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The politics of development is the development of politics

September 27, 2012

Lots of good buzz in and around the UN General Assembly in New York this week on the international development front. David Cameron making it clear he’s still committed to a growing UK aid programme – and co-chairing the first meeting of the UN’s High Level Panel on a new development framework to replace the MDGs after 2015. A large group of NGOs involved in the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding produced a great 6-pager – Bringing Peace into the post-2015 Development Framework – explaining why the post-2015 framework needs to have peacebuilding and conflict prevention at its heart, which would help fix one of the problems with the MDGs, which are far too technical and not nearly political enough.

At International Alert, where  I work, we discussed whether to sign up to the Bringing Peace paper. We wanted to – we agreed with practically all of it, and it made sense that we’d show solidarity with fellow NGOs working on the same issue as ourselves. But in the end we decided we couldn’t, because the paper diverged from something we’ve been saying consistently for the past two years. The Bringing Peace paper suggests the need for the MDGs to be replaced by another set of global goals, and that individual country plans must be tailored to hit these goals and targets.

From our perspective, global goals and targets make no sense, and we have explained why on our website. We have developed a set of principles the post-2015 MDGs need to follow. One of these is subsidiarity, which Wikipedia defines as  follows: ‘Subsidiarity is an organizing principle stating that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter effectively. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.’

With subsidiarity in mind, along with the widely accepted aid doctrine of Taking Context as the Starting Point, it seems absurd to set goals, targets and indicators globally, when development happens nationally and locally. We’ve instead proposed on our website a post-2015 framework with three dimensions:

1. The need for a global vision, drawing heavily on the Millennium Declaration, setting out in broad terms the kind of world we aspire to live in, where people would have access to economic opportunity, justice, security, representative governance, the chance to participate in a supportive community, and steadily improving prospects for personal and family well-being.

2. Meanwhile the main focus of planning and implementing progress would continue to be the nation state and its component parts, right down to local level; national and other plans would be encouraged to show how they will make progress in line with the global vision, but they will be tailored primarily to the needs and opportunities of their specific context.

3. Meanwhile international organisations, regional groupings of nations, and businesses would also play their part.

In the end, even though the international community can do its best to incentivise individual countries to do their utmost to move in the direction of the global vision, it seems pointless to say that each country must make its plans to fit the vision. That ignores local politics, would utimately leave the international community whistling in the wind, and would feed cynicism about the whole endeavour.

Because in the end so much development is about politics, in two ways. First, the process of development itself is primarily political, concerned with highly political issues like equality, equity and changes in access to knowledge, power and resources. Secondly, development is also about the evolution and acceptance of a different politics – of institutions, practices and norms which favour broad participation and accountability.

One of the civil society representatives at the UN this week, Lancedell Mathews from Liberia, put it well when he spoke at an event in front of several heads of state, including his own. Referring to the New Deal for Effective Engagement in Fragile States, an agreement between donors and fragile state governments which is laced with good ideas (and fancy acronyms), he said – my emphasis added:

“It is our thinking that the New Deal is not only about the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals, FOCUS, TRUST and other acronyms. For us, it is essentially about building and maintaining honest, respectful and mutually accountable relationships, not only between the international community and states, but also and more importantly between both of them and the people they serve. As already mentioned throughout various messages that we spread this week, we believe that the New Deal should be used to change national planning processes because we strongly believe that peacebuilding, and conflict prevention, should and certainly must be made the priority if we want to see progress in development. This agenda is not only relevant for societies that are already conflict-affected – the events of the Arab spring and the global financial crisis show us that no society is immune from fragility – and that all societies can guard against it through the principles of inclusiveness, responsiveness, fairness and accountability.”

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