Development as Fiction: The Failure of the MDGs

David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock have recently proposed that works of fiction may be just as valid and useful sources of knowledge than official reports and academic papers: “Not only are certain works of fiction ‘better’ than academic or policy research in representing central issues relating to development, but they also frequently reach a wider audience and are therefore more influential.” This proposition is noteworthy, for several reasons.

Michael Woolcock used to hold a senior position in the World Bank’s Research Department. The Bank is probably the last major development agency where one would expect researchers to devote their attention to War and Peace or A Fine Balance rather than presumably ‘objective’ statistical data sets. That a former senior staff member is furthering a much wider epistemological notion of development indicates that the narrow claims of ‘objective truths’ that have dominated policy-making during most of the past decades are being challenged at last. It almost makes one reminisce about the events following Joe Stiglitz’s departure from the Bank…

Reaching out to authors of fictional works also offers an important opportunity to include alternative representations of truth, fabricated in the so-called ‘recipient countries’. Lamentations in the northern hemisphere about the ‘limited capacity’ for serious social science research in developing regions – whether justified or overstated – are thus met with accounts of hardship and progress that are conceived outside of the umbrella of well-meaning northern agencies’ data collection drives.

Most acute however, the notion of development as fiction is an eye-opener for how the development industry itself produces works of fiction. Yet in contrast to the works discussed by Lewis and colleagues, this type of fabled story-telling cannot be expected to do the global development enterprise any good: I am talking about the Millennium Development Goals.

“Let’s face it – it’s over,” baits Bill Easterly amid the launch of the most recent MDG “progress” report. Most targets won’t be met by the Goals’ own deadline of 2015. Indeed, the MDGs were doomed to fail.  Their reliance on smallest common denominators, their eclipse of far more contentious employment and labor issues, the frantic yet ill-conceived ‘localization agenda’ and the almost religious reluctance among its major organizational proponents to engage in realistic political analyses lie at the heart of this failure.

Tragically then, Jeff Barnes gets it right when he comments that rather than embarking on serious rethinking, the UN and the army of smaller organizations that hinge on the MDG bloodline are unlikely to reconsider what they’ve been doing (wrong). Much rather, more millions will be spent to generate renewed momentum to the global workshop trail, multi-stakeholder conferences and glossy handouts perpetuating the derisory depiction of socioeconomic development as a win-win scenario.

The creation of development-related fiction thus enters a new stage as the spaces of production and reception of fictitious accounts have been reversed. As much as we are fortunate to welcome fiction into the realm of valid knowledge, we must remain alert to detect and disclose the kind of fiction that originates in the offices of those too invested in the current aid architecture to admit its failure.


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