The Perspectives Editorial Team interviewed Melissa Thomas (SAIS DC), Michael Plummer (SAIS Europe), and Adam Webb (SAIS Nanjing) on their thoughts regarding the post-2015 development agenda.

Q: The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), established by the United Nations in 2000, have guided international development for nearly 15 years.  They primarily focus on poverty reduction, improvement of primary education, and the provision of basic health services.  What do you think has been the greatest success in the field of development during this period?

WEBB: Basic social indicators, including primary health care and primary education enrolments, have improved somewhat in many of the poorest countries.  This has been made possible in part by somewhat better honed techniques for targeting these populations and getting results from limited resources, and an appreciation of how much can be done with relatively small amounts of funding.  We should also not overlook the ability of some primary commodity producers in Africa and Latin America to spend some of their increased revenues on social needs.  Even if only some of the money from mining and gas extraction gets to the poorest, a little bit can go a long way.

THOMAS: Donors like the World Bank point to steep reduction in the numbers of people living in extreme poverty, and in some countries we can clearly see greater wealth and improved quality of life.  The difficulty is determining the role of aid or the Millennium Development Goals in influencing change.  If nothing else, the MDGs have provided a useful framework for discussion about development priorities.

PLUMMER: If I had to name the one greatest success in the field of development, it would be the reduction in absolute poverty—partly due to the fact that the MDGs were all correlated.  Even with some exceptions (for instance, the rise in gender inequality), by and large most development goals—improvements in primary education, provision of basic health services, access to energy and water resources—can all be highly correlated with poverty reduction, which in turn is associated with increases in per capita income.  I would take issue, however, with the assertion that the MDG “guided” international development.  The MDGs are used more as a yardstick, in the sense that they were a good benchmark for assessing where we have and have not made progress.

Q: Were there any major failures during this period? If so, what were the causes? Are there lessons to be learned?

THOMAS: There is a tendency to treat the MDGs as if they were technical targets; more, to treat them as technical targets that every country in the world is expected to achieve.  If the MDGs are evaluated in this way—which I don’t think they should be—there were certainly failures.  Many of the poorest countries failed to achieve MDG targets, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Some may even have had gains that were very important in their own context but treated as failures because they did not achieve the arbitrary targets set by the MDGs.  The MDGs do not address the difficult question of trade-offs.  They are written as if all of these objectives are equally and simultaneously achievable.  Yet for very poor countries with limited resources and capacities, hard choices are all they have.

PLUMMER: The biggest failure is not yet having in place a comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability.  On this issue, there is often a disconnect between the developed and developing world that would necessarily need to be addressed in any post-MDG agenda.  This is a classic international public goods problem, but developing countries will bear the brunt of the consequences of global warming.  There have been opportunities for dialogue, and these need to continue.  We can only make progress by articulating correctly the costs associated with global warming, to both developed and developing countries, to make the case for action.

WEBB: There has been very little attention to real empowerment of the world’s poorest.  The MDGs tend to focus on the ability of the poor, in the aggregate, to fit into a very stratified world economy.  They are seen as people with subsistence needs, or as potential consumers, or as potential bearers of skills that do or do not match the demands of the market.  None of this is about giving the poor more control over their fate.  The idea of a dignified independent existence, with a wider distribution of productive capital and the economic networks to make good use of it, gets short shrift in what remains, ultimately, a very technocratic vision of the world’s future.

Q: Is the emphatic discourse about institutions in development economics (evident also in this year's issue of Perspectives) justified, or will it prove to have been just another fad in hindsight?

PLUMMER: The role of institutions is definitely very important, and institutions can often explain why some countries are successful and others are not.  If a country has poor governance, inefficient institutions, and significant corruption, enhancing development will always be a challenge.  So improving institutions is essential in the development process.  But the term “institution” is a very broad term that can be interpreted in different ways.  That being said, failure in the evolution of institutions remains one of the greatest constraints to development in my view.  

THOMAS: The main problem is that donors have set out to change institutions, but with no theory of institutional change and little power to change them.  Donors keep trying to “mainstream” political economy analyses (an effort that has gone on for about twenty years), but the difficulty is that political economy analyses often do not yield actionable recommendations for donor operations.  This is not a consequence of the irrelevancy of institutions or of political economy analyses, but instead of donor overreaching.

Q: As we begin to outline a new set of goals for development, what should we be thinking about? Where should the focus be?

THOMAS: The conversation that I would like to see going forward is one in which we take the constraints of poor governments more seriously.  Poor governments have different options than rich ones, and this means that they govern less, and rely on cheaper strategies to govern, such as patronage and repression.  The West has delegitimized these governance strategies but has not offered a feasible alternative for the poorest governments.  This has created an illusion of consensus on issues related to governance and the role of the state, while strongly reducing the effectiveness of our engagement with low-income country governments.  I make this argument in my book, Governing While Poor, slated for publication with Columbia University Press in 2015.

PLUMMER: Trade will be a very important part of the post-2015 developing agenda.  Overcoming the impasse in a single undertaking at Doha reflects the maturity of the system, with a bigger role for developing countries within the global economy.  Developing countries after a generation of liberalization are now quite dependent on movements in the global economy and have a bigger stake in it; they realize the great potential of the global economy and that they must be active participants in order to extract gains in the future.  We are already seeing this deeper integration in Doha, TPP, RCEP, and I expect we will continue to see more of it and this will form a very important part of the post-2015 development agenda.  I believe the global economy will look very different in 2025: with more integrated trade and investment globally, including even least-developed countries, as modern industrial organization opens up new opportunities.

WEBB: There needs to be a lot more hard thinking and vigorous public debate about the channels through which resources flow.  As Benedict XVI’s encyclical, “Caritas et Veritate”, aptly pointed out some four years ago, one can distinguish the spheres of market, state, and charity.  Each has its own logic.  There is a lot of attention today to market and state—in effect, to profit and coercion—but very little to how the texture of life can be improved by resources flowing through civil society.  This is partly because the world’s influential strata tend to think in terms of large flows of resources rather than cultivating well-ordered ways of life.  It is also because, in many countries—including some that have grown very fast in recent years—a vibrant civil society, with more spontaneous organization by ordinary people, might inconvenience a technocratic vision of order and progress.

Q: What one book would you suggest to our readers in order to better understand the future of development?

PLUMMER: Even though I might not agree with all its arguments, the one book that does the best job in getting people to think about development is Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen.  Everyone should read this book, if nothing else, to get the mental juices flowing in terms of thinking about these key development issues from a broad point of view.  Then perhaps my book, Economic Integration and Development: Has Regionalism Delivered for Developing Countries?  (Just kidding.)

THOMAS: The book on which I’ve been most focused recently is my own, Governing While Poor, which will be published in 2015.  It argues that we must engage the actual structures of power in poor countries.  In the governance domain, we have often let the perfect be the enemy of the good or the better.  For us to be effective, we must take the constraints of poor governments seriously and understand that their governance strategies cannot be the same as those of rich governments.

WEBB: I’m not sure where I’d start to answer that.  I might just be contrarian and suggest that there are some timeless classics that are always worth re-reading.  Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful and GK Chesterton’s Outline of Sanity, while decades old, still speak to some perennial issues of what scale of development we should emphasize and what values should guide it.

Q: What advice would you give a graduating student preparing to enter the field of development?

WEBB: Make a point of gaining experience in more than one sector and in more than one part of the world.  Becoming too narrowly ensconced in one region or one type of development activity can rather limit one’s skill set, and make it harder to adopt best practices from anywhere.  SAIS has a lot of potential to push people more in these emerging directions, given its engagements on multiple continents.

THOMAS: While not the only advice I would give to a graduating student, attention to personal safety is of growing importance in the field.  We’re putting more money into conflict countries and more junior people are headed to these areas.  Think about taking responsibility for your personal security in the field by developing practices of situational awareness, and learning to drive a stick shift, basic first aid, and local languages.  Make sure that you stay in contact with someone who can help you if you get into trouble.

PLUMMER: The most important thing is to build the set of tools needed to understand development: a good understanding of economics, statistics, and econometrics, and an understanding of the very wide dimensions of development.  Languages are important, as well as studying more than one region; I fundamentally do not believe that one can really understand development in one region without the context of comparison to another.  In my mind, studying countries and regions is essential because it provides an understanding of development as it has been applied in the real world.  


Melissa Thomas, J.D., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of International Development and has been teaching at SAIS for nine years.  Her research focuses on the governance of neopatrimonial states and US foreign policy toward those states, aid worker security, and the aid industry.  Her book, "Governing While Poor: Poor Governments and the Western Dilemma,” is forthcoming in 2015.  Before joining SAIS, Professor Thomas worked as a governance specialist for aid donors in Africa, South America, and the former Soviet Union.

Professor Michael G. Plummer is the ENI Chair of International Economics and incoming Director of SAIS Europe in Bologna, starting August 2014.  He served as the Head of the Development Division at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) between 2010 and 2012.  He has more than 30 years of experience in academia, focusing on international trade, international finance, and economic integration, especially in the Asian context, and has published extensively in these areas.

Adam K. Webb has been Resident Professor of Political Science at the Hopkins-Nanjing Centre since 2008.  He is the author of “Beyond the Global Culture War” and “A Path of Our Own: An Andean Village and Tomorrow’s Economy of Values.”  Webb’s intellectual interests range widely across globalization, political thought, and social movements, as well as engaging multiple regions of the world.