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On the currents of international development

  • Published at 09:55 pm September 5th, 2019
The UN’s strategy is far from ideal
The UN’s strategy is far from ideal / REUTERS

What’s happening with the UN in Bangladesh, the SDGs, and the agenda for 2030?

This article is the first in a series dealing with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 that were agreed upon in the UN General Assembly as a global strategy for development. It shall argue that this strategy is far from ideal, and is flawed both in form and content.

In fact, the SDG strategy is really just a compiled list of priorities representing the majority view of the member states. Representatives of member states were asked, in 2012, by questionnaire method and “voted” on their priorities for development. 

The majority of representatives were no democrats themselves. Not surprisingly, they voted to place the agenda of democratic governance -- at the very bottom of the list (goal 16). 

Goal 16 concerns our right to live, to speak and think freely, and to enjoy the privilege of citizenship on equal basis. It concerns justice, regulation of executive power, and the prevention of tyranny of the majority against minority views.

Ill-conceived notions

Lately, however, leaders in developing countries are operating on the unwritten consensus that growth shall be achieved first, but that elected oversight of the same will have to wait. This is ill-conceived for three reasons.

Firstly, it is well known that in no time or place in history has growth (in the absence of slavery) been achieved without first establishing the rule of law. Secondly, our political economy is currently defined by “free-market” ideology imposing great disparities of income, distortions of privilege, creating widespread discontent.

Finally, deprioritizing governance represents a new, rather serious form of disconnect with the principles of the UN Charter. Its preamble (1948) reads as follows:

λ to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

λ to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and

λ to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained

The preamble is the mission statement of the United Nations. It is from these words that it derives legitimacy, historically.

Tragically, the legitimacy of the UN in the world is dwindling. Partially the fault lies with the tradition of the veto system at the Security Council. The veto system results in a sort of paralysis of decision-making and prevents peace-keeping missions from ever being realized (eg Bosnia, Rwanda, Palestine, Syria, Myanmar). 

In Bangladesh, at the second anniversary of our own great refugee crisis, we now find ourselves in a very curious situation. We have the largest blue-helmet force in the world, but we can do nothing to stop genocide in our neighbouring country Myanmar, and are currently left alone to find a solution to the problem. 

What is the Security Council doing? They are still deliberating on what to do; blaming their own inability to act on faulty reporting. 

As the preamble states, the UN emerged in the wake of the two World Wars. With the advent of atomic warfare as experienced in Japan, it was understood that nations had to make an attempt to create a new international legal system, in order to prevent a third “atomic” world war. 

Regarding the cause of war -- it was widely believed that war was something deeply rooted in the persistence of poverty and inequality. Ample evidence supported this view. 

The British, French, Italian, and Dutch empires in Asia and Africa had left the former colonies in deep poverty. The divide and conquer strategies had also left deep divisions of distrust within the new nations. 

The immediate aftermath (the tensions leading to great migratory exodus) of the creation of India and Pakistan showed that nation-building in divided societies would not be achieved without violence. 

Similarly, the compensation demands to Germany after WWI left the Germans in poverty. Many statesmen at the time attributed the hysteria of Nazi Germany to poverty. So in the late 1940s, world leaders asked: How could poverty and inequalities within nations be mitigated? 

Measuring governance

International development expert Geof Wood explains: “It was once firmly believed that if nations could have equal voice at the UN general assembly -- then equality within nations could eventually become a reality.” Today, Wood says, “this view should be scrapped.”

As in the case of Myanmar, this is why we can’t deprioritize governance today. If we completely ignore internal matters of neighbouring nations, we do so at our own expense.

In conversation with UN representatives in Bangladesh, I have often been told that the order of listed goals doesn’t really matter. Moreover, that governance is indeed a very important concern for the international community in Bangladesh.

But if this is so, how do they intend to realize the goals by 2030? Importantly, by what measure is governance in Bangladesh to be evaluated? How does the UN distinguish better from worse? Here, the UN has agreed upon a final list of indicators to assess progress towards better governance. 

But these are also of highly questionable character. For example, goal 16.6 reads: “Develop effective, accountable, and transparent institutions at all levels.” 

Problematically, the main indicator to assess progress towards this goal asks only: To what extent has actual government expenditure towards public goods and services been compliant with pre-approved budgets?

This sort of questioning does very little to illuminate progress towards the goal itself. Are we to believe that a mere statistic indicating to what extent the government spent what they said they were going to spend indicates progress towards goal 16.6?

Where are the indicators for the functioning of parliamentary budgetary committees, the independence of the judiciary, and to what extent does it contain the power to review parliamentary decisions and whether or not non-partisan bodies exist to oversee elections? 

And what of the freedom of the press? Why are indicators on these core institutions of accountability absent in the UN evaluative framework for governance?

Unfortunately, the rest of the targets within Goal 16 have similar mismatch and curious “gaps” between what goals have been set and how to assess progress towards them. 

Development partners and democrats in Bangladesh are going to have to try better than this. We need real evidence beyond unverifiable and irrelevant statistics. We need a reliable way that considers multiple forms of evidence, to verify and triangulate such evidence to have any chance at reaching the SDG goals. 

Foreign donors that have a tendency to abandon development projects when no evidence towards progress can be found should also recognize this problem. Currently, the winds of change are blowing stronger than ever in Europe and the US. 

Public opinion is difficult to gauge, and the future is increasingly unpredictable. Revolutions can be ignited on social media, and support for half-baked development efforts in Bangladesh cannot be guaranteed in the future. 

In conclusion, the citizens and international community in Bangladesh need to a) reconsider their priorities of development beyond the SDG agenda and b) need to develop more “actionable”-type indicators. 

If we don’t, constituents (tax-payers) at home will blow the whistle and force the donors to abandon development projects mid-stream. This happens more often than it should, with the consequent painful experience of disbelief among those facing extreme poverty and discrimination in Bangladesh. 

Jens Stanislawski is a Researcher and Senior Consultant at Social Resources Management (SRM).

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