#KAPTalks interviews: sustainability of development results

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s works addressed leading development issues of the 1970s, 1980s, and (arguably to a lesser extent) the 1990s.  Have the world’s development challenges changed since then?  What was the biggest challenge then and what is it now?

Kapuściński witnessed the end of the colonial world and the development challenges of his time were mainly linked to the painful process of state building. Today’s biggest challenges are global, ie not specifically limited to the developing world – climate change, asymmetrical conflict, trade barriers, irregular migration. Therefore, the Sustainable Development Goals have been adopted as a global agenda for all.

Some people dismiss sustainable development as an aspirational vision, others an unattainable fantasy, and still others absolutely necessary to our future. In this age where few seem interested in working for the collective good of all, what’s your argument to convince others that it is necessary to change the way we develop?

The development policy was born some 70 years ago and has come of age. Yet, the world community is still struggling to meet some of the objectives set back then – eg the 0,7% GNI ODA ratio formulated in 1968 by the Pearson Commission. Development policy today is rightly looking beyond the task of dealing with post colonial legacies and focuses on common global goods like access to water, limiting effects of climate change and dealing with migratory pressures. Discussion on the definition of ODA should continue at OECD DAC as further updates seems necessary.

What is the biggest challenge/hindrance to successful development?

What area of development or Global Goal do you think sustainable development hinges on? Which one is at the core of all the others?

Despite white spread perception, the main hindrance to successful development of not access to funding. The main obstacle remains sustainability of the results achieved – or still to be achieved – which hinges on much more than money – international burden sharing in dealing with global challenges, ownership by partner countries, maintaining peace and stability.

What’s the most striking thing you have personally witnessed in relation to development? i.e. a challenge, opportunity or just personal observation about a human story.

Firstly, it is the appearance of new players – private donors with global outreach, middle income countries turning into donors, South-South cooperation. Secondly, it is really striking how important the security/development nexus has become and how military and civilian institutions have developed into both providers and recipients of aid.

 

#KAPTalks interviews: multilateralism helping effective solutions

Kapuscinski challenged us in his writings to see the world as it is, and at the same time to see it in fundamentally different ways to convention. Sustainable development likewise challenges us to understand not only where we want to get to, the first sixteen ‘goals’, but through the seventeenth and the broader 2030 Agenda to shape pathways to success based on a fundamental reappraisal of both where we are and how ambitious action can be effective in today’s world.

More of the same, in a nutshell, will not get the job done. This is not just because we made bad decisions in the past, but because the world around us is changing, demanding new approaches to old as well as new problems and opportunities. The fall in global poverty and inter-country inequality over recent decades, for example, largely resulted from China’s rise, a driver that will not repeat itself any time soon. Automation will reshape labor markets and the basis of international competitive advantage in years to come in ways that require different development models as export-led growth becomes less likely for many developing countries. Climate change is now upon us, and means a world of growing numbers and impact of shocks, with livelihood, security and political implications.

Actually, we are overwhelmed by solutions as much as by oft-repeated problems. Perhaps for the first time in human history, we have the science, the technology, the finance, and the know-how to deliver on sustainable development. Our greatest challenge is in how best to organise the delivery of well understood and quite affordable solutions. Our failure to organise is widespread, from weakened multilateralism, to corporate disfunction, to inadequate civil society organisations, and to short-term financial markets. The state formations, civil forms of action and the market institutions we have inherited are proving inadequate to harness the potential of our inventiveness and make it widely available. Digitalisation provides the prospects of a frictionless world of networked opportunities, certainly, But without institutions that can form and oversee equitable rules, this technological surge is more likely to drive further instability and injustice. Our vision of society’s underpinned by human rights and individual choice is threatened by the deterioration of our belief in election-based democracies, the equalising effects of information, and our capacity to sustain empathy at scale in the face of disruption and uncertainty.

 

Our capacity to organise is inter-twinned into our evolutionary process. It is more than anything what makes us able to actualise our imagination in becoming what we are, a technological species. As a civilisational building block, we exist as long as we can organise in ways that are commensurate with new challenges and opportunities. Reforming the UN is but one tip of this imperative. We need likewise to reinvent the purpose and logic of business and the state, and their respective interfaces with each other and the underlying, organic dynamics of self-organisation.

 

#KAPTalks interviews: Kapuscinski’s concern about voices of people

When Ryszard Kapuscinski was addressing development issues, the world was clearly divided into blocs: the First World of advanced capitalist countries; the Second World of communist and socialist states; and the Third World of impoverished nations. There was little connection between these worlds and even less understanding or desire to be informed of others’ conditions. Kapuscinski’s great contribution was to bring these divides into focus and to help people in one bloc understand what was happening in other blocs, especially in the Third World. Today, such distinctions are irrelevant. Thanks to social media there is a torrent of information about everyone’s lives, sometimes accurate, but sometimes distorted. With globalization, people are also more concerned with, and aware of, what is happening in other countries. There is a greater continuum among countries along the development scale. Countries can no longer be easily classified into simple categories—both China and India have space programs as well as pockets of abject poverty. Should they be called underdeveloped? In many instances, the challenges of development today are as much about the distribution of income and differences in living standards of people within countries rather than between countries.

Many of the issues that Kapuscinski wrote about remain relevant today. His stories of revolutions, coups and wars have today morphed into stories of “fragile states,” but the basic concept is the same. States without governments that enjoy the support of their own populations provide staging posts for outbreaks of violence and extremism and cannot be expected to develop. The nature of violence may have shifted from wars and revolutions to non-state actors and criminal elements, but the problem remains.

Kapuscinski was intimately concerned with people and people’s voices. He would find the idea of working for the collective good rather strange. But this does not mean that sustainable development is merely aspirational. It means that we need to find ways to connect global problems and issues more closely with people’s own lives and livelihoods. For example, it is no accident that China is emerging as one of the world leaders in low-carbon technologies. This is largely because China’s cities have become so polluted that citizens cry out for better solutions. The hugely positive impact on the rest of the world is a convenient by-product. What remains unclear, however, is whether these win-win incentives will be sufficient to achieve the pace and scale of the needed global change. So far, there are still plenty of win-win solutions available. We’ve not yet tested the frontier where real trade-offs might become necessary.

These connections between global issues and national issues must be made by leaders at the State and community level. Kapuscinski wrote extensively about leaders and their personal idiosyncracies. These could easily become the most important obstacles to development. Then, as now, the foibles of leaders were revealed. In The Emperor, he was characteristically forthright: “the King of Kings preferred bad ministers. And the King of Kings preferred them because he liked to appear in a favorable light by contrast.” Such idiosyncracies, and the personal patronage that leaders use to retain power, remain central obstacles for development, creating the conditions for widespread corruption, bribery and flattery, as well as the dimming of individual enterprise towards betterment of family and community. All of which we refer to today as “bad governance” but that was described by Kapuscinski as the lack of institutions and reliance on personalities in all political systems.

Yet despite these failings, there has been astonishing progress since the time when Kapuscinski was writing. In his long career, he never witnessed the transformation of societies in the same way as modern development practitioners have. Take the case of Lao PDR, one of the poorest countries in the world in the mid-1980’s. When I first went in 1988, Laos had a GDP per capita of only $308 according to the IMF. Small boys would turn their heads to look at my car, such was the rarity. They “fished” for bats to be made into soup in the capital city of Vientiane. Shortly thereafter, Laos started a program of reforms and development of its considerable hydropower and minerals sector. Today, in the span of one generation, Laos has achieved a GDP per capita of $2,700. Even adjusting for inflation, it is four and one-half times richer than thirty years ago. Development progress has been halting and uneven, with many of the problems of governance so richly detailed by Kapuscinski, but progress in material conditions of the people has been real: life expectancy has risen from 54 years to 67 years (1990 to 2015); expected years of schooling has risen from 6.7 years to 10.8; over one third of the population now has at least some secondary education; and so on. While still a poor country, Lao PDR offers opportunities for a new generation that were unthinkable for the last. It is being transformed.

 

 

#KAPTalks interviews: Planetary labour market

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s works addressed leading development issues of the 1970s, 1980s, and (arguably to a lesser extent) the 1990s. Have the world’s development challenges changed since then? What was the biggest challenge then and what is it now?

In this age where few seem interested in working for the collective good of all, what’s your argument to convince others that it is necessary to change the way we develop?

To me it is a question about justice. There is a global lottery that some of us win and some of us lose. The fact that some of us are born in countries that have high living standards and get to benefit from that is not because we worked harder or because we’re smarter than anyone else. It is simply luck. People born into contexts with low life expectancies or high rates of disease simply have bad luck.

As human beings, we can, and we should do better. We need to broaden our sphere of empathy to encompass our increasingly connected planet. It is much harder to plead ignorance about the breadth of human suffering than it used to be. But if we now are able to know as much about people on the other side of the world as we are about people in the cities that we live in, then sitting on our hands shouldn’t be an option.

This isn’t an argument for a blind faith in 'development’. But rather an argument in favour of sharing wealth and resources. If we acknowledge that luck, due to the geographic lottery, plays a massive role in how long we live, whether our children survive childbirth, our odds of surviving disease, and our chance of finding a rewarding and decent profession, then it isn’t good enough to be satisfied with the current scale of global inequalities. Because of the luck that those of us in the Global North were born with, we have a responsibility to develop and support structures and systems that facilitate global sharing.

What is the biggest challenge/hindrance to successful development?

What area of development or Global Goal do you think sustainable development hinges on? Which one is at the core of all the others?

What’s the most striking thing you have personally witnessed in relation to development? i.e. a challenge, opportunity or just personal observation about a human story.

With over half of the world’s population now connected to the internet, one of the most striking things I see happening today is the creation of what I’ve referred to as a ’planetary labour market’. Millions of workers from around the world are escaping some of the constraints of their local labour markets and competing for the same jobs. This has enormous implications for workers in parts of the world where jobs are scarce. However, the sheer scale of what is happening brings with it concerns about a massive global over-supply of labour power, and a consequent race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions.

 

#KAPTalks interviews: leave no one behind

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s works addressed leading development issues of the 1970s, 1980s, and (arguably to a lesser extent) the 1990s.  Have the world’s development challenges changed since then?  What was the biggest challenge then and what is it now?

In the period of the 1970s and 80s, development was largely seen in terms of modernisation and economic growth. Key challenges turned on enabling countries to establish stable, growing economies through an appropriate balance between industrialisation and agriculture and rural development. Concerns with poverty reduction and social development challenges such as health, education and gender were growing in significance, but often marginalised. And as the neo-liberal era of the 1980s set in, the state-led development agendas of the 1970s gave way to the promotion of free markets. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, dealing with the fallout of structural adjustment and related programs through a renewed emphasis on human development came to be seen as a critical challenge, with states and civil society organisations frequently assuming responsibility.

The last few decades have witnessed major progress in these aspects of economic and social development in many parts of the world. Yet they also reveal a series of paradoxes and contradictions. First, growth has accelerated in many countries but has been accompanied by growing inequalities of many kinds. Global income growth has been very unevenly shared, concentrated in rising middle classes in India and China and in a booming global elite, but with the poorest percentiles locked out, and a declining shared of growth amongst the middle classes in the developed world. Old industrialised countries, emerging middle income ones, and poorer countries are almost all experiencing rising economic inequalities. These intersect – nationally, and in terms of people’s lived experiences – with other kinds of inequaity – social and gender, cultural, political, and in terms of place and knowledge. Inequalities matter fundamentally because they are unfair and unjust, but they also affect other development proprities. Inequality can hamper economic growth, and certainly reduces the impact of that growth on poverty reduction. Health and nutrition are worse in countries with higher income inequality. Inequalities are threatening our democracies, and contributing to rises in conflict – and more.

Second, dominant development paths are proving deeply unsustainable in environmental terms, with climate change, biodiversity loss, land and water degradation and pollution threatening our ability to thrive on a pressurised planet. What were relatively marginal development issues in the 1970s and 80s have moved centre-stage, with growing attention going hand in hand with growing evidence of trends in human-induced climate and environmental change, and its devastating impacts on lives, livelihoods and societies across the world. Development has, by necessity, become sustainable development, and a central challenge is to find and unlock pathways which can ensure human thriving while avoiding further threats to our biophysical life support systems.

Third, the burden of insecurity, and its counterpart, lack of inclusion, affects historic numbers of people across the world on a daily basis. Both nation states and the international community have invested intensively in military security, yet conflict and violence affect many people’s lives. Many face complex, protracted emergencies in which political insecurity intersects with disease epidemics and natural disasters. We have a growing migrant crisis as unprecedented numbers of people leave their countries to escape war, repressive regimes, political alienation or economic hardship. While political participation is given more attention, there is growing distrust in political institutions. Technological innovations offer once unimagined opportunities, yet are also exposing people to new threats, exclusions and invasions of privacy.

In this context, development needs to move from a narrow focus on economic growth and poverty, to navigating complex challenges in ways that reduce inequalities and build more sustainable, inclusive and secure futures for people and societies. (i) Reducing inequalities, (ii) Accelerating sustainability and (iii) Building inclusive and secure societies can be seen as the major defining challenges of our time. Yet there are no single motorways or roadmaps to progress in this new era of development. Multiple and flexible pathways of change and transformation that adapt and respond to diverse contexts, needs and priorities will be required, supported by new ways of thinking, acting and collaborating.

Some people dismiss sustainable development as an aspirational vision, others an unattainable fantasy, and still others absolutely necessary to our future. In this age where few seem interested in working for the collective good of all, what’s your argument to convince others that it is necessary to change the way we develop?

Climate change, biodiversity loss, the degradation of land, vegetation and water resources, pollution whether of the air we breathe or of rivers and oceans increasingly choked with chemicals and plastic – these problems are inextricably linked and affect people across the world. They are the consequences of dominant development pathways which have brought prosperity to some, but at deep cost to non-human nature and people’s safety, health and livelihoods locally and globally. Indeed, there is growing evidence that current development paths risk irreversible damage to the earth’s biophysical life support systems, with further shocks and stresses in store that will affect us all, undo development progress and block it for future generations. There is therefore an urgent need to seek new development pathways that are both sustainable, and equitable. These will require transformative, not just incremental change, recognising that business as usual is not an option, and fundamental shifts are needed in some of the key structures, institutions, systems and norms that shape our societies and economies, along with the transformational politics to deliver these. While this is a major challenge, it is not unattainable. Transformations to sustainability are already happening in some places and around some issues, led both by top-down international and government action and policies, and crucially by grassroots action by citizens in rural and urban settings. Building the political momentum to intensify and grow these initiatives, and to challenge the ‘lock-ins’ that block pathways to sustainability, are key tasks ahead.

What is the biggest challenge/hindrance to successful development?

What area of development or Global Goal do you think sustainable development hinges on? Which one is at the core of all the others?

The Global Goals lay out an ambitious and important agenda for both people and planet, to which all countries have committed. This is a vital and positive step in meeting the challenges of sustainable development. All 17 goals are important, and it is in their combination that progress by 2030 and beyond can be expected. There are also important synergies and tensions between the goals which need to be acknowledged and addressed. For instance meeting the goal for food production could compromise the water goal if agricultural strategies do not take into account surface and groundwater needs; on the other hand opportunitie exist for multiple wins in addressing food, energy and water together. Addressing climate change goals and targets could compromise goals around poverty, tackling inequality and gneder equality if technological and market schemes dispossess local people of rights and livelihoods; on the other hand appropriate policies and strategies could address all these goals together, for instance by building on grassroots initiatives with women’s leadership, or building in appropriate safeguards. Because of these interactions, it is not appropriate to define any particular goal as the most important for sustainable development. People do not live their lives in separate silo-like goals, and nor should responsive, transformative development.

Alongside the significance of the SDGs themselves are their cross-cutting principles and approaches. The imperative to ‘leave no one behind’ is a vital step in forging a development agenda that is genuinely inclusive, and which tackles extreme forms of marginalisation – whether related to poverty, ethnicity, disability, peace, gender or intersections of these. The SDGs are also universal, applying to all countries and people. This is a is a major step in dismantling the problematic divides between so-called North and South, developed and developing country, which have pervaded so much aid and development discourse and practice. Instead, we can now look properly to development as positive change for everyone, everywhere. We can fully acknowledge and address the global-local interconnections between people and places around challenges such as climate, finance, food, and pandemics. And we can forge a development agenda that is about mutual and multi-way learning and co-operation in all directions.

What’s the most striking thing you have personally witnessed in relation to development? i.e. a challenge, opportunity or just personal observation about a human story.

I’ve witnessed and experienced many striking things in relation to development, but a story from recent times illustrates some of the themes I have addressed above: the importance of interconnected challenges in a complex world, and the importance of combining different forms of knowledge and practice – grassroots as well a sglobal, social as well as technical – to address them.

The spectre of a deadly disease emerging in a remote place, spreading rapidly to become a global pandemic is the stuff of nightmares. This ‘global outbreak narrative’ fuels popular media, and now a new wave of global ‘pandemic preparedness policy’. Ebola has become paradigmatic, topping the World Health Organisation’s latest priority disease list. This isn’t just because Ebola is a particularly dramatic haemorraghic fever transmitted through body fluids and killing more than half those infected, but also because in 2014-2015 the global outbreak narrative came true. The Ebola epidemic that began in the village of Meliandou in the Guinea-Sierra Leone-Liberia border region in December 2013 spread fast through the towns and trade routes of this highly-peopled, mobile region, and cases – and fear of them – reached neighbouring countries, Europe, the US and the world. By January 2016 when all countries were finally declared Ebola-free, the death toll was just over 11,000, with 17,000 survivors struggling with the medical and social fallout. It was a devastating crisis – but it could have been much worse. The story of grassroots and social knowledge is critical to this.

Why was this? The problem was that by August 2014, when the World Health Organization belatedly declared the epidemic to be a so-called „public health emergency of international concern”, it was already out of control, with scientists predicting not thousands but millions of deaths. The early international response by humanitarian agencies had foundered, largely for socio-cultural reasons. Many villagers suspected that both the virus, and alleged attempts to control it, were plots to repress their livelihoods and practices, or even kill them. Villagers stoned response agencies’ vehicles and dug trenches across their bush roads to keep them out. People hid and cared for their patients in their remote farm camps rather than bring them to Ebola Treatment Units, and sometimes ‘stole back’ patients treated there. Funerals were quickly identified as a key moment for transmission, when bodies are at their most infectious, and local practices involve touching and visits by kin – yet people resented and resisted the external teams sent in to conduct so-called safe burials. And as the response scaled up, so did local anxieties about it.

Really worried about what was unfolding, a group of anthropologists in Sierra Leone and the UK who had worked for decades in the region on various development-related issues wondered what we could do. We set up an Ebola Response Anthropology Platform, and established links with networks of concerned anthropologists that also emerged in West Africa, Europe and the US. Together. We mobilised social science knowledge in real-time to re-shape the public health and humanitarian response, away from the top-down approach that was clashing so badly with local values and fuelling resistance that magnified the crisis, and towards a more respectful, community-engaged approach that appreciated and built on people’s own social and cultural logics, practices and innovations.

Take funerals: our work showed the need to see them as part of a longer period of caring for the extremely sick by kin; and their social and cultural significance, ensuring people become ancestors, social faults are addressed, and matters of inheritance settled. At one point there was a stand-off in a Kissi village where a pregnant woman had died of Ebola; villagers insisted that the fetus be removed before burial, to avoid the social fault of ‘maa’, in which regenerative cycles of generations are mixed, with devastating consequences for land, crops and people. The burial team refused because of the infection risk. Mediation by an anthropologist and a local healer helped broker a creative alternative; a sacrifice that would appease the relevant spirits without the fetus being removed. As in examples like this, communities were willing to adapt their practices to balance social and infection risk; but agencies needed to appreciate their social significance to support this balancing. Such understanding fed directly into new guidelines for ‘safe and dignified burials’ with community involvement.

Or take local anxieties about the response: far from being the ignorance based ‘rumours’ that agencies initially assumed, our work showed their logics embedded in the region’s experience of development and inequalities. The idea that foreign agencies might be trying to depopulate an area to take land – or that Ebola is being spread by white miners – are all too feasible given people’s lived experiences of land and resource grabs and disposession. One of the most devastating incidents in the epidemic, when villagers in the Guinea forest village of Womeh out of fear attacked and killed a 6 person Ebola sensitisation team, happened less than 10 km from Mt. Simandou, the planned site of the largest integrated iron-ore mine and infrastructure project ever developed in Africa by Rio Tinto Group, BSG Resources and the Aluminium Corporation of China (Chinalco). Ebola also became embroiled in longstanding ethnic and political tensions. For instance in Guinea, the epidemic’s epicentres in the forest and coastal regions are also heartlands of ethnic groups opposed to the Malinke-led party in power. A politicised response by government was easily interpreted as genocide. By explaining these tensions, we were able to support agencies to tailor their messages and teams – for instance by working through ethnically trusted or neutral officials.

Our Platform directly shaped humanitarian and development strategies. It supported the UK government’s strategy in Sierra Leone, becoming a first-time social science sub-committee of the UK Government Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), directly advising the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientist. Impacts included the decision to develop Community Care Centres for initial triage and isolation of cases, as a more acceptable and accessible alternative to the large Ebola Treatment Units which people so feared. We also directly informed the social mobilisation efforts of the Sierra Leone government and NGO-led Social Mobilisation Action Consortium, highlighting how community learning and behaviour change was turning the epidemic round, and how to build on this in ‘Community Lead Action on Ebola’ efforts which eventually reached 67% of communities in Sierra Leone.

International agencies have recognised this. Margaret Chan of WHO said in 2015 ‘we have learned the lessons of community and culture’, and WHO’s re-vamped Health Emergencies Programme has a major emphasis on community engagement, as does UNICEF’s new Health Emergency Preparedness Initiative (HEPI). The importance of social science knowledge has been recognised – at the invitation of UNICEF and USAID we’re now running a broader social science in humanitarian action platform, and agencies are calling for the development of social science protocols to be ready for quick use in further outbreaks, of all priority diseases.

Outbreaks and potential pandemics will recur in our current and future development era – although when and where we cannot be certain. These are part of the protracted crises that affect so many. What I think we can be sure of is that alongside medical technologies and epidemiology, social knowledge – and the ability to mobilise it in real time – will be critical parts of the world’s ability to be ready and respond, and crucial to addressing humanitarian and development issues.

 

 

#KAPTalks interviews: bold leadership needed

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s works addressed leading development issues of the 1970s, 1980s, and (arguably to a lesser extent) the 1990s.  Have the world’s development challenges changed since then?  What was the biggest challenge then and what is it now?

I disagreed with Kapuściński, when he claimed: “We know everything about the global problem of poverty. What we can’t figure out is how to reduce it in practical terms. [The moment we try] there appear obstacles that cannot be surmounted, and interests one cannot go against

In fact, when I founded the UN Millennium Campaign in 2002, I insisted: we are the first generation that can put an end to extreme poverty: we know what to do, we have the resources, and we have the commitments of the world’s governments to do what it takes. But it requires political will: and lack of that was a challenge at the time – and even more, today. Political will only materializes when politicians feel they can win elections by doing the right thing: it is up to us, citizens and civil society to make these issues vote-getters.

And indeed, the Millennium Development Goals were broadly achieved, as (according to the UN SG in 2003) “There has been …most importantly mobilization far beyond governments by Civil Society, among parliamentarians, faith-based communities and local authorities.” Alas, in the present climate of growing xenophobia and nationalism, it became much harder to mobilize citizens in favor of international responsibility and solidarity and get the message to politicians.

Some people dismiss sustainable development as an aspirational vision, others an unattainable fantasy, and still others absolutely necessary to our future. In this age where few seem interested in working for the collective good of all, what’s your argument to convince others that it is necessary to change the way we develop?

Everybody wants a better life for their children and grandchildren. Obviously already much of the quality of life as we enjoyed it, clean air and waters, beautiful fauna and flora, is being lost. We are failing the imperative to pass on this planet to the next generation in as good shape as we inherited it from our parents. And to care about the planet implies caring about people, as poverty is the greatest polluter. This is what sustainable development is about…

 What is the biggest challenge/hindrance to successful development?

The real problem is that government leaders come to international meetings, make beautiful speeches and sign up for ambitious promises; and then take back the plane from New York or Paris home, to business as usual, instead of meeting with their Cabinet members to discuss what their signature implies, per sector, for all the different portfolio’s Ministers hold – from health to finance and trade, and regularly monitor implementation of the actions agreed.

And they can get away with this, as they are not being held to account by their own citizens and Parliaments, the only ones that can do so, as the UN cannot send the police to a country that fails to live up to its promises. There is no point in producing global norms and goals unless they are translated in concrete political action at country level.

And it is not only lofty UN Declarations that gather dust without being implemented. Treaties might suffer this fate: the 2007 Lisbon Treaty requires all EU’s policies to be consistent with its external policies, including fostering sustainable development whose primary aim is the eradication of poverty and helping the environment. But until this day the EU’s common agricultural policies continue to pollute the environment and hurt poor producers in developing countries.

What area of development or Global Goal do you think sustainable development hinges on? Which one is at the core of all the others?

 Goal 1 – Poverty – is in my view – the overarching goal. I see all other goals as instruments and/or issues to be tackled in order to achieve this first goal. And given the relationship between poverty and the health of our planet, reaching the first goal is also paramount for environmental sustainability.

What’s the most striking thing you have personally witnessed in relation to development? i.e. a challenge, opportunity or just personal observation about a human story. 

On more than one occasion I met poor African women, empowered by a little extra income, thanks to access to minimal resources or assets, proudly telling me that now they could afford to send their daughters to school and how that would ensure she would have a much better life that they had. These encounters never failed to move me deeply; and to make me realize that this is at the heart of what the development is all about.

#KAPTalks interviews: Global Goals need more work

When Ryszard Kapuscinski was putting pen to paper, the biggest global challenge was human poverty, including high mortality among children and mothers, widespread malnutrition and persistent illiteracy. Since then, respectable progress has been made. Perhaps the most striking statistic is that some 18,600 fewer cases of infant and child deaths occurred each day in 2015 compared with 1990; notwithstanding the significant rise in the world population over that period. But progress was not observed across the board. Deforestation, overfishing and pollution has continued unabated, jeopardising the planet’s biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions have soured. The picture can be summarized by the one-liner Progress for people, regress for the planet.

Whilst human poverty still requires hard work, it no longer constitutes the prime global challenge. The most pressing one now is twofold: sustainable and equitable development. The world is not facing two separate challenges—environmental and societal, with fragmentation and polarisation of all sorts—but one complex inter-connected challenge in which inequality occupies a central role. Evidence shows, for instance, that people in more equitable countries are more environmentally friendly across the board: they consume less water for personal use, produce less waste and emit less CO2.

Girl in a jacket

Although the SDGs represent a better framework to respond to this dual challenge than did the MDGs, they are too muddle-headed to be effective. The goals regarding climate change and inequality rank in thirteenth and tenth position respectively—suggesting they do not really constitute top priorities. Moreover, their relevant targets are flawed. The stated target for inequality aims to ‘progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average’. The metric for inequality is faulty because it fails to capture the entire distribution and ignores the top 10%. Inequality is not only due to the poverty of the poor but also to the wealth of the wealthy. It is perfectly possible for a country to meet the above-mentioned target and yet witness an increase in inequality. If faster income growth for the bottom 40% is based on transfers from the next 50% whilst the top 10% of the distribution are left unaffected, then the country will indeed see a rise in inequality. A hollowing out of the middle class is being observed in many a country.

The significance of high inequality cannot to be underestimated, because it influences the way people feel, think and act. We do not only crave for status and constantly compare ourselves with others, we also mimic the behaviour of others, especially those at the top, to whom we look up in awe whilst feeling contempt for those lower on the social ladder. We inadvertently internalise the values, the opinions and even the interpretation of events of those whom we admire. This can have deleterious effects on our moral sentiments, giving rise to more incivility. People voluntarily abstain from acts that are individually beneficial but socially harmful as long as others do so too. But once wealth is perceived as an entitlement to selfish behaviour, it will quickly cascade down the social ladder and good behaviour quickly evaporates. Psychology professor Paul Piff conducted experiments that show that respondents who were made to feel rich were ‘more likely to break the law while driving, to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies, and to cheat to win a prize’. Other studies reveal that individual tendencies of self-absorption, bragging and self-aggrandisement are most prevalent in more unequal countries. In short, high inequality harms more than just the economy; it affects all aspects of development.

Considerable work remains to realise the potential of the SDGs. The good news is that several of their flaws can be fixed. First, each and every country must cut the long list of SDG targets to a manageable level by prioritising them to fit the reality on the ground. Second, the fuzziness of many SDG targets must be swapped for conceptually clarity, because wooly targets cannot be verifiably monitored. Third, numerical outcomes must be tailored to reflect local realities. It is unreasonable to expect that all countries will progress at the same rate. Global targets are always collective in nature, and must never be imposed on each country individually. Selection and adaptation are urgent steps, given that the SDGs have gotten little traction so far. One thing I have learnt is that development is always context-specific, driven by local priorities, local actors and local institutions. There can be no universal agenda with one-size-fit-all targets for all countries. International and regional organisations are yet to take effective steps to encourage and support member states in selecting and adapting the SDGs to their specific situation.

Finally, more fitting indicators must be selected to monitor progress. Regarding income inequality, the Palma ratio—income share of the top 10% divided by that of the bottom 40%—is a better metric because it covers more of the distribution than just the bottom 40%. In addition, all vital statistics and other relevant indicators for human development must be equity-adjusted, by attaching more weight to the lower quintiles than to the higher ones. Given the increased availability of better and more disaggregated data, it is now possible to adjust key national indicators to reflect inequalities within a country, following a straightforward methodology for producing equity-adjusted statistics. By embedding inequality into national statistics, countries will occupy a different place in international rankings, depending on how unequal they are. This is likely to generate a much-needed focus on inequality across the board, which is overdue because high inequality constitutes a major hindrance to achieving sustainable development. 

Jan Vandemoortele, PhD., co-architect of the MDGs, served with UNDP and UNICEF in various countries and at headquarters.

#KAPTalks interviews: democractic empowerment of majorities

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s works addressed leading development issues of the 1970s, 1980s, and (arguably to a lesser extent) the 1990s.  Have the world’s development challenges changed since then?  What was the biggest challenge then and what is it now?

There have been significant changes in the leading approaches to development: in the agents and agencies taking charge of it, in the theories and values guiding them, in the goals they prioritize, and in the academic analysis and journalistic commentary accompanying development work. Still, the real challenges are akin to what they were half a century ago. Billions of human beings still are at risk of undernourishment, malnutrition, communicable diseases or death from neonatal or maternal conditions. Billions still lack clean water, sanitation, shelter, electricity, basic health care or elementary education. Back in Kapuscinski’s day, the world was rich and productive enough to avoid these massive deprivations but instead chose to spend its riches on an incredibly expensive arms race, an incredibly destructive war in South East Asia and an extravagant but exciting space program. Today, with global average income some 130% higher in real terms and after spectacular advances in science and technology, humanity is even much more capable of avoiding such deprivations. But this will not happen so long as a small global elite runs this planet, capturing 46% of global wealth for its 36 million millionaires while confining humanity’s poorer half to less than 1%.

While inequality remains the key foe of development, there has been a significant shift from inequality’s international to its intra-national component. While the logarithmic distance between the poorest and richest countries has remained about the same, international Gini inequality has declined as some very large developing countries have been rapidly catching up to the global average.

For the world’s poor, this decline in international inequality has been nullified by significant increases in intra-national inequality – not merely in India and China, but pretty much everywhere in the world (least so in Latin America, where intra-national inequality was at nosebleed levels even in the 1960s). So the poorer half of the world’s population is still left behind economically, still socially and politically marginalized if not excluded. But the countries in which most of them live now command much more influence on the international stage. While the high-income countries peaked at 85% of the world economy in 1992 and have since declined to 64%, China’s share bottomed at 1.7% in 1981 and has since increased to 16%. Where developing countries had little or no influence on the design of the global economy 50 years ago, they have substantial influence today, especially where they engage in South-South collaboration (as in BRICS or IBSA). Today’s problem is that, all too often, this influence is exerted in behalf of small Southern elites rather than for the benefit of the majority – and also that the world’s poor find themselves increasingly disempowered, excluded and ignored by the politicians of their own countries.

Some people dismiss sustainable development as an aspirational vision, others an unattainable fantasy, and still others see it as absolutely necessary to our future. In this age where few seem interested in working for the collective good of all, what’s your argument to convince others that it is necessary to change the way we develop?

The expression “sustainable development” brings together two different projects: to avert climate change and to eradicate poverty. These two projects are superficially at odds as is often pointed out by saying: “just imagine what the world would be like if those who are now poor attained the affluent lifestyles common in Germany, Japan or Maryland! Our planet would be ruined even faster.” This appearance is often exploited and entrenched by those who, for whatever reasons, oppose either project. They are quick to exclaim either that we should not vigorously fight climate change because doing so would impose intolerable burdens on the poor or that we should not vigorously fight poverty because doing so would accelerate environmental disaster.

I have two main arguments against such claims of tension.

First, severe poverty can be eradicated through economic growth or through a reduction in economic inequality (or through some combination of the two). Adopting the former method, we might seek a quadrupling of the gross world product, hoping that doing so would “lift all boats,” thus quadrupling the income of the world’s poor as well. Such an anti-poverty strategy would court ecological disaster. But then the horrendous magnitude of accumulated inequality makes it possible for us to adopt the latter method instead: to make enormous progress against poverty even without any further global economic growth. We could, for example, quadruple the income of humanity’s poorer half (from 4.5% to 18% of gross world product) by shrinking the income share of the richest quarter by merely one sixth (from 85% to 71%). To be sure, the fourfold income increase in humanity’s poorer half would have adverse ecological effects. But these would be largely or wholly offset by the ecological benefits of reduced income in the richest quarter (fewer private planes and yachts, reduced air travel, smaller cars, less waste of consumption goods, etc.).

Second, as longitudinal and cross-country studies spectacularly confirm, poverty eradication has a massive negative effect on total fertility rates (average children per woman), especially when it comes with improved educational and employment opportunities for women and girls. Some poor populations in Africa – Niger, Angola, Mali – still have TFRs over 6, while the EU’s TFR is 1.58 and TFRs in more than 100 mostly affluent countries have fallen below 2.00 (implying that their populations will decline). Humanity’s future population size is one crucially important factor in humanity’s future ecological footprint. The UN Population Division currently forecasts that humankind will number between 9.6 and 13.2 billion in the year 2100 (90% probability), with pretty much all of the increase occurring in the less developed regions (mostly in Africa). With a serious anti-poverty offensive, TFRs among the currently poorest populations would fall much faster than predicted and humanity could peak at 9 billion in 2050 and return to the current 7.5 billion by century’s end. By reducing the size of the year-2100 population by one third (relative to the current median projection of 11.2 billion) and the size of later populations by even more, a serious effort against poverty could bring dramatic relief in the struggle to avert climate change, resource depletion and other ecological hazards.

The arguments I have sketched will convince those who are interested in working for the collective good of all. The rest are, I fear, hard to convince, especially if they are affluent. Rich people are above all mobile and can use golden passport programs to relocate away from areas that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change or poverty (into the US Northwest, perhaps, or into safe parts of Canada, New Zealand, Chile, Russia or South Africa). And they will rationally prefer doing so over giving up even just one sixth of their income for the sake of eradicating poverty and preserving our beautiful planet. Once they will have pulled out their investments – or even have gone short – they will care nothing about the fate of Venice, Mumbai, Rio, Cape Town, Christchurch, Miami or Bangladesh.

What area of development or Global Goal do you think sustainable development hinges on? Which one is at the core of all the others? 

The fundamental problem of sustainable development is the problem of political empowerment or, to put it negatively, the problem of regulatory capture. Political power in this world has been seized by a small international elite of super-rich financiers, tycoons and politicians who, abetted by armies of well-trained accountants, lawyers and lobbyists, capture an ever-increasing share of the social product. Their fortunes and machinations are shrouded in secrecy as over a hundred secrecy jurisdictions compete to keep their assets hidden under layers of anonymous accounts, shell companies and fake trusts. Such people dominate politics in most developing countries and thereby control the basic resources on which we all depend: food, fossil fuels, metals and other minerals. They dominate politics in the United States, where the practice of bribing elected politicians through future employment or contributions to their campaigns and political action committees (PACs) is protected by the Supreme Court. And through their exorbitant influence on national governments, they also dominate international rulemaking through treaties and conventions as well as through the associated international organizations and agencies (WTO, IMF, OECD, etc.) in charge of interpreting, refining and applying international rules.

These rich and powerful people are, for the most part, not evil, nor even ill-disposed toward the poor. But they do have a special affection for their own fortunes and therefore use their disproportional political power toward defending and increasing their own outsized shares of the social product. They do so by evading their tax obligations (even in civilized and public-spirited Scandinavia, the richest 0.01% of the population – with wealth above USD 40 million – evade about 30% of their taxes on average). They do so by deploying their financial and political power to reduce or eliminate taxes on the rich and social safety and social mobility programs for the rest of the population. And they do so by organizing and supporting elaborate propaganda efforts designed to show that things are getting better and better for ordinary people (the Gates-Pinker-Roser team) and that those in power care deeply about preserving our planet and “leaving no one behind” (the Millennium/Sustainable Development Goals exercises and the Paris Agreement).

This is not to say that the global elite acts in close coordination, as part of some grand conspiracy created and sustained at Davos or Bilderberg meetings. Political, finance and business leaders often compete, clash, even destroy one another as they seek to enhance their own power at one another’s expense. Still, the net effect of their exertions favors their shared interests over those of the vast majority of the human population who are feeling increasingly confused, helpless and demoralized, often blaming unloved minorities or themselves for their economic, social and political marginalization. Though disunited, the elites together maintain a public culture and institutional arrangements that systematically impede human development and keep billions in at a level of severe poverty that has long ago become wholly avoidable.

The democratic empowerment of these majorities is the fundamental problem of development. And a formidable problem it is! Over the last forty years, the elites have greatly increased their economic advantage over the rest, keeping billions in conditions of severe poverty where they must focus their energies on the survival of their families rather than on fighting for political reform. This increasing gap is magnified by huge advantages in education and especially in technology – such as surveillance, big data, disinformation, artificial intelligence, all of which are overwhelmingly used by and for the elites. Democratic movements exist (witness the Bernie Sanders campaign) and still have a genuine chance to win here and there. But without some important democratic victories in the near future, we will slide farther into a world of extreme inequality in which the lives of the vast majority will be blighted by poverty, marginalization and increasingly severe environmental burdens. We don’t have much time.

#KAPTalks interviews: go beyond project-level development

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.