Make Inequality History? What would change if we focussed on inequality rather than poverty?

April 25, 2013

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April 25, 2013

Incantations, inclusive growth and the illusory ‘we': whatever happened to politics in the post-2015 process?

April 25, 2013
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French development guru Pierre Jacquet laments some of the gaps in current debates on the ‘post-2015’ successor to the MDGsPierreJacquet2

It is altogether amazing how wishful and incantatory discussions on global issues have become. We seem to be content with passionate statements about what “we should”, “we need”, “we must” consider and do. “Inclusive growth” may well have become the new global development objective to worship, and it is hard to disagree with all the statements that go with it and sometimes resemble a laundry list of great things to do. Have we reached a sort of “end-of-History” development approach in which we believe that everyone agrees on some final objectives and we collectively know how to get there? Or is it, rather, that we try to exorcize our impotence and helplessness, while buying ourselves a conscience?

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me stress my full support to all the objectives that “we” should achieve! However, I find this display of self-indulgent and well-intended thinking almost totally irrelevant. My objections are twofold.

First, who is this “we”, as in “we should” or “we need”? Presumably, there are several such “we”s, and “they” might not all agree. Or “they” might have other priorities. For example, I believe that gender equality is a crucial aspect of inclusive growth and an objective very much worth pursuing, for ethical, social, economic as well as cultural and other reasons. Yet, seminar participants saying for example “we should promote gender equality” are generally not the main or unique actors. It thus amounts to talking at length about what others should do, which may seem a pointless incantation (I’ll qualify this below, though).

Second, these objectives seem so obvious and (ethically at least) incontestable – and they are so repeatedly discussed and endorsed – that the real question is not whether “we” should pursue them, but why they have not yet been achieved!

Motherhood, apple pie, and post-2015?

Motherhood, apple pie, and post-2015?

Answering that question is much more difficult. It is tempting to explore the idea that we did not know enough to be able to do the right thing, and so we turn to diverse sophisticated studies to get knowledge and inspiration on how to do things better. This is the altogether well-established technocratic approach to life. I do not want to dismiss it too easily, nor to underestimate its merits in providing useful evidence-based guidance from serious evaluations. But it comes as a complement to something at least as fundamental, which belongs to the realm of the political economy: there are power issues and relations out there; there are scores of individuals with interests, and the collusion of these interests shapes individual and collective actions. If all these objectives we discuss at such length have not been met, it is likely to be because they were not seen as a priority by most of the relevant actors, notwithstanding any lip service to the contrary.

Hence, my own recommendation would be that global seminars (and the post-2015 process) focus more on the process of political and social change rather than on desired outcomes. Influencing the process is indeed possible, and brings me to qualify my earlier critique: mobilizing agreement around objectives helps attract attention, both global and local, and may change the political environment. However, instead of brooding over broad objectives and principles, one effective way to focus attention is to provide facts and data and report on experiences, in order to shape a better evidence-based diagnosis and precisely define the space for action.

What is measured and reported cannot be ignored, so that describing and measuring are powerful instruments of political influence. For example, facts and data on income distribution are bound to feed a discussion on whether the current situation is compatible with an acceptable vision of social justice; facts and data on the quality of public service delivery, a crucial element of social inclusion, will lead to questions about how to organize that delivery in more effective ways and how to reach out to people who may be excluded. Instead of trying to define social inclusion through a laundry list of objectives, a better way to push the agenda is to document various aspects of social exclusion and their costs.

But the final judgment about whether the situation is acceptable or not is bound to be specific to local politics. A major point, here, is that it would be naïve to believe that there is a spontaneous demand from policy makers and politicians for academic knowledge and evidence to formulate policies. Unfortunately, the connection between knowledge and policies is not a simple, linear process. It is rather chaotic and political as well. The interest of policy-makers in what good research can bring needs to be built through a sense of urgency that will re-shape local priorities and demand action. This is why good facts and data are so crucial in the process.

Finally, “we” need “them”, I mean the people described by our statements. Diagnoses and recommendations need to be owned locally, rather than formulated by outside, foreign observers, however well intentioned. For example, the debate on social protection in developing countries is often cast in terms of resources: do they have resources to develop an effective system, can development assistance help with additional resources, etc. But since no amount of resources will allow governments to do everything that might be useful, the central question is how the allocation of scarce resources is decided, which points to the establishment of local priorities.

The political process is bound to be run by local actors. Data collection and fact finding and their use in the local debates will also be more credible andGDN logo convincing if local actors are fully involved: the role of NGOs is emphasized and known; empowering local academics and researchers is also crucial.

“We” as actors can help by building their capacity. My own organization, the Global Development Network (GDN) was created to promote research capacity building in economics and social sciences, both for the sake of increasing the stock of relevant knowledge, but also to enhance the quality and density of the local debate on development policies. Research gives access to debate and ownership. My central message, here, is that “we should” (I’m not immune…) focus on what we can do, and let (and help) “them” decide for their own good. Yet, beyond my own ranting, I believe that pressure from the international debate, including the worshiping of global objectives and the adoption of good principles and guidelines, can help. What is missing is a more conscious and deliberate attempt at promoting empowerment and ownership, through a better understanding that the governance of globalization “needs to” be better anchored in local and regional politics.

Pierre Jacquet is President of the Global Development Network, and a former Chief Economist and Director of Strategy at the French Development Agency (AFD)


  1. It was interesting for me to go through this blog as a “Development economist” and as a “low income country national”. I note that Pierre J. does reflect in his analysis a large part of the psycholigical process that drives development debate: the “We” thinking development solutions and alchemy for “them” and trying to implement, monitor and evaluate the process, and relaunch a new cycle. Unfortunately the process has been several decades of trail and failure. To revert the trend and make post15 a ground breaking “virage”, I fully buy Pierre J’s idea of empowerment and ownership of “them” as described in the last sentence of the blog. In addition, I would suggest economists and other development stakeholders to reconsider the role they give to Politics and Geo-politics in the search for ways to make the world a better place to live. Politics is powerful and Geo-politics even more…

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