Here in Aidland, aka Dhaka, there is talk of ‘learning from the MDGs’. This is happening all over, and is about making way for a fresh justification for after 2015. Yet the outlook is less rosy than when the original goals were thought up. The last few years have been tricky – some earlier gains have been erased, risks and conflicts made more visible. Many people are on a roller coaster of worry about jobs, living costs, public spending cuts, the environment and quality of life. The best response to these shocks has never been obvious or easy. In small, open economies like Bangladesh, governments have not had much scope to act; many have exhausted any reserves and the policy cupboard is now looking decidedly bare. Political survival in quite a few countries has come about through the cushion of public spending, political spectacle, fine words and good luck. There is some optimism that people might actually prove quite resilient – but whenever you look at this closely it generally means that women work harder without complaining or showing up in the statistics.
So, what now for the MDGs? There is such uncertainty and change in the world that it would be a genuine misread to project so far in the future as an MDGs exercise. I want to drive this point about uncertainties home: as it says in David Shrigley’s It’s getting worse, ‘It’s getting worse’. A recent example: in the hours after the abortive latest G20 meeting in November the Guardian reported (I paraphrase) ‘It is the end of the world; the G20 failed to agree a deal; our collective future rests in the hands of one man; that man is Silvio Berlusconi.’ (This was before he resigned). This was millennarian enough. You saw instantly that we were doomed. Only then did you recall that this is the kind of situation the head of the International Monetary Fund might be called in to act on. And the shenanigans on climate change, BP, bonuses … This is Lord of the Flies on an island soon to be hit by an earthquake.
When we look at their risky behaviour, we have to ask: can our global political elites really be serious about pursuing a type of development which is people-centred and fair when they are themselves such careless stewards of our world and its economy? This is surely the ‘takeaway’ from the wave of unruly politics since 2007. Global economic carelessness has not delivered for many people, who quite rightly want their interests – not those of the faceless ‘markets’ – to direct public policy. Citizens generally hold governments responsible for protecting them against big shocks – natural disasters, inflation – that they can’t do much about themselves. So all of this discontent – nobody finds it mysterious.
If you try to list the major global risks with which people on low or precarious incomes contend (Guy Standing’s precariat), you may feel you have joined the Crisis Cargo Cult of which I am a member. We are people connected by pessimism about the near-future with its dirty scramble for resources (even Bangladesh is eyeing African land for its food security plan), failure to manage climate change, shifts in global power, austerity and recession, ideological extremism, lack of stewardship. All bets are off as to which development path is next. So you are left with a singular Millenarian Development Goal, one which benefits from a new and improved in-built accountability mechanism. This is an agreement that public authority means protecting people better; do so, or they withdraw their consent to be ruled.
Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.