Jan Pronk

Post 2015: Changing Tracks

Speech Seminar ‘Development in Theory and Practice’ on the occasion of the retirement of Professor Michiel Keyzer, Center for World Food Studies, Free University Amsterdam, 27 June 2014

Outside the world of diplomats, development experts and environmental activists it has not attracted much attention yet, but intensive talks are taking place about the so-called Post 2015 World Development Agenda.  These talks started in 2012, following the UN Summit on Development and Environment in Rio de Janeiro (‘Rio plus 20’). They are meant to focus on global sustainable development for the next couple of decades. In Rio world leaders adopted a document with a seemingly ambitious, but rather non-committal title: The Future We Want. Political leaders should not speak about a future they want, but about the future they are going to shape. It is a rather flat text, uninspiring, weaker than any other document agreed at any previous UN Summit. It is no more than an annotated agenda, a wish list. However, the document does contain one important promise: world leaders decided to launch negotiations, which should result in an agreement on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the world as a whole.

SDGs are a new concept. They stretch far beyond the Millennium Development Goals which had been adopted in the year 2000, when governments agreed to cut world poverty in half within a period of fifteen years. In the light of the experience of the previous fifty years this was an ambitious target. However, at the time it was a legitimate choice. Before the year 2000 too many promises to cut poverty had been broken. The world had achieved economic progress, but growth had not been used to lift poor people out of destitution. The number of people with an income below a decent level of living and without adequate access to the provision of basic needs - food, water, sanitation and health care - had increased. The turn of the millennia provided a new political momentum: a changeover in global policymaking: from now on we will give first call to the poor, and we will work out a strategy to that end. That was the message of the Millennium Development Declaration which world leaders adopted at the Millennium Summit in the year 2000, and reconfirmed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 2002).

The ambitions will not be fully met. There are many accomplishments, but also many gaps. The Agenda Post 2015 should at least elaborate ways and means to fill those gaps. Otherwise the commitments of 2000 will appear as hollow as the promises before. However, gap filling is not enough. New decisions will have to be made how to cut the second half of world poverty - and when. After all, it would be unacceptable, ethically as well as politically, agreeing on a strategy to improve the living conditions of only one half of the world’s poor. That is not what we had in mind fifteen years ago. This is not how the promise should be understood, and, anyway, not how poor people themselves would see this.

Admittedly, this is a tall order. Filling the gap, bringing the other half on board as well - which obviously will be more difficult than the first half - and, thirdly, keeping up poverty reduction abreast of population growth, will make the task for the coming period more arduous than during the first fifteen years of this millennium. Moreover, we have to go beyond national poverty reduction targets. Within countries various population groups are poor, and remain poor, for different reasons. That is why we will have to set specific         (sub-) targets for specific groups: women, indigenous people, ethnic minorities, people living in remote areas, and others.

Our ambition should reach further than setting better targets. New MDGs, for the period beyond 2015, should not only be defined in terms of quantities. Improving the conditions of life at the bottom is not a question of numbers only; there are quality dimensions as well. A better quality of education, water, health care, and so on, is as important as a larger number of people with access to schools, pumps, and clinics. Also for this reason we should not confine ourselves to goals and targets. In designing post 2015 strategies we should also make choices concerning the instruments which should be used in order to meet the targets. In different countries different policies may have to be applied, because of country wise specific situations, but all policies have to be publicly accounted for and justified.  

However, the ambitions of the Post 2015 World Development Agenda reach further than designing second generation MDGs. The SDGs should not only include revised poverty reduction targets, but also concrete endeavours to reduce climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification and environmental pollution, to advance food security, to manage natural resources - minerals, energy, water, fertile land - in a sustainable manner, to preserve marine resources and ecological systems, to increase agricultural production without depleting the soils, to manage livestock resources and animal husbandry, and to steer industrial production, transport, communication, new technological applications - and even consumption - in such a way that the opportunities and choice options of future generations will not be jeopardized, but enhanced.  

All those goals are interrelated. They may come into conflict with each other. To which extent all of them can be met is uncertain.  As Michiel Keyzer argued in a recent lecture, presenting ‘lessons from a different time scale’: “On Spaceship Earth the margins of life are very narrow. Those for human life even more, not to mention those for human prosperity”. In that lecture Keyzer, discussing world food security and agriculture against the background of climate change, biodiversity loss, scarcities of minerals and fossil fuels, population growth, demographic change and variations in nature and culture, issued a warning: ‘Tipping points can be nearby. Don’t rock the boat’.  

So, we need a comprehensive strategy for global sustainable development. Will it be possible to design such a strategy, not as a wish list, but as a marching order? That will depend on three conditions.

First: it should not be a top down exercise, but a transparent process, accessible to all countries and civil society groups, stakeholders in sustainable development.

Second: decisions should not be based on scientific analysis of high quality, professional, independent of group interests, and open for scrutiny and review. Decisions should not be made by scientists and technicians, but by the stakeholders in a political process, during which they are democratically accountable.

Third, once choices have been made, institutions should have the power to ensure that they will be acted upon. These institutions should be representative of the world population as a whole. They should work together, monitor feedbacks, and avoid collateral damage and irreversible defects.

Four strategies

Since the 1950s we have had many talks about how to make world development more inclusive and more sustainable. During most of the time the three conditions have not been met. Talks produced words, no action.  We never had a World Development Strategy before, let alone a World Strategy for Sustainable Development. Negotiations about the Post 2015 World Development Agenda provide a new opportunity. They should turn this agenda into a consensus based marching order, the first overall strategy for the world as a whole.

Consensus agreements have been made reached before. Establishing the UN family around 1945 was one of them. Next, three consensus agreements carried the contours of a policy strategy. The strategy for Development Decade nr 1, the 1960s, was the first. The second was the Agenda for the twenty first century, Agenda 21, adopted at the UN World Summit on Development and Environment (Rio de Janeiro, 1992). The third one was the Millennium Declaration, mentioned earlier.

DD 1 was meant to be a strategy, but only for the developing countries, in order to help them achieving a higher rate of economic growth, trading with and getting aid from countries of the North. DD 1 was focused on international policies, rather than domestic policies.

After 1960 the world changed, economically as well as politically: decolonization, Vietnam, the oil crisis, extension of the Cold War between East and West to the South, and the debt crisis of the eighties. Countries tried to respond with new policy proposals: the UNCTAD trade and development policy framework in the sixties, the New International Economic Order in the seventies, and the adjustment policies in the eighties. None of those were successful strategies.

Thirty years later, when the Cold War had come to an end, a new beginning was made. That was Agenda 21. Much more than DD1 Agenda 21 was a world strategy rather than a strategy for development cooperation. Instead of spending the world’s resources on armaments, they could be used to abate poverty and protect the world’s environment, for instance by addressing climate change, desertification and biodiversity loss. The new mantra was sustainability: growth, without jeopardizing development opportunities of future generations. However, like DD 1, Agenda 21 was mainly oriented towards international rather than domestic policy making, and mainly on voluntary basis, not mandatory. Elaborations took place in a series of world summits, in Copenhagen on social policy, in Kyoto on climate change, in Cairo on population policies and in Beijing on gender. This demonstrated that Agenda 21 was a list of chapters, not yet integrated into a coherent strategy.

When towards the end of the decade, which was also the end of the century and even the end of the Millennium, the awareness grew that the strategies had failed to meet the most pressing need, eradication of world poverty, a third strategy was adopted: the Millennium Declaration. The tasks ahead were put into beautiful language, but, with the exception of the chapters on the MDGs, the declaration remained an appeal rather than a commitment.

So, there is a fourth chance. As against DD 1 the Global Strategy Post 2015 should be world oriented. As against Agenda 21 it should be comprehensive. As against the Millennium Declaration it should be mandatory. It should be more than a review and appraisal of the MDG performance at the initial deadline of 2015. It should address present and future threats to human survival on Spaceship Earth. Those threats are serious. Globalisation and new information and communication technologies may have created unprecedented opportunities for human welfare, but at the same time we are witnessing ever wider inequalities, in particular within countries, and a long wave of domestic conflict, violence and civil war, not only social-economic battles, but also national, religious, ethnic and cultural fights. Sixty years after the establishment of the United Nations and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, meant to put an end to human suffering, going to war again is an option, seriously considered by quite a few countries and parties in conflict with each other.

A Post 2015 Development Agenda should be both global and country specific. Ideally all countries should draft national sustainable development agenda’s, which should add up to a global strategy. National strategies should not come into conflict with those of their neighbours. As soon as scarcities arise it is essential to balance national strategies in order to meet worldwide targets and conditions. This requires a process of mutual monitoring, with feedbacks and correction measures. This is obvious in case of climate change or water management. It is unavoidable in food and agriculture as well, and applies also to people’s health and diseases, the environmental consequences of transportation, trade and industry, people’s habitat, biodiversity and natural landscapes, the fertility of soils, and the use of gmo’s, pesticides, plastics, chemicals, fossil fuels and scarce minerals.

In a market without frontiers everything depends on everything else. So, policymakers have ever more reason to think globally and comprehensively. However, they should not only look abroad, but also transform domestic policies. And they should make the new strategy dependent on obligations rather than promises. Agreeing on a world sustainable development agenda will only be meaningful on the conditions mentioned earlier. Drafting a comprehensive strategy is not a top down exercise. It is not a matter of managing scarcities as perceived by elites. In order to enhance its legitimacy in the eyes of all world citizens, the process should be transparent, involving stakeholders from all around the world, participatory and bottom up.

Do present talks about the post 2015 agenda meet these requirements? So far, yes, indeed, much more than previously. All countries are participating. The deliberations are open to all categories of ngo’s, business circles and civil society movements, from all around the world. Many people make use of this opportunity, helped by modern information and communication technology. Interested world citizens with access to ITC can find all submissions of all governments and other stakeholders on Internet and watch crucial deliberations on video. For them the process is quite transparent. To which extent views of people without access are being represented we do not know. However, compared to past deliberations present talks are a step forward. I have participated in many world negotiations concerning development, environment, climate, trade and aid, but never before talks were as transparent as those on the post 2015 World Development Agenda.

It remains to be seen whether this will also be the case when push comes to shove, when the decisions will have to be made and the implementation of the strategy has to start. However, so far it is a pleasant surprise, which augurs well.


Can science play a role? Scientific analysis of processes of development has always played a major role by sharpening the insights of development policy makers. Arthur Lewis, Walt Rostow, Gunnar Myrdal, Peter Bauer and Raul Prebish, just to name a few, have put their stamps on policymaking.  

Scientists have also played a role with regard to the three strategies: DD 1, Agenda 2000, and Millennium 2000. In designing the strategy for DD 1 the UN was assisted by Jan Tinbergen and Jacob Mosak. This was followed by studies initiated by UNCTAD (Alfred Maizels), the World Bank (Hollis Chenery, Joseph Stiglitz), ILO (Hans Singer, Dudley Seers), UNDP (Amartya Sen), UNICEF (Richard Jolly) and the UN itself (Jeffrey Sachs). All of them were involved in the design of international development strategies. Most of them were economists, but other UN Specialized Agencies brought agricultural scientists, health scientists and environmentalists together, in order to provide a sound basis to the respective policies. 

Scientists working independently in universities and research institutes have contributed by carrying out fundamental research and field studies, and by critically reviewing mainstream thinking. Special institutes were established, such as SIPRI, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the Club of Rome. All of them had a major impact on the development of ideas and the choice of policies.

Their findings did not always point into the same direction. On the contrary: the debates were fierce, not only due to ideological differences, but also because different views sprang from different disciplines. These debates were helpful, keeping policy makers sharp and alert. The latter could not freewheel ahead, or simply point into the direction of their scientific advisors. Choices had to be made and policy makers were accountable.

All in all, the social sciences (economics, sociology and cultural anthropology), together with agricultural sciences, environmental sciences and health sciences were of fundamental importance producing new research findings, adding new insights into processes of growth, development, change and conflict, and shaping new ideas.

This was also true in the Netherlands. Research institutes such as ITC and ISS, with Schermerhorn, Egbert de Vries and Louis Emmerij, provided an analytical basis for policy making. In the seventies research groups like Remplod on migration and MOIRA on agriculture came forward with policy options. They were followed by SOW (food security), IDPAD and SANPAD (social change), and the RAWOO as an umbrella. Jan Breman, Ivan Wolffers and Els Postel provided new insights on the basis of thorough field research in their respective fields of interest. All of them, including in particular also Michiel Keyzer, received international recognition and participated in the development debate in the Netherlands, which was no less dynamic than the discussions abroad.

That debate has flagged, in the Netherlands more than elsewhere. A couple of months ago I was invited to speak at a seminar honouring Professor Ivan Wolffers, a specialist in public health and a colleague of Professor Michiel Keyzer at this University. Wolffers, writing about research methods, makes a distinction between development related research - neutral - and research for development: partisan, engaged, and participatory. Wolffers is a strong advocate of the latter and I share his preference.

Since the embracement of neoliberal philosophies, authorities have lost interest in demand driven research for development, in particular research driven by the needs of poor and marginalised people of the world’s underclass. Presently even neutral development related research is drawing less attention from policymakers. Instead, priority is given to research serving the interests of so-called partners in development cooperation, Western partners. This supply oriented research is being outsourced to consultants, management bureaus and other commercial institutes. They do not have adequate interdisciplinary knowledge about development processes in specific countries, which can only be acquired while staying in situ for decades, together with people born and bred over there. On the contrary, project assessments rather than process analysis, studies based on benchmarks and performance indicators chosen from outside rather than insights gained with the help of a participatory approach, quantitative rather than qualitative,  top down instead of bottom up, short term rather than long term, applied research rather than fundamental learning and understanding, cost benefit studies, focussing on commercial interests in donor countries rather than studying the plight of people down and out, these are the order of the day.

Breaking down research into bite-sized chunks, and putting up each of them for separate tender, implies the end of long term funding of research institutions, which had learned asking the right questions rather than providing quick and easy answers. Nowadays, centres with a world view, an open eye to the concerns of people elsewhere and a ready ear to their arguments, do not receive much credit from bureaucrats interpreting development as a business.

I have always considered the Centre for World Food Studies as a centre of developmental excellence. SOW, after Moira, specialized in the integration of national and regional models of agricultural relations into world models. The approach was comprehensive and helped improving policy makers’ understanding of the workings of the world market of food and agriculture. But the Centre went beyond building world models. It set itself to study poverty, nutritional status and coping strategies of smallholders, nomads and other vulnerable groups. Such knowledge is essential to render development both inclusive and sustainable.

The road ahead requires more research, applied as well as fundamental, macro and micro, factual knowledge and insights in relations, causes, consequences, side effects, conditions and tipping points. Understanding the intricacies of comprehensiveness is more necessary than ever. We tend to be trapped quite easily into making exactly the wrong decisions.

However, this requires more than a searching for coherence. Expressing the need for policy coherence can paralyse policymaking itself. A search for quantifiable indicators of coherence may divert the attention from the first and foremost condition of coherence: the participation of all stakeholders, on the market as well as outside, in transparent, democratic and participatory processes towards more sustainable development. Coherence is not a technical notion or a managerial concept. It is a political idea, guiding political choices. Comprehensive models together with studies of specific sectors and groups can provide a sound basis for decision making. However, rendering those decisions coherent requires democracy, global democracy as well as democracy within nations. Without democratic institutions global development will be neither inclusive nor sustainable.    

Changing tracks

I am afraid that since the year 2000 we have become too optimistic. The general view, proclaimed by international organisations such as the World Bank, but also by many not so independent research institutions, is that we are on the right track, and that the only thing we have to do is to speed up, in order to achieve the targets in time. We are being told that the world financial and economic crisis has been overcome, that recovery is nearby, that rates of economic growth will increase again, that poverty is going down, that there are fewer conflicts, that India and Africa are rising, and that we should intensify present action in order to sustain all this. I am afraid that we are fooling ourselves. Most signals still point at the wrong direction: poverty, inequality, unemployment, climate change, nationalism, extremism and war. Policy wise we are not on the right track, but on the wrong one. We should not only intensify speed on the present track, but change track. And we should build strong global as well as national institutions with a mandate to ensure that we choose and follow the right direction. Reform of present institutions, which have increasingly been eroded, is a third condition to be fulfilled in order to design and implement a comprehensive and effective strategy for global sustainable and inclusive development. 

The preparations of the Post 2015 World Development Agenda provide a unique opportunity doing so. There is still time left for policy makers and researchers to join hands.


Jan Pronk

Speech Seminar ‘Development in Theory and Practice’, on the occasion of the retirement of Professor Michiel Keyzer, Center for World Food Studies, Free University Amsterdam, 27 June 2014