Experiences, Learning

The Age of Sustainable Development: What gets measured, gets managed

This is a series from our writers Holly Narey and Michelle Gonzalez Amador who are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ online course The Age of Sustainable Development. They will be sending out an update on the course every week. Click here for more on all our writers. Check this tag to see all posts on this topic.

Have you heard the phrase ‘what gets measured, gets managed’? Jeffrey Sachs has, apparently, and he is a big fan.

When talking about development projects in a wider context, it is hard to get a clear picture. Part of the reason of this is because most projects have such a small impact in the overall development framework. It is easy to have a pessimistic view when we remember the statistic which introduced us to this course: there are one billion people living in extreme poverty.

This one statistic, however, does not show the progress over time. In the 1980’s, for example, the World Bank calculated that a little more than half of the people n the developing world lived in extreme poverty. By 1990, it had gone down to 45%, and by 2010, around 20%.

Setting goals

Lesson 5 of the series focused on the importance of setting goals for development, using the Millennium Development Goals as an example.

Economic progress, Sachs echoed from Keynesian ideas, is not the permanent problem of the human race – given no important wars and no significant population increase, that is. The real problem lies in concentrating efforts for a particular goal. That is true achievement of the MDGs: an ambitious project to fight extreme poverty. They are clear goals for people to understand, to promote, and to use to urge governments to take serious action that could end extreme poverty. They may be ambitious, and to a certain point, onerous, but they serve the purpose of setting the ideal to help mobilize efforts that would otherwise be disperse. Beneath those eight, broad and ambitious goals, there are twenty one specific and quantified targets and sixty detailed indicators that have better allowed us to measure the progress made.

The story so far

Because of the unenforceable nature of the MDGs, efforts may be uneven or prioritized differently from country to country. For example, China’s remarkable economic growth is a big part of the success of reduction of poverty (MDG 1). However, more globalized achievements have been found in the steady decline of malaria and other tropical diseases.

The establishment of the MDGs has both propelled the scaling up of development projects, and also permitted us to identify the remaining challenges. These include:

  • Agriculture in Africa. The source of food supply for the continent faces many obstacles. Namely the low yield and the lack of funding to invest in better management for irrigation, good seeds variety, etc.
  • The lack of government investment in infrastructure. A particular issue in certain parts of the developing world, this leaves regions isolated, hindering trade and its spillovers.
  • High fertility rates. Not only does this pose a problem for urban-planners but also, in terms of food and other production, directly influencing the environment.
  • Food security. As broad as this is it continues to be one of the biggest challenges if poverty eradication wishes to be environmentally sustainable.

How to tackle poverty

Sachs makes an interesting three-pronged proposal to tackle poverty:

  1. Investing in GMOs. Sachs used the case of India’s green revolution in the 60’s to back this point up. Certainly a controversial topic, as GMO production is, to my knowledge, monopolized by MONSANTO. Sachs himself did not say it, but perhaps it is important to note that, for such an action to work, certain prerequisites need to be met, particularly concentrating research in solving specific agricultural challenges in poor regions, as opposed to general increase in food production.
  2. Official Development Assistance. Otherwise said, a temporary injection of funds for targeted investments so that a poor place can jump-start a process of sustainable growth. Highly contested by other experts, such as Easterly or Moyo, who’ve used Sach’s own love for hard data against himself by exposing the side-effects of Aid money in African countries, it is probably the most complex solution, for it involves political will and efficient management from the part of the receiver-country. Sachs argues that because of the inherent risks of borrowing money, such as debt-crisis, a financial grant could provide the initial investment a country needs to leave the poverty-trap. Sadly, it has been shown that certain countries have become dependent on AID money, in detriment of initiatives to mobilize their own resources.
  3. Practical interventions: specifically, the Millennium Villages. Implementation has always been a big issue for development practitioners. By designing such a project and applying the MDGs as a guiding principle, Sachs wished to understand through empirical evidence which where the hardest steps of implementation. In its eighth year, the extremely controversial Millennium Villages project has, Sachs argues, shown that it is possible to help mobilize a community. ‘By harnessing the energies of communities, with a little bit of help, best practices, etc. tremendous things can be achieved’ concluded Sachs. Probably the solution that concentrated more on explaining the project than on explaining the findings, it still gave a spot-on argument. Realizing the potential of social capital in each community can lead to high-impact beneficial changes in a development framework.

Lesson 5 has been the most controversial lesson thus far, exposing the personally biased ideas of the professor. Whatever the faults of Sachs and despite his many detractors, he has clearly held onto his vision of ending poverty sometime soon.

Standard

In the last decade ‘sustainability‘ has become a crucial consideration in crafting development policy. From the mega-conferences of the UN and the World Bank to the planning and evaluation documents of specific projects, ‘sustainable development’ is on the lips of development experts and amateur bloggers the world over.

A group of Fulani Pastoralists round a well in the Ferlo region of Senegal

It makes sense. Global climate change and natural resource shortages present perhaps the greatest obstacles to development in much of the world as well as challenge the continued feasibility of the ‘developed‘ life-style in the West. Wolfgang Sachs and his fellow development critics would argue the ecological consequences of development are of such a magnitude that they necessitate a re-evaluation of the Western model of growth oriented market capitalism as well as any efforts to export that model elsewhere with any development efforts. Sustainable development, he argues, is a term created to preserve development and the implicit model it bears, and not the globe’s dwindling natural resources.

He might point for instance to the World Bank’s 2008 Agriculture for Development report to support this claim. In describing the ecological challenges to agricultural development, it concludes,

“The solutions not to slow agricultural development – it is to seek more sustainable production systems”

Of course, aligning with Sachs leaves the empathetic practitioner in an awkward situation. Without global revolutionary social change, the Sachs argument leaves little room for any attempts at ameliorating the lives or livelihoods of the world’s poorest individuals.

A recent trip of mine to the Ferlo region of Senegal portrays this ecological challenge to development all too well.

The Ferlo portion of Northern Senegal is historically the stomping grounds of Senegal’s highly mobile pastoral herders (called generally the Fulbe or Fula). In the last few decades agriculturalists have slowly expanded into this semi-arid area, spurred on by both development organizations and the Senegalese government. Concurrent with that trend has been one of ecological degradation that is transforming this Sahelian strip between the Sahara and the lush grasslands of central Africa into an environment that looks much more like the latter than the former. Thus the Fulbe are struggling simultaneously with an increase in demand for, and a diminishing supply of, natural resources.

Further complicating the situation those new cultivators in the region are high privileged over the pastoralists, as agriculture is considered a main engine of economic growth. Agriculturalists are encouraged to claim new lands and expand cultivation. Pastoralists, under Senegalese land tenure laws, have been unable to make similar land claims, and have received only comparably minimal support from the development industry.

Clearly, something is wrong here. However, no easy alternative presents itself. One might argue not enough consideration has been given to sustainability and the current shortage of natural resources. By supporting agricultural as a means of development, we are further endangering a fragile environment as well as the people that have used it successfully for hundreds if not thousands of years. Alternatively, one could argue a halting of agricultural support would mean an abdication of one of development’s most powerful tools. Agricultural support might initiate wider economic growth in Senegal or help to reduce its need for food imports, thereby making the nation more food secure. While hurting the Fulbe and endangering the already ecologically weak region of the Ferlo are certainly not positive consequences of this development strategy, perhaps agricultural expansion is a necessary condition for development.

This brief portrait shows how crucial, and often unsettling, ideas of sustainability are in development tactics. Can development continue to march forward considering its ecological effects and challenges? Are these environmental effects a necessary and permissible condition for growth? How can we support poverty alleviation and still preserve our shared, and singular planet?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Commentary, Platform

The Ecology vs #Globaldev Debate In Senegal

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