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Jam today, versus honey tomorrow: temporal trade-offs and the SDGs

September 6, 2014

The SDG framework needs to reflect the fact that development processes are non-linear, and involve trade-offs between immediate and future benefits.

Those few readers who follow my blog will have become accustomed to – perhaps bored with – the notion that ‘development is history looking forwards’. By which I mean, we should see ‘development’ as a collection of the kinds of processes of societal change and improvement such as we claim to discern in our analysis of the past. A fairly obvious point, but one I make from time to time, to reinforce the idea that development is a complex set of interconnected historical processes of change: technical and political.

Looking at development in this way – as ‘future history’ – is also a way to remind politicians and development or peacebuilding practitioners of the risk of hubris inherent in their attempts to help people change the course of their (future) history. Especially given that we know it is virtually impossible to predict chains of societal change with any confidence or precision. (After all, most of the outcomes we can now discern in history were probably not intended at all, at least not by those who helped set off and facilitate the chains of causation we now claim and describe.)

Thinking recently about this in relation to the draft Sustainable Development Goals prepared this year by the UN Open Working Group, set me off on a related new line of thought. This takes me outside my comfort zone as it’s quite a philosophical line of inquiry. The logic, as I see it (and I welcome comments and refutations of this rather clumsy argument), is:

  1. The concept of ‘development’ is fundamentally about creating a better future. It must be, because:

the results of any ‘development’ initiative will not be achieved until after they are implemented (i.e. in the future), and

‘development’ is an ambitious and long-term concept which by definition will take several lifetimes to ‘achieve’. For example, in ‘rights-based development’, it is impossible for all the rights of all people in a particular society to be fulfilled immediately (if ever).

  1. Therefore, ‘development’ initiatives must necessarily be strategic, i.e. designed to increase the likelihood of a future ‘good’, rather than simply improve lives today.
  2. Given we know ‘development’, like most societal change, happens in a non-linear way, the initiatives which are optimal for achieving future goals, are unlikely to be the most optimal for achieving immediate benefits.
  3. Given that any ‘development’ initiative is therefore but a step on a longer road, or a brick in a larger wall, is logical that people should be willing to forgo benefits today, in favour of benefits which will accrue to their community in the future.
  4. This logic however is premised on three conditions:

There is no feasible, more effective alternative available

The forecast future improvements are reasonably likely to transpire

The “beneficiaries” undergoing the opportunity cost are aware of and accept it.

Once the conditions are outlined, it’s immediately clear that this is more of a thought experiment than a practical notion, especially in relatively fragile and undemocratic societies where poorly informed people with limited political voice, are concerned. And because – as mentioned already – longer-term development processes are notoriously unpredictable, and non-linear.

Nevertheless, I find it a useful line to explore, as it reinforces the idea that development policy and practice needs to take a strategic and future-oriented perspective, aiming to benefit people today to the extent possible, but within an explicit trajectory of enabling an improved future. (Rather as politicians fighting a war insist on the very severe shorter-term cost of longer-term victory).  This is why human capital development is such an obviously attractive development initiative, as it benefits the child or adult being ‘capacitated’, who – it is reasoned – will also be a force for social good as a result.

Or, I suppose, we could just go back the simpler a-political days of yore, designing short-term, immediate impact policies and projects, and hoping that the bigger picture of future history takes care of itself.

Why is this relevant to the SDGs?

Because they appear to be falling into the same trap as the MDGs, of confusing ends which strategies, or as eloquently put by Simon Maxwell in his recent blog post, of confusing intrinsic with contributory goals. The point is that if we genuinely believe in some bigger idea of societal progress, then it immediately becomes a political question at two important levels: of prioritisation and of strategy. These are intrinsically political questions, because there are seldom uncontested answers to either of them.

The current SDG draft reads as an incoherent list of seventeen goals and over 150 subsidiary targets, sparkling like as many coloured lights festooning a Christmas tree. It is anything but a framework. If one of the challenges of the next few months is to try and give it some meaning as a strategic framework, then I would suggest that those involved need to take into account the need for the framework to recognise the difference between strategic interventions and the intended goals; and that one of the explicit assumptions must necessarily be that there are short term trade-offs inherent therein.

This matters because, once it passes through the 2015 general assembly, the SDG framework enters the minefield of national politics. Famously, while long-term businesses may have a low intrinsic discount rate, individuals (electors) and governments usually do not: they value immediacy of outcomes and benefits, and nowhere more so that in a democracy with its 4-5 year electoral cycle, or a fragile state where the patronage which maintains leaders in power needs to be fuelled. The SDGs need to be fit for that real world (where, as soldiers say, no plan survives contact with the enemy). So we need to be pragmatic about what they do and don’t contain. But if they are to be more than just humanitarian goals, it is really important that they reflect the real nature of historical development processes, and the intention of creating a better future history. One way to do that is to differentiate between jam today, and honey tomorrow.


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