Assisting development = assisting what, precisely?

All around are the signs and sounds of a steady gearing up for the renewed development debate. Before it gets swamped by a demand for commitments based on GDP percentages, targets and indicators, it would be a good idea to reflect a little on what we really mean by development.

Renewed debate

Among the harbingers of renewed debate, there’s the first meeting of the UN High Level Panel on development last week, the UN’s post-2015 global consultation and various other statements and discussions getting going, and the attack in Britain on the ring-fencing of development aid as a government budget item, as I reported in my post of 24 September.

Though this is a discussion of development, much of it is going to be explicitly about aid and much of the rest will be implicitly about it. Donor governments, development aid agencies and a lot of recipient governments and agencies all join in bringing two connected subjects of discussion – what is development and, secondly, how do we best aid it? – into one blurred whole.

The acme of this elision is the Millennium Development Goals. And it is the MDG achievement deadline of 2015 that is largely responsible, as it approaches, for the renewed activity.

The MDG conundrum 

The MDGs represent an international near-consensus on development. Staking out commitments for progress on poverty and hunger, education, child and maternal health, gender equality, HIV/AIDS, environmental sustainability and a global partnership for economic development, they have generated broad support. Expressing those commitments in time bound targets and measurable indicators, they have helped persuade a lot of people that development aid is not only ethically right but also pragmatically effective.

As a rallying cry, the MDGs get the support of those for whom development is essentially a matter of economic growth, uniting them with the constituency that sees developments as essentially a matter of ending poverty, and with the supporters of diverse measures of important progress such as improved health, education and gender equality.

It seems like commonsense and furthermore there is no denying that in poor countries the goals of economic growth and improving people’s basic conditions of life are crucial.

So it always feels a bit churlish to criticise them. But here goes (again).

MDGs on their own terms

The MDGs divide development into a range of sectors and activities. Taking the MDGs on their own terms, it leaps to the eye that as global goals they are extraordinarily selective. There is nothing in them about sectors and activities such as peacebuilding, human rights, infrastructure, agriculture, mental health, and secondary and tertiary education.

This would not be a problem if they were not treated as comprehensive. But they are and once the political decision has been taken to take the MDGs as a guide, then bureaucratic machinery prioritises what’s in them and de-prioritises what’s not. Two major consequences follow:

Perverse incentives: The activity of development aid inevitably got skewed towards fulfilling the goals and targets to which donors committed themselves under the MDGs. For all the language of local ownership and the practice of needs assessment, it has too often been the case that global targets either displaced or sat alongside local need to drive development aid. And within that donor-focused version of aid, the emphasis then fell onto some areas not others, because the rewards were for helping the donor government do its part for meeting the MDGs, not necessarily for assisting development.

Conflict blind: Although the blindness was mitigated over the years as a result of insistent advocacy and solid research, the MDGs encouraged development aid policy and practice to be conflict insensitive. The result is inevitable. Of the poor countries that will do worst when measured against the MDGs, about two-thirds are hard hit by violent conflict. Not a single conflict-affected or seriously unstable country has yet achieved a single MDG and the 2011 World Development Report took the view that none would be met by 2015.

Over the MDG years, things have got better as major donors and the World Bank (parts of) recognised the importance of addressing conflict and politics. But it has been uphill work. In opposition, the British Conservatives committed themselves to taking the MDGs as the guide for their development policy and in the same document acknowledged that “peace and stability are a pre-requisite of development.” They saw no internal contradiction. But many donor agency officials and development NGO staff continue to use the MDGs as a reason why conflict and political instability can be safely left in the margins of development aid debate and policy.

The parts and the whole

But now let’s not take the MDGs on their own terms. Beyond the selective substance of the goals, part of what’s wrong with MDGs is this: having broken development down into sectors and activities, they never quite bring the parts back together to reconstruct the whole. Development is thus understood, planned and supported as a cumulative total of diverse activities and sectors – not as a process such as, for example, human progress.

It follows from this that, if you ask the question, how best to aid development, the answer is based on showing how to support particular activities or sectors.

  • As former UK Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell put it: “get 11 million children into school, vaccinate 55 million children against preventable diseases and stop 250,000 newborn babies dying needlessly.”
  • As Ivan Lewis, Labour’s shadow minister for development, has just said at the party conference: “over 100,000 teachers, … almost 7 million bed-nets, …12-and-a-half million people with better sanitation and … 4,500 km of road.”

These are the characteristic arguments of supporters of development aid, the 0.7 per commitment and the MDGs. And I know these arguments and this evidence will work for an awful lot of people. But the habit of citing such examples, outstanding though such achievements are, is supported by an unquestioned assumption that these achievements by definition add up to development, that the parts inevitably make up the whole.

This is simply not true and it’s not surprising that it’s not. Think of other fields of human activity – health care, defence and security, running a local library, staging a play…

In all these and others, it is often the case that strengthening parts means strengthening the whole. But it is never necessarily the case. And it is also often the case that strengthening parts either does not contribute to the strength of the whole or actually weakens it by creating an imbalance with a weaker part. This is why complex institutions and systems need overall monitoring, direction and planning.

What is development?

As I have argued before, the book Violence and Social Orders by Douglass North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry Weingast, published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press, offers a pathway towards answering the question. The 2011 World Development Report is among recent work strongly influenced by this way of thinking.

Understanding world history in terms of the contrast and the transitions between what the authors call “limited access” and “open access” social orders – broadly speaking, social orders based on autocratic and arbitrary power, and social orders based on democracy and the rule of law – they depict development as the transition from one social order to another.

By extension, development assistance is helping that happen.

In this way of thinking, the good things set out in the MDGs (and other good things that are not) happen because of development and as part of development but neither drive development nor do much to tell us what it is.

The characteristics of open access social orders include

  • equality before the law and the impersonal administration of justice,
  • formal and real equality of opportunity (e.g., in education),
  • institutions of government based on the rule of law,
  • contract laws that are enforceable and fair,
  • a rich democratic culture with an active, diverse and independent civil society, and
  • a widely held set of beliefs about the equality of all citizens.

The process of development, it follows, is the process of transition towards the characteristics of open access. The first steps, in the view of the authors of Violence and Social Orders, are normally establishing the rule of law for the social and economic elite (so that it later becomes universal), institutionalising public and private organisations that outlive their founders, and the state consolidating control of the military and other means of violence (establishing law and order).

So that’s what development assistance is

There’s no inevitability about this: countries can make it to the threshold of the development transition and not further. And there is no fixed recipe: different countries do it their own way. But in this mix of characteristics of how power is formed, used and constrained are the ingredients of progress.

And if development assistance is actually going to, as it says on the label, assist development, then it is this transition that it should be aiming at.

This is a far cry from development assistance depicted as a matter of anti-malaria nets and even thousands of kilometres of roads. There you have development assistance as a form of chronologically extended humanitarian aid – justified by human need but occurring outside of immediate crisis – and, frustratingly, recurring and recurring because, while the projects can be delivered, development does not necessarily ensue.

In this light, development assistance ought to look first and foremost for people’s need for a system of government in which they can trust, which can represent them and be responsive, through which they can articulate their needs (which may indeed prioritise nets and roads), so that as their needs are met their stand-alone capacity also grows. All too rarely is that capacity fostered by development projects.

This, it seems to me, is the dilemma that development aid has not yet cracked. The theory of social orders advanced by North, Wallis and Weingast offers invaluable pointers towards resolving it.

And some more than that

But many questions remain.  One at least is political in a narrow sense and a challenge in donor countries.

For understanding development and for the work of peacebuilding, the insights of North, Wallis and Weingast trump the speeches of pro-0.7 politicians and activists – but for mobilising popular support it is probably the other way round. If development is to be assisted through financing from rich countries’ governments, their citizens must approve. And while the elision of development and development aid is deeply unsatisfactory, and the reduction of aid to a series of do-good projects even more so, depositing development and aid in two separate boxes is even more unsatisfactory. So is it possible – and if so, how – for development seen as a transition to a new social order and development aid seen as support for good projects to be in harmony with each other both in theory and in policy and practice?

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