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Post-2015 debate: The need for a fresh start

The international context of the MDGs

The international aspects of the MDGs are set out in Goal 8 which seeks to develop a global partnership for development. The objectives enunciated in the MDGs are long on words. But it would seem that outcomes have been short on substance. Indeed, Goal 8 has turned out to be simply inadequate. In the international context, the focus of MDGs is much too narrow. By Deepak Nayyar


The misplaced emphasis on concessional development assistance, attributable to a donor-centric world view, dominates the discourse. Clearly, the international community needs to do better at this unfinished business but far more needs to be done. It must also be recognized that foreign aid is not all there is to external finance, and that external finance is not all there is to development. Moreover, aid is a mixed blessing and often turns out to be the equivalent of a natural resource curse. There are other sources of external financing such as remittances from migrants that need to be explored. In any case, for developing countries, access to markets in trade and access to technology for development are far more important than foreign aid could ever be.

* Unfair rules need to be corrected

Thinking ahead, it is clear that, during the first quarter of the twenty-first century, development outcomes would be shaped, at least in part, by the international context. It is also clear that unfair rules of the game in the contemporary world economy would encroach upon policy space so essential for development. Many of these rules are a part of the WTO regime while several are implicit in IMF-World Bank conditionalities. Similar conditions are increasingly imposed, particularly on LDCs, by donor countries that provide foreign aid.

This situation needs to be corrected. The correctives should endeavour to make existing rules less unfair and recognise that even fair rules may not suffice. In reshaping unfair rules, the nature of the solution depends upon the nature of the problem. Where there are different rules in different spheres, it is necessary to make the rules symmetrical across spheres. Where there are rules for some but not for others, it is necessary to ensure that rules are uniformly applicable to all. Where the agenda for new rules is partisan, it is imperative to redress the balance in the agenda.

* But it is also about players

But that is not all. Rules that are fair are necessary but not sufficient. For a game is not simply about rules, it is also about players. If one of the teams or one of the players does not have adequate training or preparation, it will simply be crushed by the other. For countries at vastly different levels of development, there should be more flexibility, instead of complete rigidity in the application of uniform rules. Indeed, uniform rules for unequal partners can only produce unequal outcomes. And there is a need for positive discrimination if not affirmative action in favour of poor countries, particularly but not only for the LDCs that are latecomers to development.

In sum, the object of change, whether reshaping unfair rules or allowing exceptions to existing rules in the world economy, should be to address the problems associated with the constraints on poor countries implicit in the presence or absence of rules, so as to enlarge the policy space available for the pursuit of national development objectives. This alone can provide the foundations for what is described as a global partnership in development.

Of course, such a global partnership will also require a change in the asymmetrical relationship between rich and poor countries that has unfolded as the reality in the present agenda for global development cooperation, read by some as no more than performance criteria for developing countries, even if the intentions underlying the MDGs were noble. In this quest, there is need for a more equal partnership between industrialized countries and developing countries.

* Cooperation among Southern countries

The possibilities of cooperation among developing countries provide a new window of opportunity at this juncture in time. So far, this has been in the world of rhetoric rather than reality, words rather than substance. But this subset is an integral part of the logic of international collective action. What is more, the world has changed in the international context where the distribution of economic and political power is so unequal, the increased economic significance and political influence of developing countries provides an opportunity to reshape rules and institutions even in the world of unequal partners. The United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization are among the most important multilateral institutions in which countries such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa, could exercise influence on behalf of the developing world.

Even if developing countries cannot change the world by articulating their voice or by using their bargaining power as a group, or subset of a group, there are possibilities of cooperation among developing countries for themselves in many spheres. The institutional mechanisms might be inter-regional or intra-regional arrangements that pool markets and resources for development. The institutional mechanisms could also be bilateral or plurilateral forms of assistance where some developing countries, learning from their experience, can help other countries that have to traverse a similar path. In fact, cooperation among developing countries may be particularly important in the pursuit of the MDGs, because it is about learning from each other in spheres where countries in the industrialized world simply do not have the experience.

* Beyond the confines of Goal 8

In reflecting on the MDGs after 2015, there an almost obvious need to think again and start afresh on the international aspects of MDGs. In doing so, it is imperative not simply to adapt, modify or transform the existing Goal 8 but also to reformulate, indeed redefine, the global agenda for development cooperation beyond the confines of Goal 8. This reflection should be concerned with three dimensions of the international context:

● First, it is necessary to remove the asymmetries implicit in the relative importance of different issues and in the relationship between rich and poor countries.

● Second, it is essential to enlarge the policy space available to countries that are latecomers to development, which has been encroached upon and significantly diminished by unfair rules for unequal partners in the contemporary world economy.

● Third, it is time to move away from unidirectional or asymmetrical relationships to evolve partnerships in development between industrialized countries and developing countries, as also among developing countries, in keeping with the logic and the spirit of international collective action.

Deepak Nayyar is Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Distinguished University Professor of Economics, New School for Social Research, New York. The piece is taken from the UNCTAD electronic debate on Development-led Globalisation.

Recommended citation: Nayyer, Deepak (2013) ‘Post-2015 debate: The need for a fresh start. The international context of the MDGs’, World Economy & Development In Brief (WDEV), Luxembourg, 28 Feb (www.wdev.eu)

Posted: 28 Feb 2012

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