Skip to content

Should Development Goals Apply to Developed Countries Too?

March 4, 2011
tags: ,

Last year a colleague and I at International Alert published a report called Working with the Grain to Change the Grain: Moving Beyond the MDGs, a critique of the prevailing development  paradigm as often applied to poor countries, and especially of the Millennium Development Goals. We found the development paradigm to be full of far too much lazy group-think.  And we found the MDGs to be too narrow, too technical, top-down, and unstrategic. A particular flaw lies in the way the MDGs confuse ends with means.

As we approach 2015, the target date for achieving the MDGs, it will become increasingly clear not only that they won’t be met, but also that the goals themselves paint a very incomplete picture of what human progress means. Don’t get me wrong: I completely agree with the idea of eradicating hunger and economic poverty, getting children of both sexes into school, improving health outcomes and reducing child and maternal mortality, etc. But I also know that if we were to write the history of more developed countries it wouldn’t be written in such narrow and apolitical terms. It would also include difficult processes such as agrarian and industrial revolution, land reforms, labour unrest, revolutions and so on. Critically, it would include the strange and largely unpredictable evolution of institutions and organisations in society, and of values which gave rise to and were in turn nurtured and strengthened by democracy.

We proposed an alternative model to the MDGs, for incentivising and holding leaders accountable for investing in development progress. Rather than applying a narrow set of largely technical pre-ordained goals to all developing countries, we suggested a vision-based approach. This took as its basis the idea that a “more developed” society is recognisable by five key characteristics:

  1. Equal access to political voice, and the legitimate and accountable use of power.
  2. Equal participation in a vibrant and sustainable economy.
  3. Equal access to justice, and equality before the law.
  4. Freedom from insecurity.
  5. The ability of people to maintain their mental and physical well-being, to have aspirations and make progress towards them…

…. and that these are all underpinned by a sixth feature: the self-reinforcing presence of institutions and values that support and enable equitable progress and peace.

We saw this as a quite broadly accepted vision, while recognising that there may be many different pathways towards it, and that development strategies should be based on an analysis of how to move closer towards the vision, tailored to each specific context. Our title – working with the grain to change the grain – was intended to illustrate the idea that the transformation of society is most likely to happen when it is in the interests of the elite (who would otherwise successfully resist it). Just to be clear, we made no claim that any country has yet reached – or even come very close to – the vision. But I do claim that the USA, Korea or France for example are closer to the vision than the DRC or Côte d’Ivoire.

A fellow blogger has written an interesting piece, drawing on our report, an article in Mother Jones Magazine, Andy Sumner’s excellent recent report and other sources, in which she takes our six-point vision and applies it to her own USA, pointing out how far away the USA is from the vision. She looks in particular at the trend of increasing income inequality there, and points out that the USA ranks near the bottom of rich countries for access to justice and access to health care (coming behind Botswana for immunization coverage and 23rd in the world for infant mortality, despite its great wealth).

2015 is a few years off, but already discussions are starting about whether or how to replace the MDGs with something more fit for purpose. As part of those discussions the Beyond 2015 Group held a consultation at the recent World Social Forum in Senegal. One of the questions they posed was whether the “post-2015 MDGs” should apply only to less developed countries or if they should be universal. Interesting that the unanimous response was that they should be universal, applied to rich countries as well as poor, based on the notion that all societies are all embarked on the long journey of human progress, and none have yet attained the vision. Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s Good Intentions Are Not Enough Blog quoted above seems to support that view.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2011 3:03 pm

    The MDGs are not perfect but given the political climate back in 2000, they were the least worst option. They still are useful in reminding people about focusing on development–a railroad track signal.

    Development in both developed (wrong description) and developing (evne loser description) countries can only occur once people release themselves from the shackles of neoliberalism.

  2. March 8, 2011 2:44 pm

    Thanks for a great post.

    I have been wholeheartedly recommending the report you did to many folk, and indeed cited it in a blog post here:

    All best,



  1. Is the United States a “Developed Society”? | Good Intentions Are Not Enough
  2. Ten ideas for lobbying David Cameron as co-chair of the post-2015 MDG High Level Panel « Phil Vernon's blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: