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Poor lives matter, but less

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

KUALA LUMPUR: Current development fads fetishize data, ostensibly for ‘evidence-based policy-making’: if not measured, it will not matter. So, forget about getting financial resources for your work, programmes and projects, no matter how beneficial, significant or desperately needed.

Measure for measure

Agencies, funds, programmes and others lobby and fight for attention by showcasing their own policy agendas, ostensible achievements and potential. Many believe that the more indicators they get endorsed by the ‘international community’, the more financial support they can expect to secure.

Collecting enough national data to properly monitor progress on the Sustainable Development Goals is expensive. Data collection costs, typically borne by the countries themselves, have been estimated at minimally over three times total official development assistance (ODA).

Remember aid declined after the US-Soviet Cold War, and again following the 2008-9 global financial crisis. More recently, much more ODA is earmarked to ‘support’ private investments from donor countries.

With data demands growing, more pressure to measure has led to either over- or under-stating both problems and progress, sometimes with no dishonest intent. ‘Errors’ can easily be explained away as statistics from poor countries are notoriously unreliable.

Political, bureaucratic and funding considerations limit the willingness to admit that reported data are suspect for fear this may reflect poorly on those responsible. And once baseline statistics have been established, similar considerations compel subsequent ‘consistency’ or ‘conformity’ in reporting.

And when problems have to be acknowledged, ‘double-speak’ may be the result. Organisations may then start reporting some statistics to the public, with other data used, typically confidentially, for ‘in-house’ operational purposes.

Money, money, money

Economists generally prefer and even demand the use of money-metric measures. The rationale often is that no other meaningful measure is available. Many believe that showing ostensible costs and benefits is more likely to raise needed funding. Using either exchange rates or purchasing power parity (PPP) has been much debated. Some advocate even more convenient measures such as the prices of a standard McDonald’s hamburger in different countries.

Money-metrics imply that estimated economic losses due to, say, smoking or non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including obesity, tend to be far greater in richer countries, owing to the much higher incomes lost or foregone as well as costs incurred.

Development discourse changes

The four UN Development Decades after 1960 sought to accelerate economic progress and improve social wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, for decades, there have been various debates in the development discourse on measuring progress.

The rise of neoliberal economic thinking, claiming to free markets, has instead mainly strengthened and extended private property rights. Rejecting Keynesian and development economics, both associated with state intervention, neoliberalism’s influence peaked around the turn of the century.

The so-called ‘Washington Consensus’ of US federal institutions from the 1980s also involved the Bretton Woods institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, both headquartered in the American capital.

In 2000, the UN Secretariat drafted the Millennium Declaration. This, in turn, became the basis for the Millennium Development Goals which gave primacy to halving the number of poor. After all, who would object to reducing poverty. The poor were defined with reference to a poverty line, somewhat arbitrarily defined by the Bank.

Poverty fetish

Presuming money income to be a universal yardstick of wellbeing, this poverty measure has been challenged on various grounds. Most in poorer developing countries sense that much nuance and variation are lost in such measures, not only for poverty, but also for, say, hunger.

Anyone familiar with the varying significance, over time, of cash incomes and prices in most countries will be uncomfortable with such singular measures. But they are nonetheless much publicised and have implied continued progress until the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rejection of such singular poverty measures has led to multi-dimensional poverty indicators, typically to meet ‘basic needs’. While such ‘dashboard’ statistics offer more nuance, the continued desire for a single metric has led to the development, promotion and popularisation of composite indicators.

Worse, this has been typically accompanied by problematic ranking exercises using such composite indicators. Many have become obsessed with such ranking, instead of the underlying socio-economic processes and actual progress.

Blind neglect

Improving such metrics has thus become an end in itself, with little debate over such one-dimensional means of measuring progress. The consequent ‘tunnel vision’ has meant ignoring other measures and indicators of wellbeing.

In recent decades, instead of subsistence agriculture, cash crops have been promoted. Yet, all too many children of cash-poor subsistence farmers are nutritionally better fed and healthier than the offspring of monetarily better off cash crop or ‘commercial’ farmers.

Meanwhile, as cash incomes rise, those with diet-related NCDs have been growing. While life expectancy has risen in much of the world, healthy life expectancy has progressed less as ill health increasingly haunts the sunset years of longer lives.

Be careful what you wish for

Meanwhile, as poor countries get limited help in their efforts to adjust to global warming, rich countries’ focus on supporting mitigation efforts has included, inter alia, promoting ‘no-till agriculture’. Thus attributing greenhouse gas emissions implies corresponding mitigation efforts via greater herbicide use.

Maximising carbon sequestration in unploughed farm topsoil requires more reliance on typically toxic, if not carcinogenic pesticides, especially herbicides. But addressing global warming should not be at the expense of sustainable agriculture.

Similarly, imposing global carbon taxation will raise the price of, and reduce access to electricity for the ‘energy-poor’, who comprise a fifth of the world’s population. Rich countries subsidising affordable renewable energy for poor countries and people would resolve this dilemma.

Following the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, the UN proposed a Global Green New Deal (GGND) which included such cross-subsidisation by rich countries of sustainable development progress elsewhere.

The 2009 London G20 summit succeeded in raising more than the trillion dollars targeted. But the resources mainly went to strengthening the IMF, rather than for the GGND proposal. Thus, the finance fetish blocked a chance to revive world economic growth, with sustainable development gains for all.


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