Jean-Michel Severino
Jean-Michel Severino

Refusing the fate of underdevelopment for the twenty-first century, the international community has given itself a series of eight ambitious targets to meet by 2015. They range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education.

The mid-term evaluation report of the Millennium development goals (MDG) published last July shows that, as things stand, most of the objectives will not be reached, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Paradoxically, if the global poverty reduction target is met in 2015, it will be due to changes in countries such as China – which pulls about 20 millions of its inhabitants out of poverty per year – rather than to a decline of absolute poverty in the most destitute countries. According to World Bank figures, the number of poor living in sub-Saharan Africa may even increase by 8% from today until 2015.

Does this spell the failure of the MDGs? I don’t think so. They represent an unprecedented and tangible commitment of the international community to uphold the dignity of each human being. A worldwide mobilisation, from state to civil society, has gradually emerged to promote these goals, such that a genuine dynamic in favour of development is now in action. The introduction of quantitative targets has spurred a shift of the development community from a logic of expenses to one of results. And this is no trivial achievement. But by focusing on the – arbitrary – date of 2015, we fail to perceive the fundamental change of paradigm that the MDGs represent.

In the Millennium declaration, the international community took the resolute decision to embody the principles of the United Nations Charter in concrete and operational programs. In this truly cosmopolitan logic, each citizen of the planet, by virtue of his or her humanity, is given a right to a minimum living standard. Yet despite strong economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa over the last few years, figures show that many states will not have the macroeconomic capacity to guarantee these basic standards for many decades to come – standards that will most likely increase in the future. By aiming for targets that are out of reach from the neediest countries’ public authorities, the international community thus accepts to substitute itself to some states in the provision of basic social services through long-term financial transfers.

This change of philosophy implies a real revolution for the development community, which very few states have fully apprehended. It sets aside considerations of economic viability, which used to count amongst the cornerstones of development aid. The efficiency of a programme is no longer evaluated on the capacity of its recipients to emancipate themselves of international transfers through economic growth, but through the sole improvement of the targeted populations’ basic living standards. To use a common metaphor, it is if we had set aside the idea of teaching the weakest states how to fish to focus on large-scale fish distribution. In a way, official development flows are moving away from a logic of investment towards one of global wealth redistribution.

Step by step, we are sketching at the global level the social safety net that was developed in OECD countries during the second half of the 20th century. This gradual transformation is not absurd if one considers that the formation of unified trading areas has often been accompanied by the creation of redistribution mechanism within these areas, the most recent example being the European Union’s Cohesion Funds. Today, the planet itself is becoming one vast integrated market, generating imbalances to which the populations of the South are most vulnerable.

It is primarily for our political leaders to decide whether this is a welcome change of paradigm for international development. Yet as professionals of this field, we must question the coherence and efficiency of our practices. And once again, it seems that the international community suffers from acute schizophrenia: whereas all countries proclaim the importance of reaching the MDGs and the right of all human beings to live in dignity, few are those who give the international community the means to succeed in this formidable endeavour, be it in 2015, 2020 or 2050.

If we accept the logic behind this new philosophy of aid, it is urgent to think of new mechanisms to finance development. Means that would be more stable, more durable and therefore consistent with our implicit ambition: that of creating a genuine international “social safety net” as a social counterpart to globalisation.

I am eager to read your reactions on this topic!

I subscribe to the ID4D newsletter

Once a week, I receive the latest blog posts!