They say overall extreme poverty has declined since 2000, with a lot of credit given to the advent of the MDGs, serving its purpose as a coordinating framework for the plethora of existing development commitments already made by developed countries, particularly those belonging to the OECD, in the 1990s.
We should give credit where credit is due.
One of the unanticipated results of the development gains emanating from the MDGs, however, was that there was increased global inequality during the same period. The rich got much richer, and the very poor stayed the same. And the global revolt against capitalism and globalization is pretty astounding. I mean, well, look at the rise in populist leaders. It’s a reaction to increased inequality, but it doesn’t speak to the root of the problem. In my opinion, it may just exacerbate the problem, but more on that in a bit.
Why more inequality? Theory and Practice has written about a key underlying driver numerous times (here, here, here and here) – in a nutshell, prioritizing value for money over actual development, the actual hard stuff like connecting farmers to markets in remote and vulnerable regions prone to disaster and conflict, not just focussing on national capitals. And in a further nutshell, one of the reasons inequality increased was because it was easier to make the poor-but-not-challenging countries richer than it was to make the poor, fragile states more stable and a bit more prosperous. Hard work and impact costs money, and the spending will only become more efficient as progress towards stability is institutionalised, laying the groundwork to allow development to accelerate as institutions and the people who work in them increase their capacity, as the local economy gains a foothold, and education builds a solid pool of workers for both the public and private sector. THAT’s when the case for value for money in development can even begin to be made.
Instead, donors mostly funded programmes in countries that already had pretty decent institutions and stable economies, with a decently educated populace. Quick wins, really. That ‘low hanging fruit’ that drives me batty.
So, that’s that.
And as I mentioned earlier, you can almost tie the rise in populist movements to this directly. Inequality breeds resentment which doesn’t take much to transform into quasi-fascism. You see this across Europe, but even more as a driver behind extremist religious groups (be it Islam across the Middle East, or right-of-Mussolini Christians in the US), and of populist governments emerging in Asia, underwritten by people who know they deserve more, that their government should deliver more, but they don’t understand how to get it done because investment in education was poor, the quality of education resulting in people lacking the skills to think for themselves and see through the unthought-out fodder that politicians spew that won’t do anything at best, and create chaos and even more division and inequality at worst. You know, like Trump’s basket of followers.
I could rant forever on this. But suffice to say I feel that if donors had invested the money where it was needed despite cries for efficiency, and put just as much emphasis on education everywhere else instead of promoting aid for trade, the issue of inequality would be a side event, and we’d be years ahead on other agendas, like climate change and women’s empowerment. And maybe we wouldn’t have Manus Island or horrors on Nauru. And maybe we wouldn’t have had Trump and Farage. Or maybe I’m just fantasizing.