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Individual accountability

Emergency relief or a new beginning?

by Helmut Reifeld
“The subsidiarity principle is about helping people in need who cannot help themselves. When people are in a position to advance through their own efforts, intervention is not warranted”. Shoe shining in Rajasthan, India

“The subsidiarity principle is about helping people in need who cannot help themselves. When people are in a position to advance through their own efforts, intervention is not warranted”. Shoe shining in Rajasthan, India

The MDGs are focussed and make sense. To achieve them, however, a comprehensive and coherent development policy is needed. Paying too much attention to individual indicators would lead to a kind of anxious disaster relief: applied in haste, geared to immediate results and revocable when funds run short. [ By Helmut Reifeld ]

Debate on the Millennium Development Goals in recent years has mostly revolved around how to improve them in terms of accuracy, quality of indicators, effectiveness and, above all, more official development assistance (ODA). The rationale of aid, however, was neglected. At the same time, doubts are growing, at least in respect to Africa, that the goals will be achieved by 2015. What is in question is not the merit of the agenda itself, but rather how it relates to development affairs in general.

The MDGs are over-estimated in two respects. The impression that it only takes quantifiable objectives to ensure sustainable development is as common as it is overblown, and the idea that the governments of developing countries are now focussing on these objectives is unjustified.

Typical of this trend is Jeffrey Sachs’ argument (2005) that more funds will bring more success and make all MDG targets achievable. The case against this view is strong. While a lot of aid spending has achieved good results, a lot has also had the opposite result. There is no evidence that MDG efforts differ in this respect from other developmental efforts. Nonetheless a mistaken belief persists that the MDGs are more successful than any developmental agenda before.

In truth, money is not the solution. Success depends on funds reaching the right people in the right way. In many cases, less is more. The “planners”, as William Easterly (2006) calls development experts, have not learned much from the “searchers”, otherwise they would not insist on tangible results being achieved simply by spending more money. The “searchers” are those who want to find their own solutions to the problems they face. They can be found everywhere – and that is a good thing because, ultimately, development must start within a country.

Circumstances matter

It is easy to produce quantifiable results short-term; debt relief is an example. The sustainability of results, however, depends on political circumstances. This is obvious in countries such as Botswana, Ghana or Uganda, which are “successful” in a political and economical sense. But examples such as Ivory Coast or Zimbabwe make it clear that success can quickly be eroded again due to mismanagement and bad governance.

Development goals can only be achieved by political means. The principle of subsidiarity requires the observance of the principles of democratic constitutions and market economies. Political freedom and transparent rules are valued in developing countries just as much as they are in OECD nations. Aid money disbursed to governments with authoritarian – or merely “bad” – governance will at best provide some relief, but it cannot be a cure. Salua Nour, a political scientist from Egypt, likens such spending to “a bandage applied to a cancer tumour” (D+C 2010 7/8, p. 297).

It is counter-productive to elevate the MDGs to an end in themselves. They must be considered in the context of international political cooperation since they belong into this specific regulatory framework. This fundamental truth must have a bearing on all developmental efforts from the outset; otherwise it will become impossible to understand setbacks and un­desired trends.

The MDGs, moreover, relate to how the dynamics of globalisation and its processes are designed and enforced. This is something public debate all too often does not take into account.

Cater to individual responsibility

It is not enough to look at the MDG statistics. How regulations are implemented in a particular country, and how that will be done in the future matters just as much. The “planners” tend to consider objectives narrowly in a one-sided manner. At the same time, they tend to disregard interrelatedness with other fields of international policymaking, such as foreign affairs, security or world trade. Beyond doubt, however, we need greater consistency between various policy areas, not least because such consistency would help to foster good governance right from the start.

It would make sense to bank on economic incentives to achieve the MDGs. The big issue is to enable individuals, families and communities to contribute to achieving common objectives thanks to their own efforts. They must assume responsibility. To be sustainable, reforms must originate within a given society. The MDGs are geared to peoples’ needs, not to governmental agencies, and thus can help to bring about the social structures the societies concerned need. In any event, the MDGs are not simply an issue of welfare or employment policies.

There must be incentives for individuals to manage their livelihoods and to handle personal health and education issues themselves. Nobody should be waiting for help. In any given society, the achievers need to be given scope. Economies must be organised in a competitive manner. Obviously, development policy has not lived up to its promises of private-sector driven growth, fighting corruption and the avoidance of long-term dependence on aid. This is particularly evident in Africa.

Donors and recipient-country governments must discuss what needs to be done to achieve the MDGs. If the goals were only about emergency relief, there would be no lasting effect. Donor governments have ample reason not to gear their international development policies exclusively to the MDGs.

Political coherence matters on all sides, but it will not do to merely assess coherence by applying the criteria of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. Policy coherence matters more than coherence in merely technical terms. Structural change is what makes the difference in the long run, but it does not become evident in short-term indicators.

Crucial values

Without trial and error, the MDGs cannot be achieved. An interim result, however, does not tell us much about success or failure. Values and national interests are of crucial relevance, no matter that development policy is normally pluralistic in design. Overarching policy must be geared to developmental objectives, otherwise action on the MDGs will never be anything else than anxious disaster relief: applied in haste, focussed on immediate results and revocable when funds run short.

As a matter of principle, and in order to avoid misconceptions, measures taken to achieve the MDGs must always go along with debate on the underlying values and interests. Such debate serves to better determine the use and location of “development aid”. It is better to address diverging views than to hush them up for the sake of supposed “eye-level interaction”. Discussions are worthwhile. They will often lead to some kind of reconciliation even where interests diverge. The exchange of political and ethical arguments matters, but so do personal encounters.

Internationally, the debate on values has petered out. Nonetheless, it is frivolous to offer help without having firm principles. In view of globalisation, many people today are speaking of “global welfare” and “global social justice”. Such ideas are fascinating, but one must never assume that all partners around the world share them – and certainly not if these ideas do not even become the topic of serious debate.


Cooperation should be systematically guided by the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means helping only those people who urgently need help but are in no position to help themselves. In contrast, there must be no intervention where the individuals are able to help themselves. “Help to self-help” may be offered, but it must merely assist people’s own development efforts, and never serve as a substitute.
For these reasons, MDG 1b – “achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people” – is ultimately the most important target. Poverty will not be reduced on a permanent basis without higher productivity, more employment and better opportunities to generate incomes.

Subsidiarity means gearing action towards societal groups and, at the same time, keeping a distance from governmental partners. Subsidiarity is contrary to centralised management and technocratic planning. This principle respects and promotes a stable societal order, for instance, by taking into account businesses in the informal sector, smallholder farmers and self-help groups. Furthermore, its focus is on people rather than the state, which is a precondition for respect for human rights and solidarity (see Schick, 2009).

Self-reliance starts inside

Achieving the Millennium Development Goals must be understood as an issue of ethics. Otherwise, implementation will be at risk of being mechanical, anonymous and purely quantitative. Terms like “participation”, “decentralisation” or “helping people to help themselves” must not become empty rhetoric, or else the idea of responsibility itself will become empty. So far, too few planners accept the fact that a nation state, which is able to handle its concerns autonomously, can arise only from within a country. It cannot be built from the outside. The notion of donors contributing to “state-building” results in “post-colonial paternalism” at least, if not from full-blown colonial delusion (see Molt, 2009).

The MDGs have helped to make important decision-makers consider the fight against poverty an issue of global relevance. The MDGs must be a core tenet of international policymaking. MDG 8 is a “global partnership for development”. This should serve as a base for readjusting the MDGs in qualitative terms and putting them high on the international agenda – irrespective of whether or not the various MDG targets are achieved by 2015 or not.