19 Targets for the World? Why The Copenhagen Consensus is misleading us

They say in Africa that you do not correct an older man in public. So with all due respect to the very able team of Nobel Laureates, Intellectual minds and some Civil Society and Non State Actors who have been advising the Copenhagen Consensus, allow me to explain why I think they are wrong in asserting that we should abandon the work that the United Nations has done and instead focus all our resources and energy on what they call “ 19 Smarter Targets for Development by 2030”. Read them here.

I am not an economist, and its perhaps too late to be one. Neither do I anticipate receiving some Nobel Prize in the near future, unless there is some drastic shift in my life, which is a possibility.

But as they say in Africa, a man with knowledge can never outwit a man with experience.

I have spent enough time in Africa and in other parts that are classified by all who care to write as “poor” that I think I have gathered some few grey-hair ideas to offer to the distinguished team at the Copenhagen Consensus.

I give this advice with humility, but also with concern at hearing that the team is already going around countries, especially those in Africa, asking them to ignore the UN and instead focus on  what they see as the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, as opposed to what the Economist (no doubt with help from the Copenhagen Consensus) called 169 Commandments.

First, some fallacies about the SDG agenda

Fallacy 1- Too many Targets

The Post 2015 Development proposals are primarily about Goals, and they are only 17 of them.

Actually the proper goals are only 15. The Copenhagen Consensus is talking about the explanations to those Goals, which is what we call targets, and later to this will be added Indicators. The Goals are just 7 more than those implemented under the MDG agenda, and that was 15 years ago!

The proposed SDG Goals fall into three categories.

1. Direct Change Agenda-Goals 1-6

These are traditionally known as MDG+ Goals. They are goals that are aimed at accomplishing the work that was begun by the MDGs. They address immediate outcomes of development, with a primary focus on poorer countries and on projects that have a direct and quantifiable impact on those facing poverty. But the Goals have been expanded to ensure that they are universal in nature and therefore applicable to all member states.

2. Structural and systemic issues to achieve and sustain the Direct Change Agenda-Goal 7-15

These Goals seek to address the broader structural and infrastructural issues that hold people back, and that have made the MDGs difficult to achieve. The Goals are based on a recognition that development has many facets, and that there are several factors that affect the ability and capacity of poor people and humanity in general to be self sufficient and developed.

3. Governance and Resourcing the Change Agenda-Goal 16-17

Strictly speaking these are not Goals-They are an attempt to ensure the Goals proposed an anchored on a sound governance, economic and political platform. It is based on a recognition is development is freedom, and that freedom is about politics.. They are the foundation on which the other Goals are anchored. Without peace and good governance, all the gains made in Goals 1-16 will be wiped out. Without accountable and effective institutions of government, there will be no room for addressing systematic issues. Societies that target systematic address first need a measure of stability and capability, and these are rooted in their governance, and how the developed agenda is resourced and implemented.

Fallacy 2- All Goals Matter

The SDG agenda is a classic case of Anima Farm. Some will matter more than others. But they are interrelated, just as humans are in the world today.  Some countries may not place too much emphasis on the Ocean, because it does not affect them directly. But they still need to keep their eyes there, and on what others are doing. This is where the Copenhagen Consensus makes assumptions and tries to mislead the rest of us.

Fallacy 3- SDGs have their history in the MDGs.

One only needs to look at the SDG website to debunk this myth. The SDGs date as way back as 1972, before many of us were here. Sustainable Development precedes and supersedes a poverty agenda.

It has poverty at its core, but at its core it is not about poverty. This is where many organizations have also been trapped. By reducing the SDG agenda to targeting “extreme poverty” we are taking a minimalist agenda and killing what is in fact killing all of us- our consumption and lack of care for one another. The SDG agenda should therefore not be seen as MDG Season 2

That is what the Copenhagen Consensus is trying to persuade us to do.

So here are my problems with the so-called 19 Smart Targets.

 Understanding of Development

One of the biggest problems we increasingly face is that of leaving development discourse to Academics and intellectuals. I strongly value the role of these people, and to an extent even the lowest educated among us can claim some academic qualification. But writing and researching about poverty is not the same as responding to or experiencing poverty. From the comfort of our well-lit rooms its very easy to develop all sorts of permutations about poverty and its solutions. But as the World Development Report (WDR) reminded us early this year, our biases always come in the way, sometimes too much in the way. The team at the Copenhagen Consensus have done a great analysis and have come up with some very convincing proposals. But for those who engage in poverty alleviation on a daily basis, there are a few truths we have come to learn, most of them glossed over by great publications and calculations.

Development is primarily and ultimately political

Science can give us the tools to measure development. It can even give us the possible options to move it forward. But ultimately Development is about addressing the way societies distribute resources within it and those provided to it by external actors- and this is purely about politics, not economics. We form governments so that we can decide how best to balance resource distribution. We go for elections  because we are looking for a formula through we will all benefit from the resources given to us.

The team at the Copenhagen consensus have attempted to bypass this critical view of development. Instead they are telling us that if we combat Malaria, take children to school, deal with malnutrition, manage our trade and carbon emissions, then we will be on the heavenly highway to development. I would have wished it were so. But sadly the Copenhagen Consensus is  becoming too idealistic to an extent they sound and read theoretical.

Development is complex, not Linear

It’s easy to draw a graph, as we did with the MDGs, and work out at what point some change in X will lead to change in Y. We can even make it easier by drawing a Line of  Best Fit. This is what the Copenhagen Consensus is trying  to do. They have selected some projects that if done well, will lead to some specific changes in lives of citizens around the world. There is only one problem. This only happens in a laboratory under controlled conditions, and the world today cannot be a laboratory anymore.  Not after 50 years of making Africa one huge global laboratory where theories on poverty and development are tried and tested.  We are now in 2015, a little wiser and donors a little weaker. We now know that human beings cannot be controlled for long. So the Copenhagen consensus is asking us once again to try out some lab experiment with simple projects backed by some AID money, and perhaps some economic theory-most likely the famous trickledown effect that has pushed nearly two thirds of the world to depend on a few elites.

Sorry, Sirs and Madams.

Development is not Africa

Nearly all the 19 targets proposed by the Copenhagen Consensus, especially those focusing on “People” have Africa written all over them. I am not surprised.

Every time I travel out of Africa I get the feeling that people smell poverty all over my clothes. Poverty, it appears, is in love with Africa. And since the rest of the world hates poverty, they are keen to get Africa  married to someone else.

Very good idea.  Just one problem.

Poverty is as bad in Greece as it is in Kisumu. It is as present in Missouri as it is in Timbuctu.

My mom makes fun whenever I tell her that according to the World Bank and all the widely read people, she is extremely poor because she does not earn $ 1.25 dollars a day. As a rural lady, she not only fails the threshold, she actually has never seen a dollar in her life. So we use the equivalent of Kshs 100. With that amount of money, she is able to get flour, milk, two eggs, small cooking fat and have some small money left to buy onions, tomatoes and salt-And that is a meal for a full day, not one sitting.

And that is the problem with the Copenhagen Consensus and those who may be desperately looking for funding to help my mom. They equate $ 1.25 with its equivalent in New York or in Europe, or closer home in Nairobi. But even here in Nairobi I can have a full meal with Kshs 100 if I choose to eat what in Africa we call “proper food”-meaning I run away from those processed things we buy in Supermarkets.

To do this in New York, I will need an equivalent of USD 20, and that is just for one meal, not a full day as my mom in rural Kenya. So while the view that poverty is found only among those who earn so little, the truth is that those who earn that money are actually doing much better than their counterparts in Europe and North America who earn ten times as much. Try surviving with $ 12.5 in some of our big cities around the world, and let us see who will be the last man standing. And so the Copenhagen Consensus wants us to end poverty by making  focusing our attention on problems that have Africa branded all over them.

Not in 2015.

Development is not context-specific

We used to say that every country and society bore the burden of its own development, and a few need to be assisted to carry this heavy load. But that was before Thomas Freedman told us the world is flat and Thomas Picketty told us that inequality is not just about what happens within the Borders of one country-it can be exported even to people who are just busy minding their own business.

The Copenhagen consensus makes us believe that if we addressed the symptoms that are specific to some societies, we will address poverty and achieve sustainable development. That is what th MDGs told us-and look where we are today. Outside of China and Vietnam (who never followed the MDGs, anyway) the past 20 years have actually seen greater  poverty in real terms-thanks largely to a strong capitalist approach that value high income by a few at the expense of the many. Fewer people may be living on less than $ 1 a day, but this is more due to their own staying power and sheer strength than some the MDG projects. Corporate tax dodgers and Donors diverting AID to security and economic promotion has led to a realization that the actions in Washington have as much bearing on the poor man in Haiti as the actions of his local business leader. Just ask Bill Clinton’ famous Devil’s bargain in regard to his rice subsidy policy in Haiti.

According to the  Copenhagen Consensus, address the glaring symptom at source, and you will have solved the problems of poverty at source.

Sorry, we cannot buy that anymore, not in 2015.

Development is not Psychology

All of us have at some point in time measured where we are on the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the famous five-layered pyramid.

We have persuaded each other that those who live on the lower end are the largest majority, and they are like animals-fighting every day to stay alive. Their preoccupation is with themselves while the top among us are concerned with the finer things of fine-actualization and making an impact.

So what do they propose? Help them be comfortable there. If you removed the discomfort, but left all other things intact, they will be happy and some day reach where the rest of us are seating.

That is why the entire focus of targets on People as proposed by the Copenhagen Consensus, are directed at  helping those who are at the bottom stay there, but in a better state. Forget about the conditions that are beyond them-such as our global governance, our consumption, our economics.

No, these are too removed for these blessed people. Let them remain poor, but comfortable.

Sirs and Madams, we hear you.

But could this be the last time we do so?

By Paul Okumu. Paul Okumu is Head of Secretariat of the Africa Platform.

The Africa Platform works to strengthen state society relations through initiatives that promote principled dialogue for effective participatory governance and Social Contract.