21 July 2014.
Last week ESID hosted Lant Pritchett‘s public lecture on “Promoting Millennium Development Ideals: The risks of defining development down”. You can read some live tweets of the talk under the hashtag #EffectiveStates, but we provide a more thorough summary below. We have also embedded three videos in which we asked him about some of the pressing dilemmas in current development debates.
From human to national development
Lant Pritchett’s pet peeve is low-bar development targets like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): he thinks they are a “disaster” because they have more to do with implementing projects or programmes targeting the tail end of the income distribution than with achieving systemic change of the kind that fosters real “national development”.
Pritchett views national development as a four-fold transformation of “rules-systems” and social capabilities: making the economy more productive, society more inclusive, the polity more representative, and administration more rational. In a sense this is a throwback to early conceptions of development of the kind prevalent 60 years ago, as opposed to more recent ideas of “human development”. Crucially, Pritchett agrees that human development has to remain our ultimate normative goal, but that this can only be achieved in any lasting way through the means of national development.
Kink, Shift, Drive
“Kinky” development is a strategy promoting the human development of a very small group of people at the lowest end of the development distribution: those living under such arbitrary thresholds as $1.25 per day. But kinky development by design does nothing to improve the conditions of anyone else, including those who happen to live on $1.26 per day.
In contrast, Pricthett and Kenny posit two alternative development strategies. “Shift” represents a strategy for improving human development within the given levels of national development by improving the capabilities to deliver. “Drive”, in turn, represents a strategy for pushing national development – economy, society, polity, administration – with the expectation that this kind of systematic change will improve human development across the board. They carry out a simulation which shows that “drive” and – to a lesser extent – “shift” strategies have the potential to increase development not just for the bottom quartile, but for everyone; moreover, these transformational strategies are shown to perform better than “kink” at improving the lot of the poor.
Why does this matter? Pricthett sees “kinky” development as problematic for two reasons. First, by focusing on quantitative targets, “kink” programmes neglect the quality of outcomes. For instance, in Malawi 83% of children have attained a full course of primary education as per the relevant MDG, but only 34% of children are actually numerate; over half the kids who completed grade 6 in school remain functionally innumerate. Second, by focusing on the lowest quintile or those identified as “poor”, these programmes neglect the millions of people who would still count as “poor” by any developed country’s standard, but who remain over arbitrary “kink” thresholds like $1.25 per day.
From goals to ideals
In practical terms, having access to a pipe of fresh water in every village seems a worthy development goal, but it is far from what any developed country government would consider enough for its citizens. Pritchett proposes instead development ideals, such as everyone being able to take a hot shower – precisely the kind of ideals that the governments of India, Brazil or China would be proud to pursue, instead of the low-bar targets set by development agencies.
And this takes us to the final point that Pritchett made in his talk: ongoing debates on “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) risk alienating low-middle and middle-income countries, for whom “kinky” targets are simply too low and unambitious. MDGs and SDGs may serve the purpose of generating enough buzz for the aid industry to remain afloat, but they do nothing to assist in the larger challenge of national development. Consequently, donors and governments should move away from the current focus on 80% kink (poverty targets), 10% shift (capabilities) and 10% drive (transformation), and develop a new set of priorities whereby development strategies consist of 80% drive, 15% shift and only 5% kink.
Attendees did question a few of the assumptions and implications of the lecture: for instance, some wondered who decides what an ideal is, or how developing country governments are supposed to pursue national development with often limited resources. In response, Pritchett emphasised that it was up to open national debate to determine the relative priorities on each component; above all, he argued, development should not consist of choosing between targets or sequencing easy goals before harder ones.
By the end of the lecture it was clear that the biggest challenge ahead may be how to tackle the national development agenda in a world where “kinky” targets still dominate global debates.
During his time in Manchester we asked Lant Pritchett a few more questions about the role of ideals in current development debates: