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The Citizen

Development as we know it is dying. What will replace it?

By Peter Harrington and David Garfunkel, Correspondents

When the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals expires on Jan. 1 2015, the world will look back on the most concerted global effort to improve human wellbeing ever attempted and see mixed success. Global citizens will ask: “What next?” The answer is no one knows.

Incredible progress has been made in the last two decades, on almost every front. Take poverty reduction. For the first time in history, both the number of people living in extreme poverty and the poverty rates fell in every developing region—including in sub-Saharan Africa, where rates are highest. The number of low-income countries was cut almost in half, from 63 to 36. And on a broader timescale, since 1960, GDP per capita in poor countries went from an average of $668 to $2,008 today.

In health, the spread of HIV/AIDS has been stemmed, half the mothers die in childbirth today compared to 1990 and, since 1960, infant mortality has plummeted from 166 deaths per 1000 births to 38. Similar progress has been made in blunting the impact of malaria and other diseases.

By any measure, these advances are huge. But not all the news is good. Education is a sine qua non of development in poor countries, but progress towards the MDG goals for primary and secondary enrollment stalled after 2004. More than half of all out-of-school children are in sub-Saharan Africa, and illiteracy still holds back more than 120 million young people.

Child mortality will fall far short of its MDG target. In gender equality, while trends point to an increase in women’s parliamentary representation, the rate of representation remains low overall, and progress has been spread unevenly. The MDG in poverty reduction will only be met because of an economic miracle that pulled more people out of poverty more quickly than any time in history (also known as “China”).

The reality is that on Jan. 1 2015, probably only 5 out of 15 MDGs will have been met, and close to a bil­lion peo­ple will still be liv­ing in extreme poverty.

Is this a failure? There is little consensus within the development community. And there is even less consensus about whether we now need new MDGs, or a new approach entirely. The truth is that the questions facing development go much deeper then the post-MDG agenda. So much so that there is legitimate doubt whether in 10 years time international development will still even exist as a thing at all.

Since 2000, the world that bequeathed us the MDGs has turned upside down. A global War on Terror redrew the international landscape of politics and human rights. China went from an up-and-comer to a looming superpower, and threw out the development rulebook in the process.

While the rich world fretted about BRICS, the rest of the world quietly got on with a revolution in ‘South-South’ inter-dependence that goes far deeper and far further than lazy bromides about China in Africa.

Traditional aid recipients like India and Brazil founded their own aid agencies, even as foreign NGOs continue to cater to their vast poor populations. And underneath it all, global poverty began a permanent and seismic shift from a gulf between coun­tries to gulfs within coun­tries. Add to that an economic apocalypse in the rich world and a political earthquake in the Arab world, and the rate and scale of change is astonishing.

These global forces are tearing the traditional models and orthodoxies of international development to pieces. As the world continues its journey from G8 to G80, emerg­ing eco­nomic pow­ers like India and China are now clearly chal­lenging the West’s monop­oly on aid.

For all the hand-wringing and Western angst, China is building Africa the infrastructure it needs today, not 10 years from now. State-directed economies in places like China, Ethiopia and Rwanda are toppling liberal economic and political dogma, while market-driven inno­va­tions like the rise of impact investing and social business are disrupting the tra­di­tional non-profit NGO mod­el.

The impor­tance of pol­i­tics and insti­tu­tions is increas­ingly rec­og­nized in cre­at­ing effec­tive states, but with­out clear solu­tions or agreement about what kind of capacity building actually works. And all the time an explosion in tech­nol­ogy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions in the devel­op­ing world is trans­forming where and how devel­op­ment actually happens.

When you add to this the shrink­ing Western gov­ern­ment bud­gets, aus­ter­ity mea­sures and greater pressure on results and aid-effectiveness, you add a dizzying list of challenges to the status quo for international development.

So is this the end of development? That is exactly the question that the 19th Annual Harvard International Development Conference wants to provoke. One of the longest-running and largest Harvard Conferences, the April 12 and 13 event will bring together about 500 practitioners, students, academics and activists to examine the forces of fragmentation affecting development, and how to respond.

Development has never been a simple, unified field, and what it will look like in 10 or 20 years is far from clear. What is cer­tain is that the world of devel­op­ment prac­tice – and the world around it – is chang­ing fast. Practitioners and thinkers must adapt to these powerful trends or risk failure and irrelevance.

But how? To answer this, the devel­op­ment com­mu­nity has to ask difficult questions and discard its own orthodoxies. Lip-service to aid effectiveness and results must finally translate into much more ruthlessness in allocation of funds. NGOs must start to get serious about making themselves obsolete, instead of hanging around indefinitely.

Big donors must become less squeamish about politics and start to make their approach to governance more closely aligned with the local political landscape. And development must become intellectually more open, more porous and more ready to learn from others – listening closely to those in the developing world and taking lessons from the private sector, which is ultimately the only sustainable route out of poverty.

In the end, there will be no choice in the matter. As the world’s economic playing field is torn up and replaced with something much more even and much more crowded, countries who once happily received advice and money will no longer be as ready to swallow bland prescriptions from well-meaning advisors from the rich world. It is already happening, as emerging economies start to reject what they see as failed Western economic models. We are witnessing the beginning of a long-overdue democratization of development. It should be welcomed, and embraced.

The Harvard IDC is on the 12th and 13th of April at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Kennedy School. Tickets are almost sold out. For more information go to