Development post-2015: What role for African diaspora?
2013-07-18, Issue 639
Christmas has come and is long gone yet it would seem that every special interest in international development continues to play a curious version of “let’s hang our baubles on an already overloaded Millennium Development Goal Christmas tree”. It seems like a fun game, so let me reach up and add a few more: Jobs; inequality; universalism; transparency; migration; and political economy. However, in my defense, I hope these new dangly bits will actually help to streamline the tree and maybe make some other baubles less necessary.
The onset of 2015 has spawned a major industry in pre-post-2015 reflections and debates about what should replace the MDGs. It is hard to believe that one can really add much of value to what has already been produced; even keeping abreast with a subset of the material generated has proven impossible. With an eye firmly fixed on 2015, the British Labour Party’s Shadow Spokesperson on International Development, Ivan Lewis MP, is also in on the act with a series of consultations, including a cross-section of African diaspora individuals.
First, I must confess that I find myself at the skeptical end of the spectrum of opinions about the MDGs: On the one hand, I can see that supporters believe the MDGs have helped to focus minds around the goals; mobilize donor resources for their achievement; and gradually get them integrated into national development plans. On the other hand, the main MDG goal of halving poverty has been achieved through China’s phenomenal growth. China has lifted millions of people out of poverty through reforms started in 1979. That’s right: 1979, long before the MDGs came into being. China’s economic transformation has come about primarily through an internal political process of encouraging private enterprise. So how much progress in terms of real development outcomes can we really attribute to the MDGs? Similarly, other economies that we might as well call emerged (no longer emerging) economies have also navigated their way to widespread wealth and development without reliance on an MDG process (although many of these countries made judicious and productive use of aid and other resources to transform their economies).
Another bias I must confess to is being heavily influenced by the book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson in which they advance the thesis that it is a combination of inclusive – as opposed to extractive – political and economic institutions that explains the success or failure of nations. For sure, though widely acclaimed, theirs is a hotly contested thesis, but arguments that more aid is central to the achievement of the MDGs do not stack up: it is hard to correlate aid levels with improvements in education or health.
Indeed, the social construction of the need to end poverty as a global campaign with moral undertones (as the Make Poverty History campaign did) runs the risk of obfuscating some of the really critical actions that are required – at nation-state level (and to a less degree regional levels) – to make a lasting dent in poverty statistics. To be blunt, poor countries need to improve their governance. The problem is that aid and global campaigns have a poor track record of improving governance. It is not just love that money can’t buy, good governance also. There is no escaping that good governance is endogenous.
There is a real risk that big, loud, overarching campaigns to eradicate poverty inadvertently let political leaders in developing countries off the hook. Of course, there are global structural impediments to a just social order; the rules of the game are far from fair and discriminate against poor countries; and a resource transfer to purchase essential global public goods (R&D to produce vaccines and cures for intractable diseases, for instance) mean that a measure of nuance is required in constructing a narrative around a post-2015 development agenda.
If anything, aid is the least interesting element in the post-2015 development equation. Certainly the overly aid-centric MDG focus merits recalibration. For decades, African governments have been touting the importance of regional integration and enhanced intra-African cooperation to their development agendas. Yet they have consistently failed to follow-through with their own pronouncements and declarations. Lack of political will, rather than resource constraints explain these failings.
In considering what comes next after 2015, it is worth reflecting on the question from the vantage point of the African diaspora and in particular how the African diaspora can add value to meeting the challenge of development post 2015. At the time of the formulation of the MDGs, neither internal nor international migration featured heavily in the thinking. But in the last decade and-a-half, awareness and appreciation of the ways in which migration and development intersect has grown tremendously.
A comprehensive exercise undertaken by the African Union Commission, the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the African Development Bank, and the UN Development Program to identify a common African position around post-2015 identified three possible options for improvement of the MDGs: retain the MDGs in their current configuration; reformulate them to take account of some of the criticisms; or develop an alternative framework altogether. The consultation process seemed to favor the second option of a reformulation, described as MDG Plus.
Assuming the status quo is not maintained, I think a post-2015 development framework following either of the other two options can be enhanced by thinking about both ends or outcomes and means or process. In terms of ends, I think a post-2015 agenda must not only focus on jobs but must also be bold in setting some goals for job-creation.
Why a focus on jobs? Well, what good is all this development if it doesn’t result in decent jobs? Almost every survey that actually asks people what they want affirms the centrality of jobs. Increasingly, this is true not just for people living in poor countries but for people everywhere as the global economic crisis continues to send shock waves through the more prosperous countries of the developed world.
A job opens up the prospect not just of economic security and wellbeing for the employed or self-employed person, it also offers dignity and hope of a better life, even if current conditions are far from ideal. Apart from putting money in the pockets of workers, who can then exercise more choice over their own lives – pay for housing, food, healthcare, school fees, clothing, leisure, and save for a rainy day – jobs are important means to the end of better governance in the places that lack them but need them most of all.
We can think of governance as having a supply and a demand side. In the ideal world, we would find benign leaders who did the right thing because, well, it’s the right thing to do, and did it well. Sadly, such leaders are the rare exception. Usually, leaders are benign because they have followers who hold them accountable and expect them to do the right thing. But in places where governance is poor, leaders and followers are locked into a more destructive “patron-client” relationship. Instead of delivering public goods that benefit the majority of citizens, leaders deliver private goods to their clients in return for electoral support. Dependent on their patrons for handouts, government jobs, and access to services, these followers have no incentive to demand better performance of their leaders. Unless of course they have a job, usually in the private sector secured through merit and not connection. Such people are more likely (there are no guarantees, of course) to align their interests with the public policies and performance of their leaders and be less interested in their ethnic identity or the region of the country from which they hail.
Thus a gradually expanding sphere of competitive private enterprise that offers jobs, better skills, and improving incomes can be a vital part of virtuous upward spiral toward development. And all this can happen without the need for another benefit concert in Hyde Park or Madison Square Gardens.
In fact, the concerts and demands for change are likely to be much more homegrown, locally owned, and thus more sustainable in the long term. None of this is pie in the sky: it encapsulates the story of change in the successful Southeast Asian nations.
Moreover, in an effort to trim down that post-2015 MDG Christmas tree, we need to focus on goals that will have the largest multiplier effects. On this count, the jobs bauble arguably outshines many others.
Simply put, I believe our goal in the post-2015 era should be full employment: everyone who wants a job should have a realistic prospect of securing decent work. Obviously, given that “Around 900 million adults in the developing world are unable to earn enough to keep their families above the US$ 2-a-day per person poverty line; 200 million people are unemployed globally, among them 75 million young people; hundreds of millions more work long hours under inhumane conditions and with no job security in the informal economy,” as ILO, UNCTAD, UNDESA, WTO point out in a thematic think piece, this is no easy task. However, the widespread unemployment and underemployment we tolerate today in both developed and developing world is a scourge that shames us all.
This is not the place to be overly prescriptive about how we can achieve this goal. Suffice it to say that many can see the limits of narrow, short-term, shareholder-only capitalism, especially when companies that have taken a longer-term, broader view of the interests of all their stakeholders often actually outperform their counterparts [Conscious Capitalism]. For laggard developing regions such as many of the African economies, they need to raise both public and private investment levels; increase competitiveness of agricultural, industrial, and service sectors; massively improve the skills of the workforce; and devise light touch, effective industrial policies that enable them to trade their way out of poverty. All the while, they need to attend to the needs of their small and medium-sized enterprises, especially those with high-growth prospects and find creative ways to change the rules of the game to enable the huge informal sector to come in from the cold.
The African diaspora has a key role to play in all of this. For a start, they have strong preferences for goods and services produced in their countries and regions of origin and the purchasing power to fuel exports. Transnational entrepreneurs have crucial roles to play in facilitating trade and investment links between destination and origin countries. And Africans in the diaspora often possess vital skills that growth-oriented enterprises in Africa desperately need.
So while we need not treat the African diaspora as a standalone option, certainly, as an integral part of any serious effort at transforming African economies, we need to integrate migration into post-2015 development strategies.
As already noted, jobs are a desirable end but also a desirable means to other ends. For instance, the goal of full employment implies embracing a strategy of inclusive growth, which in turn implies tackling inequality, which is rising within and between countries. Apart from the moral qualms we should have about rising, high, and stubborn inequality, for regions facing a forthcoming youth surge, the prospect of relegating large numbers of able young people to the economic scrap heap is tantamount to embracing an era of social upheaval and instability. Such young people will be susceptible to the deceptively attractive quick-fixes that extremist movements offer. In an increasingly interconnected world, inequality is a global threat to peace and security.
A goal of full employment is universal. It eschews the notion of “us”, the rich countries versus “them” the poor ones. We literally are all in this together. Indeed, when we also consider the climate-related considerations and constraints within which we must all pursue our development aspirations, it is true to say that “we must all put our houses in order”. By embracing jobs, the post-2015 development framework will be inclusive, universal, and form the basis for genuine solidarity and partnership among peoples of the world.
While coordinating private sector development programs in Sierra Leone a few years ago, I was stunned that in spite of the general concern about youth unemployment, no one had accurate data on what the actual level of employment or unemployment was. Post-2015, transparency must be our watchword. Information and communication technologies; social media; big data – these are tools now at the disposal of all of us, not just large, well-endowed multinational corporations. The information asymmetries that have hampered collective action in the past need no longer blight our efforts in the future.
Universal strategies to create jobs – millions and millions of them; reducing inequality; all done in a more transparent, globally interconnected way is the promise of the future. It often amazes me how much time and effort we all spend pontificating about international development. Yet in the last 50 years or more – in living memory – we have witnessed radical peaceful transformations of economies that have lifted millions of people out of poverty and seen emerging economies join the ranks of the richest, most stable developed economies in the world. Development may not be easy but it is not rocket science.
Over the last 20 years or so, the inter-linkages between migration and development in general and African diasporas’ actual and potential contributions to Africa’s development have captured the interest and imagination of policymakers, practitioners, and indeed diasporas themselves. Indeed, African diasporas should have come of age by now and should no longer be knocking on doors asking to be let into the development game. Rather, as autonomous actors with a vision of where they can add value, they need to be much more proactive in leveraging their resources and their presence “here” and “there” for change.
While there is undeniably an uneven playing field when it comes to international development that works to the disadvantage of Africans, there are enough examples of own goals and shooting ourselves in both feet to keep us busy for years to come. Even as they harness and leverage their enormous resources for development in Africa in the post-MDG era, African diasporas must also become much more effective and adept advocates for essential improvements in governance to ensure that Africa’s rise is not the lead balloon it has been for too long now.
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