ and end ‘dependency’**. But he means falling back on old, market-opening mechanisms like the Millennium Challenge Corporation; an approach that boils down to externally imposed ‘good governance’. Oh yes, and ‘economic growth’ is also thrown in as a ‘third pillar’ of USA’s ‘new’ approach to development assistance. How this latter point, or even the first two points have suddenly become ‘new’ to the development debate is something that is best left to Mr. Obama to explain.

A look at the Summit’s own Outcome Document throws light on divisions among the member states of the UN regarding what really works and what does not. Paragraph 23 outlines some ‘lessons and successful policies’, as follows:

23. We take note of the lessons learned and successful policies and approaches in the implementation and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and recognize that with increased political commitment these could be replicated and scaled up for accelerating progress, including by:
(a) Strengthening national ownership and leadership of development strategies;
(b) Adopting forward-looking, macroeconomic policies that promote sustainable development and lead to sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, increase productive employment opportunities and promote agricultural and industrial development;
(c) Promoting national food security strategies that strengthen support or smallholder farmers and contribute to poverty eradication; etc.

Moving way down the same list to para (n) in the document we see the first mention of ‘governance’ (minus the ‘good’) in the list of ‘lessons’.

This is indicative of the relatively low recognition given to the fuzzy and ill-defined concept of ‘good governance’ among the majority of the UN’s member states as compared to the highest priority given to:

a) ‘national leadership’ (code words for ’stop telling us what to do’ from the developing countries’ perspective; and ‘want what we tell you to want’ from the donors’ perspective);

b) ‘economic growth’ (that has moved far higher on the list of priorities for all developing countries after the economic crisis of recent years); and

c) ‘food security’ (the most basic truism that was somehow not even mentioned in the Millennium Declaration, and was harmed by the IMF and World Bank’s structural adjustment policies).

Unfortunately, most UN agencies and international NGOs have little or no knowledge of how to foster either national leadership or economic growth, and they certainly have not helped with food security. They lack the empathy and approach needed for the first, and the know-how for the second and third. In fact, they usually follow practices and promote policies that negate such efforts by:

i) interfering with and skewing the process of producing national development plans at the direct expense of local actors and stakeholders, and

ii) insisting on non-productive policies and priorities at the direct expense of productive ones.

The above combination has for example been one of the main causes for several poor countries’ neglect of food production in the decades leading to the recent food crisis. The shock provided by the latter to the system has led to new policies that should see most poor countries becoming food sufficient within the next few years, and independently of any aid agencies too.

The countries that have eradicated poverty most effectively since the Millennium Declaration have been the ones that did not follow the likes of the World Bank, UNDP or even the altruistic Mr. Sachs, but acted rather
‘traditionally’ by producing their own successive development plans and actually implementing them over a sustained period regardless of the fine details or the political system in place. These countries are quite disparate, ranging from Taiwan and China to Malaysia, Brazil, Chile, Ghana, South Africa and Qatar.

The worst results have been among the most aid ‘dependent’ and ‘aid minded’ of developing countries; countries whose leaders have not had the backbone to throw out lame policies and lamer ‘development experts’. Countries whose leaders and officials have been bought and sold like Iranian journalists during the Mossadegh era. And countries whose leaders have failed to mobilise the local population and resources.

It is a little known or appreciated fact that today, there are many more foreign ‘administrators’, ‘representatives’, ‘advisers’ and ‘experts’ embedded in the administrative, political and military apparatuses of developing countries than there ever were during the heyday of colonialism. Most of these technical and humanitarian ‘tourists’ use their time in developing countries to beef up their CVs, line up their pockets, enjoy the local delights, and then pack up and leave for another unsuspecting poor country or home before anyone can ask about their achievements.

On the other hand, there is no shortage of ‘alternative solutions’ to ‘end poverty’. Here is an interesting 2-minute take on what is needed according to Mr. Philippe Diaz***:

And if you are intrigued by the taster, here is the first 10 minutes of the same interview.

What is your take on what is needed to ‘end poverty’?

* Unfortunately, the Summit became more of an occasion for toying with Mr. Ahmadinejad rather than dealing with global poverty.

** As if this would be a ‘find’.

*** I do not necessarily agree with Mr. Diaz’ position on various issues.