Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A new development paradigm?

The new set of UN development goals will hopefully be more successful than its predecessor, writes Magda Shahin

Al-Ahram Weekly

We have a new set of development goals. This time they are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, to be hailed by yet another UN summit on September 25-27, within the framework of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly.

The ambitions of the international community in setting its latest goals have surpassed all previous ones, resulting in 17 overarching goals with 169 detailed sub-targets. Yet it seems that the developing countries are to be doomed to learn about development ad infinitum but thought to be incapable of ever graduating.

The question of why one set of goals should have a better fate than the preceding ones has been carried over from one set of development goals to the next but never really answered adequately. Previous goals are either shelved or continue to be stated like a broken record, for example the goal of 0.7 per cent of GDP for development assistance.

This article is not intended as a criticism of the 2015 SDGs or as an assessment of the pros and cons of these new goals. It is not meant to discredit or blame any group of countries. Rather, it is a brief synopsis of the various development paradigms that have been introduced over the last 70 years or so and where we stand today.

One should begin by praising the UN for its stamina and perseverance in producing, previously every decade and now every 15 years, a new development paradigm with a set of new targets. This is development by learning.

Such fertility of imagination goes back to the 1960s and started with US President John F Kennedy proposing at the 14th UN General Assembly meeting in 1961 that the 1960s become the “development decade.”

Such a call may have come about to compensate the developing countries for having been overlooked when reinstating a new rule-based system after World War II. In the middle of the Cold War, the US administration felt it would be wise to lure the developing countries into its camp.

At any rate, in the 1960s the system worked smoothly. Europe came out of its war-ravaged state and became competitive, the developing countries became independent and the US focus was on containing communism.

In any case and for whatever reasons, the developing countries earned a new position on the world stage. The UN system helped establish many new bodies to serve the developing countries’ needs and development, including the World Food Programme (1963), UNCTAD (1964), UNDP (1965), and UNIDO (1966).

It would be no exaggeration to count the 1960s as a golden decade for developing countries. Development theories flourished in parallel to help these countries to take off. Economics scholars such as Nurkse, Prebish, Hirschman, Rostow and others were all devising plans for the developing countries to break the vicious circle of underdevelopment. To the developing countries, the sky became the limit of their ambitions.

Working with the Eastern Bloc, the developing countries went a step further by aiming at changing the rules of the game in the Bretton Woods institutions. Together, they did not shy away from calling for a New International Economic Order.

It was then that the US limited the playing field for the developing countries and confined them to UN premises. The UN became a talking shop and a politicised debating chamber on development with hardly any tangible results. It ran out of steam and nothing much transpired in terms of development.

Adding insult to injury, the 1980s came to be known as the “lost development decade.” The IMF, an institution with no experience in development whatsoever, turned into the architect of development. New development scholars emerged, convinced that the developing countries did not need specific development theories of their own.

They felt that the developing economies were no different in their fundamentals from the developed economies: they were poorer, of course, but the same kind of economic theory and the same kind of economic policies applied to them as to other economies.

The so-called “Washington Consensus,” which aimed to straighten out and stabilise macroeconomic indicators, shaped the development paradigm of the 1980s and 1990s. It is needless to reiterate at this juncture that the alleged IMF growth and development paradigm had the sole purpose of making the developing countries repay their debts in order to rescue the predominantly American banking system from a self-inflicted calamity due to its bad lending policies.

The outcry was loud from the UN specialised agencies which deal with the most vulnerable groups, including labour, women and children. The ILO and UNICEF cried foul. What is needed in the developing countries is “adjustment with a human face.” Social justice, totally neglected by the Washington Consensus, cannot be uncoupled from development.

At the same time, the developing countries were engaged in another fight in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) because of the excess commitments they undertook during the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations.

The asymmetry between developed and developing countries that was recognised as the prevailing concept for development throughout the last three decades was slowly disappearing. The developing countries were no longer to be treated differently. A new symmetry between the two groups emerged as a result of the multilateral trade negotiations, from which the UN was totally marginalised.

In this way, the Bretton Woods institutions and the US treasury erred. They erred in not devoting attention to equity and social development. They erred in establishing a level playing field between unequal partners.

The prevailing development concept and the WTO denied the developing countries the special status they had in the GATT trading system, which the US metaphorically labelled that of “free riders.” The developing countries were elevated to the level of the developed countries and shared commitments were inflicted upon them.

It was then that the UN returned to the limelight, albeit with a different and more tolerant mandate. In the 1990s, a broadened and altered development agenda began, which resulted in a series of summits led predominantly by the UN, e.g. the Earth Summit in Rio, World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, and World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen.

The UN made its reappearance again with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with eight chapters of commitments to future UN action focusing on the eradication of poverty, gender balance, the achievement of universal primary education, the combatting of different epidemics, the reduction in child mortality and improvement in maternal health, environmental sustainability and the global partnership for development.

These were the parameters for the new development paradigm. As relatively modest goals, they were criticised as being partial and for dealing more with the problems of the least developed countries and being hardly cognisant of the developing countries’ concerns.

The Post-2015 Development Agenda refers to yet another attempt led by the UN that aims to help define the future global development framework. In the new SDGs, the developing countries want to backtrack on the symmetry concept of the WTO development paradigm, and rightly so.

The essence of their demand is based on the Rio Summit principle of common but differentiated responsibility, thus highlighting the asymmetry between countries. The new Sustainable Development Goals are also more encompassing as they deal with three-dimensional development: economic development, social justice and environmental sustainability.

But there is more than that included in the 2015 SDGs, including the incorporation of normative principles within the new development paradigm. Today’s ingredients of the new developmental consensus include principles such as mutual accountability, transparency and inclusion, which lack an agreed common understanding.

These ingredients have been highly publicised and advocated by the developed countries amidst the new development elements of good governance, democracy, freedom of speech and human rights.

Irrespective of what the new development paradigm contains, its fate risks being similar to the preceding ones if there is no political will to implement it, however. It seems that the drafters were conscious this time around of the need to add a chapter on global partnership with the right means of implementation and the mutual accountability of both developed and developing countries alike. In addition, the private sector is given prominence in the implementation of the SDGs.

Will the developing countries now graduate? The only way they can do so is by developing a policy framework with predominantly endogenous means to implement it that will achieve successful development. Until the time the developing countries do that, they will always be trailing behind and will not graduate.

In a sense, Egypt today is developing its own path towards development, acting according to its own prerogative of taking what best suits its people from international approaches and leaving aside what is not to its liking. Will it be successful in this path? Let us hope so.


The writer is director of the Prince Al-Waleed Centre for American Studies and Research at the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

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