How to find a middle ground between destructive cynicism and shallow feel-good philanthropism? It is a question I grappled with ever since I started a degree in development studies. My choice for this subject was driven by a deep-rooted indignation over the grave inequalities that so perversely divide the world we live in. On the one hand I desperately wanted to believe that good intentions mattered and that, unitedly, we could bridge the cracks of injustice. Yet at the same time I was often overwhelmed by cynicism, as I discovered that the good intentions of people not unlike myself often resulted in a type of development aid that, at its worst, was condescending, ineffective, naive and neo-colonialist.
How do we distil a potent strategy for poverty reduction from the tangle of noble aspirations and distorted power relations that make for contemporary development aid? A strategy that not merely feels good but actually guarantees good quality outcomes? The 2000 Millennium Development Agenda instigated a promising move in this direction and now that this ambitious agenda is coming to an end the question arises whether it has given us sufficient reason to set our cynicism aside.
During the September 2000 UN Millennium Summit 189 nations made an ambitious promise. Their representatives pledged to contribute to a world where the principles of human dignity, equality and equity would thrive over the destructive forces of extreme poverty and hunger. This idealistic promise was translated into eight concrete goals – the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – that came to function as a blueprint for tackling pressing development challenges: education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, HIV/AIDS and other diseases, environment, and global partnership. These overarching goals were further articulated into measurable targets that were to be achieved by the end of 2015 (1).
The question arises how Bangladesh is doing just before the 2015 deadline. The 2013 Progress Report(2) suggests that there is reason enough for modest jubilation. Encouraging improvements have been made when it comes to reducing headcount poverty, primary school enrolment, gender parity in education, lowering child and maternal mortality, and reducing the prevalence of communicable diseases. Expectedly, there is also still ample room for improvement and areas that are in particular need of greater attention include employment generation, primary school completion, adult literacy, and decent wage employment for women. Thus like the rest of the world Bangladesh finds herself in the twilight zone between targets half met and half failed. Inevitably, the pressing question emerges: where do we go from here?
Room for Improvement
With this question in mind and the 2015 deadline approaching, it seems appropriate to reflect on the advantages and shortcomings of global goal setting for poverty reduction. Professor Sakiko Fukuda-Parr identifies the following main achievement of the Millennium Development Agenda: “[b]y articulating the complex challenges of development in 8 goals and concrete targets for 2015, the MDGs have had unprecedented success in drawing attention to poverty as an urgent global priority”(3). The MDGs thus successfully transformed poverty from an inevitable fact of life into an object of international intervention and responsibility; something that could be measured, monitored and diminished.
This quantification of poverty, however, also had its inevitable shortcomings. It reduced the development agenda to meeting basic material needs, thereby sidestepping larger issues concerning social justice and human rights. Sakiko Fukuda-Parr critically observed that this “simplified narrative has no room for understanding poverty as related to the underlying power relations within and between countries and the asymmetries in the global economy”(4). David Hulme and Rorden Wilkinson similarly suggested that future global goals should be focused more explicitly on reducing inequality between individuals, groups and countries(5).
The Post-2015 Agenda
In an attempt to tweak the global development agenda a UN Open Working Group was launched in 2012 to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)(6) before the end of 2015. In Bangladesh this new agenda sparked a post-2015 participatory consultation process aimed at bolstering the country’s say in shaping the new global development goals. The outcome of this process was a national document with goals and targets that matter to Bangladesh, such as: ensuring environmental sustainability and disaster management, guaranteeing quality education and skills for all, increasing employment opportunities and safeguarding worker rights, and promoting sustainable production and consumption(7).
These goals clearly resonate with the national context of Bangladesh. Yet it is important to emphasize that they should be addressed in the realm of joint international responsibility. For, poverty is not something that happens within certain borders and outside others. Poverty is compounded by asymmetries in the global economy and it is exactly for this reason that a global development agenda is necessary. Let us hope that the MDGs have fuelled the motor of a fruitful feedback mechanism that enables us to self-critically target and fine-tune the positive change that is needed to counterweight this imbalance.
1) See the UN webpage on the Millennium Development Goals: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/
2) See the Millennium Development Goals Bangladesh Progress Report 2013: http://www.bd.undp.org/content/dam/bangladesh/docs/Publications/Pub-2014/MDG%20Report%20Last.pdf
3) See ‘Should global goal getting continue, and how, in the post-2015 era?’ by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (2012): http://www.un.org/esa/desa/papers/2012/wp117_2012.pdf
4) See the aforementioned paper by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr
5) See ‘Brave new world: global development goals after 2015’ by David Hulme and Rorden Wilkinson (2012): http://www.bwpi.manchester.ac.uk/medialibrary/publications/working_papers/bwpi-wp-16812.pdf
6) Read more about the Sustainable Development Goals on the following website: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/
7) See the aforementioned MDGs Bangladesh Progress Report