The Post-2015 Agenda Is an Opportunity to Rethink the Terms of Trade in Dealing With the Poor

12/07/2013 11:29 BST | Updated 10/09/2013 10:12 BST

Woody Allen once joked that having money was better than poverty, if only for financial reasons. Unfortunately, this often seems to be the view of the international aid community too. The recently published report of the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda (Co-Chaired by David Cameron) almost acknowledges that having won hard-fought battles to increase the quantity of aid over the last thirteen years, it is now the quality that is in question. Almost, but not quite.

Raising one billion people from just below the absolute poverty line ($1.25 a day) to just above it has been a tremendous achievement, but if this legacy is to last it depends on so much more than just raising peoples incomes. Emergent problems of resource use, environmental stress and population pressure, not to mention continuing economic uncertainty, are enough to burst the bubble of self-congratulation surrounding the MDGs, which largely avoided confronting these long-term threats.

The next development framework seeks to raise another billion people from poverty. A billion people for whom poverty is more stubbornly persistent, who are least educated, who have the worst health outcomes, and who largely live in nations that are poorly governed and insecure. Paul Collier talks about the Bottom Billion, what Frantz Fanon a couple of generations ago called The Wretched of the Earth. Those stuck in the poverty trap, where not only do people live on less than $1.25 a day but are forced into subsistence, unable to produce the surplus economic and human capital to permanently escape.

When the MDGs were proposed, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) were largely characterised by extreme poverty. Now, a decade and a half later, it just as often describes a special category of Least Developed Countries that have experienced a number of associated risk factors including conflict (Afghanistan, DR Congo), severe environmental or economic stress (Haiti, Pacific Island Nations), poor governance (Chad, Somalia) or sometimes all three.

Whereas some LDCs have pulled themselves out of absolute poverty into near-middle income status (such as Ghana or Kenya), the new dividing lines recognised by the HLP have been between a number of LDCs who are not even keeping pace with average performers such as Ethiopia or Cambodia, as well as a persistently impoverished rural population in many developing countries (particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa) who are not sharing the benefits of high levels of growth that return overwhelmingly to the growing urban middle-class.

What the HLP recognises is that these people do not live in the neat delineations of the past, and that the poor no longer exactly match up with poor countries. Wealthy, educated Africans living in a city like Kigali or Accra may now expect economic growth and financial stability to translate into a job, a car, maybe even their own house. They watch American films on South African cable television and drink European lager, at least when the power is on. Like their European and North American peers, they get married later, live longer and have smaller families. It is sometimes hard to tell if these people live in the developed world or the developing.

The High Level Panel has focused upon reducing inequality as the means to bring all people living in poor countries up to the level of their urban peers. In a sense this is a worthy aim. While the Make Poverty History campaign may not have actually made poverty history, it did successfully re-frame development as poverty reduction. The success of this campaign, and the fact that poverty did reduce in many poor countries, has led to a seemingly inevitability that inequality should be the next step in the process.

But there is a danger of comparing apples with oranges, and exchanging a fairly quantifiable concept for a largely unquantifiable one. Inequality-reduction implies doing all sorts of things that poverty-reduction (and the MDGs) never attempted, such as guaranteeing 'social floors', minimum living standards below which no citizens should live, and even social insurance guarantees for countries that are struggling to achieve Universal Primary Education or where the major diseases of poverty - malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS - are still endemic.

Another goal of the new framework is to promote sustainable environments. Here, the general consensus has been that a lack of attention to the environment in the MDGs, particularly a poorly formulated and erratic Goal 7, means that action on the environment has been the least successful part of the MDGs.

The environmental challenge in coming decades is overwhelming, and it is difficult for the development community to focus on it given the often conflicting ambition of reducing poverty through economic growth. Yet the emphasis that the High Level Panel's report superficially puts on the environment is not supported by concrete proposals. There is very weak commitment to the idea of Sustainable Development Goals, one of the ideas for a new framework that was lobbied for hardest, and there is a confusing attachment to the principles of both universal economic growth and a stated rejection of a 'business-as-usual approach'. Most worryingly, for a report that claims on its very first page that climate change is the theme that runs throughout the entire plan, only one sub-target of one goal explicitly mentions a target for climate change (limiting warming to 2C). The lack of urgency on this issue is of deep concern.

It is this sense of urgency that the report lacks. The success of the MDGs may have unfortunately neutered any sense in the new framework that a clock is ticking, or that what is needed may be more than just a mechanical set of goals. The Stockholm Resilience Centre identifies nine planetary limits, critical systems that life on earth depends on. Think of them as the basic systems in the human body like the respiratory system or the nervous system. Like all good systems, a certain amount of resilience is built in to cope with external shocks. And just like the most sophisticated computers, or the largest organisations, the systems are complexly inter-related to each other adding to the overall resilience as well as to its vulnerabilities. If one system goes down it affects the others.

Of the nine limits, three have already exceeded the 'safe operating zone': climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle. Three more are on trend to exceed safe limits if action is not taken, and a further two limits we just don't have enough information on to say. In fact, only ozone depletion (where action was taken on CFCs in the 1970s and 1980s) can be said with some accuracy to remain within safe limits. While the Panel's report does recognise some of these challenges, there is no real sense that they are most urgent, or that it has fully grasped that past and future development gains depend on responding effectively to these challenges.

There is already a framework that can be used to consolidate recent successes and safeguard against growing environmental and economic risk. Dropping an ill-defined attachment to equality in favour of the principle of equity could go a lot further to meeting the aspirations of the development community, as well as safeguarding the natural and environmental systems that future development is premised on.

Focusing on equality buys into the notion that development is always linear and that economies only ever get richer. The growing environmental and economic crisis shows how weak this assumption is. Focusing on equity instead transforms the development framework from one of targets handed down from on high to a contract between those consuming resources and those who legitimately feel that they still have a lot of development ahead of them.

By only going half-way on the environment the High-Level Panel is in danger of succumbing to its own logic. Having accepted that environmental stress of critical systems, particularly climate change, is the greatest potential threat to development, it avoids accepting that the first task of a development framework has to be to establish a fair system where bargains can be made between the environment and economic growth.

E F Schumacher made the apposite point as far back as the 1970s that if public companies were run in the same way as people treat Earth's environmental systems, it would be called fraud. That is, modern economies, and the accounting systems that they use, deliberately leave out a major input to the process (such as clean air, available water, abundant natural resources dug from or growing out of the ground) that add an enormous amount of value to the end goods and services. So much value, in fact, that not only is it the difference between profit and loss, but often the entire reason why goods can be produced in the first place.

Yet, this value is not accounted for on balance sheets. While this may on an individual basis only result in particular companies flourishing or going bust, at a planetary level it has the potential to create widespread damage.

Twelve new targets have been proposed by the High Level Panel to replace the MDGs. A danger is that specific targeted goals may be replaced with consensual, diluted aspirations about unquantified concepts such as sustainability and governance. The new framework thus faces the challenge of marrying quantifiable goals that people can be held accountable for with looser, more interconnected ideals than may better reflect a complex and rapidly changing world.

In what may called a small triumph for the human rights approach, many groups have lobbied to place issues of freedom and governance together with specific targets on disease prevention and school attendance in the new framework. One new idea is that of 'differentiated responsibilities': different routes to shared goals. Perhaps a simpler framework to adopt, given the shift away from a mechanistic view of development, may be to follow Franklin Roosevelt. In a speech given in 1941, as the United States was emerging from a long hard depression and could see the approach of war, Franklin Roosevelt enumerated four freedoms that should be enjoyed not just by Americans but the world over: Freedom of Speech; Freedom of Worship; Freedom from Want; and Freedom from Fear.

It is not hubristic to say the MDGs were the modern equivalent of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. A set of definable aspirations people could rally around, and that helped achieve extraordinary things. If the new framework is to succeed it might be an idea to get back to Roosevelt's basic message. One that recognises that hard targets work so far, but that empowering people's freedom to do certain things, and their freedom from certain dangers, may be the most important task of all.