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Q&A: In Search of Buen Vivir

Rousbeh Legatis interviews JENS MARTENS, director of the European office of Global Policy Forum

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 11 2011 (IPS) - The clock is ticking to live up to the promises governments made a decade ago to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. But are those promises themselves inherently flawed?

Jens Martens Credit: Courtesy of Global Policy Forum

Jens Martens Credit: Courtesy of Global Policy Forum

With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted at the United Nations in 2000 and hailed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity, states and leading development policy institutions agreed upon a set of ambitious anti-poverty targets and a deadline of 2015.

In their current formulation, however, the MDGs embody an overly rigid and even anemic view of human development and well-being, says Jens Martens, director of the European office of the Global Policy Forum, an independent watchdog group that monitors the work of the United Nations and scrutinises global policymaking.

U.N. correspondent Rousbeh Legatis spoke to Martens about how these problems can be overcome and what alternative development models could provide a much-needed boost to the MDGs.

Q: Roughly speaking, the MDGs are meant to encourage development by improving social and economic conditions. How do you view the current development model and its political implications? A: With their limited focus on income poverty and basic social services, the MDGs represent the smallest common denominator in development that was possible at the global level a decade ago. They reflect a narrow understanding of development that regards poverty eradication as a primarily technical challenge. As a consequence, many governments gave too little attention to structural aspects of development such as the distribution of income and wealth.

Q: After reading your analysis, one could draw the conclusion that the MDGs can already be called a failure. Is that so? A: The MDGs didn’t fail, but governments failed to provide the necessary means to achieve them. They still have another five years to prove that they take these goals seriously. However, development policy should not be limited to the MDGs.

We face important challenges, from climate change to the deficiencies of the global financial system, that are not properly covered by the current MDG catalogue. That’s why we have to use the coming years to discuss additional goals that are valid for all countries in the world.

Q: What would be a better understanding of development, in terms of genuinely improving people’s lives? A: First of all, we have to overcome the dominant development model that is still oriented on a modernisation approach and that confuses economic growth with progress in society. This includes new measures and indicators of development and well-being beyond the GNP.

This is precisely what the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi-Commission recommended in its report 2009. According to [economist Joseph] Stiglitz and his colleagues, the time is ripe to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being. And this shift is not only relevant for rich countries, it applies to all countries of the world.

Q: Are there any existing initiatives that promote alternative development models? A: Yes, over the last few years, a growing number of initiatives have emerged. One interesting example is the “Buen Vivir” approach. This is not so much a development model but a holistic life philosophy based on the view of indigenous peoples in the Andes region.

It pursues the goal of material, social and spiritual well- being among all members of a society, but not at the cost of the other members and the natural resources. The “Buen Vivir” approach already gained political relevance as it was anchored in the new constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia.

Another interesting example is the Gross National Happiness Index, developed in the Kingdom of Bhutan. It is based on an alternative concept of wealth beyond pure materialism and comprises a comprehensive set of economic, social, political and environmental indicators.

Q: Which model would you choose to overcome the main weaknesses of the existing MDG approach? A: What we need are Global Development Goals with precise quantitative and time-bound targets that apply simultaneously to rich and poor countries. But there is no “one size fits all”-solution. The goals have to take into account the specific economic, social and environmental situation of the individual countries.

Time is over to regard “development” only as a process taking place in the southern hemisphere. Given the necessary transformation towards an equitable and environmentally sustainable development, virtually all countries of the world can be called developing countries.

This doesn’t mean that the key principle of the Rio Declaration from 1992, the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility”, is no longer relevant – quite the contrary!

And finally, the new set of Global Development Goals and indicators has to take into account that well-being and social progress essentially depend on the distribution of income and wealth as well as the capabilities an individual has in society.

Q: What role do you see for industrialised countries and international institutions like the OECD, G77 and UN? A: Given its universal membership and its traditional openness to civil society, the U.N. remains the most important and legitimate forum to discuss development models and to adopt development goals. But what can be the future of institutions like the OECD, the classical organisation of the rich countries, or the G77, the group representing the interests of the developing world?

If dividing the world into industrialised and developing countries is becoming more and more of an anachronism, isn’t this also true for these institutions?

Q: Do you see on the part of national and international decision makers enough political will to “think ahead”? A: During the global financial crisis we witnessed interesting changes in the political discourse and examples of “thinking ahead”, for instance in the discussion about a financial transaction tax. But, in the aftermath of the crisis there seems to be a return to business as usual. The same is true for the MDG Summit 2010 and the state of the climate negotiations.

The upcoming U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro 2012 can provide another window of opportunity to draw lessons from the multiple crises and to fundamentally rethink our goals and measures of development and progress – in North and South.

In order to stimulate this debate in the run-up to the Rio Conference 2012, a broad alliance of civil society groups, networks and foundations just launched the “Civil Society Reflection Group on Global Development Perspectives”.

Among the supporters are Third World Network, Social Watch, DAWN, the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, Global Policy Forum, terre des hommes, and the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. In this group we will assess alternative models of development and well-being, reconsider development goals and indicators, draw conclusions for future development strategies and hopefully provide some food for thought and, ultimately, political action.

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