Simon Maxwell

#KAPTalks interviews: go beyond project-level development

#KAPTalks interviews – we’re discussing with our top speakers major development challenges facing the world. Today Simon Maxwell, former Director of ODI.

Thursday 01.01.1970

Taming Cerberus: the new challenge of international development

The framing of the Sustainable Development Goals provides an important reminder that there is still far to go in building ‘the world we want’. To take just one example, 22% of all children under five were stunted in 2017: that is 150 million children whose current life and future prospects are blighted by undernutrition. The SDGs set clear goals on all aspects of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental.

It would be wrong, however, not to recognise the progress made since the UN’s first Development Decade in the 1960s. At the beginning of that decade, for example, and to take one country example, Tanzania, about a quarter of children could expect to die before the age of 5; by 2016, that had fallen to under 6%. Higher living standards, better nutrition, improved health care, and the impact of immunisation have all played their part. And, yes, of course, there is still more to do, in Tanzania and many other countries.

It is remarkable, however, that in 2017, there are only 34 countries officially classified as ‘low income’, with per capita income of $US 995 or less. Most of those turn out to be conflict-affected, or otherwise fragile states. Syria is on the list, Afghanistan, North Korea . . . These are not text book ‘developing countries’ with the usual problems of Government capacity and budget shortfalls. Instead, they represent a different kind of challenge, requiring large amounts of humanitarian aid, but also deep engagement in peace-making, peace-keeping and reconstruction. Development agencies need to work in new ways, often in close cooperation with foreign ministries and the armed forces. The UN, of course, has unique legitimacy in these contexts.

There is a further issue, which is that the SDGs provide an excellent vision of a desired end-point, but a rather poor road map of how to get there. Should action be taken uniformly on all goals simultaneously, or do choices need to be made? The answer, of course, is that development strategies need to be locally-specific and locally-owned. Beware, then, SDG box-ticking.

Furthermore, reaching all or some of the SDGs means hitting a moving target, because the world is changing fast. There are three fundamental drivers. First, the uneven impact of globalisation, driving political discourse in many countries as some citizens advance and others are left behind. Second, automation, which will create and destroy jobs on a global scale. And third, climate change, with mountains to climb if Paris targets are to be met, again with global consequences. This is about taming Cerberus, the mythical dog with three fierce heads, but a single body. Indeed, in all these cases, the test facing policy-makers is to manage disruptive change on a world scale: in effect to deliver an industrial revolution which manages the social disruption associated with transformation, and manages public policy and the sequencing of interventions so as to deliver benefits to all.

Can it be done? Yes, if a path can be found between free-market neoliberalism and inward-looking populism. History teaches many lessons about: the role of people’s voice, including unions and civic organisations; the need to secure basic service provision, including social protection; the role of the state in supporting innovation; and the regulatory foundation of equitable and sustainable growth. The free market left to itself will not deliver these public goods; nor will policy which ignores the need for global engagement and collaboration.

Development actors can no longer concentrate on project-level interventions. Instead, they need to look beyond the SDGs and recognise the complexity of present and future challenges.


Organized in partnership with:

Simon Maxwell is the Senior Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute, the UK’s think-tank on development. In addition, he chairs the Climate Change and Development Knowledge Network. He was the Director of ODI in 1997-2009. Maxwell is an economist who began his career working overseas, first in Kenya and India for the UN Development Program, and then in Bolivia for the UK Overseas Development Administration. He holds a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University and an MA in Development Economics from the University of Sussex. Before joining ODI, Simon spent 16 years at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, latterly as Programme Manager for Poverty, Food Security and the Environment. He has written extensively on poverty, food security, agricultural development and aid, and his current research interests also include development policy, linking relief and development, global governance and bridging research and policy.

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