Grand developmentalism: MDGs and SDGs in Sub-Saharan Africa

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A. Bayo Ogunrotifa


At the dawn of the twenty-first century, international development efforts have been coalesced around the framework of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs are a set of ambitious goals and national targets put forward and ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger – however, a significant progress towards reaching the targets has been notably achieved or deemed successful in some countries but in others, especially in sub-Sahara Africa, the progress has been marginal or deemed unsuccessful. A variety of factors has been attributed to this failure: over-ambitious goals themselves and unrealistic expectations (Clemens & Moss 2005); aid dependence over growth and self-reliance (Manning 2010); lack of ownership and commitment (Amin 2006; Ogunrotifa 2012); limited state capacities and governance incapabilities (Mishra 2004; Oya 2011); non-emphasis on sustainable development (Sachs 2012); evaluation and implementation problems (Fukuda-Parr & Greenstein); and the failure to take into account different national realities, capacities and development levels (Rippin 2013).

The outlined factors are just symptoms and not the real issue that undermine the achievement of the MDGs in Africa. The fundamental trouble associated with the MDGs is the way in which goals, targets and indicators articulated in the programme of the MDGs are conceived, defined and formulated, which are in sharp contrast to the real world situation and do not reflect the true picture of what is on ground in Africa. This is regarded as ‘’grand developmentalism’’—the general and narrow way in which development issues are defined and problematized takes priority over questions posed by the empirical world.

This has important implications on international discussions on the post-2015 development agenda that emphasises the incorporation of visionary indigenous and independent development paths and ideas on the successor agenda to the expiring MDGs (the post-2015 development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs) that is currently in discussion.


The term ‘grand developmentalism’ was coined from the notion of conceptual fetishism articulated by C. Wright Mills in his treatise on sociological imagination (1959). Mills argues that abstracted empiricism loses its grip on social reality by prioritising methods rather than the problems of the empirical world. Mills posits that grand theory engages in a fetishization of abstract concepts in place of genuine and substantive problems of the empirical world.

In other words, it is the concepts rather than the actual problems that are of paramount importance to grand theorists. However, grand theory is particularly relevant to this paper because of its engagement with development discourse. Grand developmentalism is the dialectical engagement of grand theory but goes beyond the remit of the later. In grand developmentalism, development issues are problematized on the basis of narrow or general definition without adequate empirical grounding, such that the conceptual frames and schemes are created on the basis of a narrow problem definition. If the problem definition is flawed, the conceptual schemes, variables and methodology to interrogate the issue and arrive at workable solutions, will also be flawed, while the evaluation and implementation process will be problematic.

Development I define in this paper as solving the social problems of the people (citizens) in socio-culturally appropriate and locally sustainable ways, as they [problems] are experienced, perceived and understood by the people. This definition is in sharp contrast to the western-centric development paradigm that conceived the global north as ‘’developed’’ and the Global South as “underdeveloped’’ and that the latter needs to be more modern and develop by catching up with the former. International agencies (as appendages of the western imperialistic establishment) reinforce this development paradigm by ensuring that they control the aspirations of the Global South, and redefine their problems, priorities and realities in a way that has nothing to do with the actual situations.

Grand developmentalism lost all contact with the social, cultural and historical dimension of development of the societies it purports to offer solutions because it works at a high level of generality and superficiality. Given the degree of generality in its problem definition, grand developmentalism creates concepts that are suitable to the narrowly defined problem, whereas concepts should have been derived from the empirical world. This therefore negates the contextual and specific problem of development it seeks to analyse and proffer solutions.


The Millennium Development Goals are an outcome of the United Nations Millennium summit held in the year 2000. The origin of the MDGs goes back much further in time, and some of the most important components will be discussed in this paper. In fact, it is important to strip the MDGs naked in order to flesh out their basis, compositions and essentials. The MDGs comprise of 8 goals, 18 targets and 48 indicators. The goals and targets have been set (mostly) for 2015, using 1990 as a benchmark or baseline. They evolve out of the ‘resolutions of 23 international conferences and summits held between 1990 and 2005’ (Rippin 2013). They are clearly worked out by an ‘’Inter-agency and Expert Group on the Millennium Development Goal Indicators (IAEG), consisting of experts from the DAC, World Bank, IMF and UNDP’’ (Manning 2009; c.f. Hulme 2009; Hulme 2010). The development as understood in the MDGs is a reflection of neo-liberalism and a modernisation approach that seeks to reinforce the hegemony of the Western economic model in the Global South, and strengthen their mainstream development discourse. The 8 goals, 18 targets and 48 indicators articulated in the MDGs programme are quantitative in nature, design and outlook. They are designed to be evaluated and measured in a statistical format[1] .

The most obvious shortcomings associated with the quantitative approach are that they do not reveal the real life situations or subjective dimension of the life world of the people, context and settings under study. These goals, targets and indicators are the perfect example and reflections of grand developmentalism as they imply that development “research starts with a concern for numbers or measurement, which it elevates over the specific qualities of the empirical world it is attempting to analyse’’ (Gane 2012: 154). Technocrats of the respective agencies are unduly rigid towards the use of quantitative methodology and techniques – which is not wrong in itself, but in this case implies the impositions of quantitative techniques on all aspects and dimensions of development issues and problems regardless of the specific contexts and demands of the empirical world. The sort of difficulties inherent in the MDGs stemmed from the philosophical and methodological foundations that underpin the conception of the programme itself. The MDGs as a form of grand developmentalism can be expressed exemplary in the following ways:


The targets and indicators used to define, measure and tackle poverty and hunger obscure the nature of reality or real life experience of poverty in developing countries. Questions that need to be asked instead are: what are the natures of poverty in different countries of the Global South (but also Global North)? Is the poverty situation in Nigeria the same as the nature and level of poverty in Bangladesh and Vietnam? How is poverty seen and defined by the people in developing countries? What are policies that generate and engender poverty? Does the poverty situation transcend the global yardstick of US$1 per day [1993 Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)], or rather, what are the cultural, social, historical and moral dimensions of poverty? The established targets of reducing by half the proportion of people whose income is less than US$1 a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger is a one-size-fit-all yardstick that cannot adequately measure poverty and hunger. This is a danger of grand developmentalism.


The issue of gender and women empowerment features prominently in the third goal of the MDGs, and this intersects with primary education with respect to equality between boys and girls in terms of primary school enrolment. However, it is unclear what forms and shape gender takes in developing countries as far as the MDGs are concerned. Inability to understand how gender is entrenched and shapes the everyday lives of people in different places will affect efforts being made to address gender inequality in access to education and women empowerment. The MDGs failed to adequately capture the social, cultural and historical contexts that underpinned and shaped gender in developing countries; and the sorts of cultural beliefs and practices that promote gender inequality in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). In fact, without delving into the questions of what sorts of cultural practices inhibit girls’ education and what forms of national policies promote gender inequality in education enrolment and attainment, achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment will remain unrealistic and vague.


The most important targets to achieve environmental sustainability—which is the seventh goal of the MDGs—is to integrate the principles of sustainable development into national and global policies; reduce-by-half the proportion of people who have no access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation; and to improve the living conditions of slum dwellers. The indicators to achieve these targets seemed unrealistic and unworkable. This stems from the fact that the MDGs did not take into consideration the low level of industrialisation, the contribution of carbon emission to global carbon emission, and the policies and programmes that undermine the sustainable provision of clean drinking water in the Global South. The complexities inherent in the local realities of environmental sustainability make the targets and indicators impracticable. Furthermore, it is problematic that the western world, which is entirely responsible for the environmental problems the Global South is facing, is not mentioned in this goal and, even more remarkable, is not even asked to reduce their emissions or to make drinking water available by not letting firms like Nestlé etc. privatise the drinking water of the world! As a form of grand developmentalism, the issue posed by environmental sustainability in the MDGs did not address the nature of capitalistic policies that promote environmental problems in the Global South. This indicates that the important targets responsible for environmental problems in the Global South as far as the MDGs are concerned are neglected while unrealistic targets are put forward.


The implementation of programmes and projects required a guaranteed financial war chest to achieve its overall targets and objectives. Yet, as far as the MDGs are concerned, there is no guaranteed financial outlay or specialised savings and international gold reserve for their attainment. The means to finance MDG measures are based on financial pledges and commitments from the Global North. The financial commitment from developed countries is premised on the condition that recipient countries must operate openly and non-discriminatory towards the global trading and financial system. This is meant by the “global partnership for development’’. Basically, it determines that poorer countries must be part of a neo-liberal system that requires recipient countries to open their markets for all goods from the North before they can receive Official Development Assistance (ODA), aid and grants, and debt relief from the latter. This is not only problematic because donor countries may experience financial crises and economic recession and may not be able to fulfil their financial commitment and pledges. It may render aid dependent relationships futile and put the attainment of the MDGs into serious challenges. As the source of financing is not based on the size of the economies and the GDP of the respective LDCs but depends on foreign aid as the main source of financing, there is no independent financial pathway for developing countries to achieve the MDGs other than ODA, debt relief, aid and grants articulated in the eighth goal.


The millennium declaration that paves way for the endorsement of the MDGs in the global space was made in 2000 while the benchmark of its implementation was backdated to 1990. Technically, there was a period of 15 years to implement the MDGs across different societies in the LDCs. But it is unclear how the MDGs would be implemented in the Global South within the said period. Are the MDGs producing the intended effect? Are there targets set for each year? How are the targets going to be achieved? How much does it cost to achieve the targets? Whose agencies or institutions are saddled with the responsibility of monitoring, evaluating and implementing the MDGs? Do beneficiaries of development projects talk back about the effects of the projects? When they do, are their voices reflected as ‘’native’’ point of view or disciplined and translated to institutional points of view?

While in some settings in the Global South, measurement, evaluation and implementation are being taken seriously inability to take these questions in some settings into consideration constitutes a problem for measuring the progress and performance of the MDGs’ progress such that “even in the case of countries with a perceptible acceleration of progress consideration doubt has been raised whether this acceleration is the result of real national commitment or rather an effort of ‘speaking the language’ in order to secure donors’ support’’ (Rippin 2013: 19). This problem of evaluation and implementation makes the MDGs a form of grand developmentalism.


The third critique is the huge sustainability deficit inherent in the MDGs. Development should be all about satisfying the needs of the people and improving their livelihood patterns. Development should be what the people actually want or need, and not what national governments or global institutions think that the people need or want. The MDGs – as aresult of modernization and neo-liberal ideologies – were articulated and presented by the international agencies as “real development’’ or as legitimate solutions to the development problems of people in the respective countries of the Global South. But in reality, they did not capture the priorities and problems facing the people in those contexts. The issue of sustainability is embedded in what people actually want and people are at the centre of sustainable development. The authors of the MDGs do not find out what the people really want – instead, they designed and formulated the goals on different assumptions, thus reinforcing the existing power relations in the global structure of power. Sustainability here is linked significantly to ownership, participation and power-relations. The centrality of sustainable development indicates that people’s ownership and participation in the development conception and design will promote the sustainability of such project. I believe that people protect and sustain development projects that emanate from them and address their needs and wishes. The MDGs are suffering from sustainable deficits because there is no provision for how the projects would be sustained by the people who are the end-users.


The UN and other international (development) agencies are currently working on post-2015 development agenda. Following the UN conference in Rio de Janeiro (2012), an Open Working Group was established to develop a set of sustainable development goals that will be part ofthe UN development agenda beyond 2015.[2]

From the outline of the SDG proposal, it is already clear that the basic premise underlying development is still unchanged. The development paradigm is still a top-down approach; implying that the Global South is incapable of facilitating its own development without external assistance and seeks to foster aid-dependent relationships. The SDG proposal implies the notion that the respective countries of the Global South are incapable of driving and engendering their own developmental initiatives. The SDG proposal as a development programme is founded on the basis of modernisation and neo-liberal approaches whose rendition serves as the prism that shapes the orientation and mandate of international agencies towards acting as a sole repository of ‘legitimate’ development solutions that will ensure that development in the Global South is fast-tracked to the pace of development in the global north without having to undergo latter’s historical circumstances and processes. This imposition of development strategies and ideas on the Global South is the basis of grand developmentalism as people in the Global South are not allowed to control their development destiny and define their problems and priorities in relations to their respective local realities. This inhibits the ability of the Global South to develop according to their own pace, capacities and realities.

What is questionable in the proposal is how different national priorities and realities are taken into consideration. The SDGs set global targets for measuring development, with the authors of the SDGs assuming that those goals and targets are the legitimate solutions to development problems faced by the respective countries in the Global South, which they will not object to. What will be problematic in the proposed SDGs is that the definition of development problems and priorities will be put together in some capital city of the Global South where “policy is thus bureaucratised and depoliticised through ‘commonsense’’ practices such as planning and strategies” (Escobar 1991: 667) which are exogenous to social and political situations or been derived vis-à-vis grassroots movements.

Third, the SDGs are the rehash of the MDGs in terms of financing. Huge development projects and programmes implicit in the SDGs require guaranteed levels of financing for them to be executed and implemented. So far, it is not clear at all how guaranteed financial outlay or specialised savings and international gold reserve for the attainment of the SDGs are spelt out – and whether the third conference on financing for development in July 2015[3] will see an end to this.

Finally, the notion of ‘’sustainability’’ in the SDGs document is vague. What sorts of social relations to the grassroots are involved in the design, planning and implementation of development projects? What forms of power do the SDGs foster or undermine? The fundamental crux of the proposed SDGs is that international agencies’ notion of development articulated in the document prioritised and privileged bureaucratic and institutional definition of the problem rather than the actual problems obtained in local contexts. Sustainability in the SDG case is non-existent because people in the Global South are not the driver nor are they at the centre of such sustainable development initiatives, and as such, they are incapable of sustaining development projects that are not of their own making.


The argument that the Global South is facing problems of development may be generally true, but the problems are not actually defined and understood within the context of situations and everyday realities in the respective countries. It is thus important not to make general statements of development, but to concretise them in relation to the contexts and settings where they are to be applied. Both the MDGs and the SDGs, as general or universal frameworks for global development practice, fail to acknowledge how this general problem finds its expression in the concerned countries.

As far as the discussion on the post-2015 development agenda is concerned, a participatory process must urgently be facilitated. It must start from grassroots development research where local activists, anthropologists, sociologists and NGOs are engaged with a view to mapping out the real development problems faced by the people and identify sustainable solutions to them. The participatory process should proceed towards national consultations where policy makers, economists, and development experts are engaged in debates, deliberations and discussions about the findings of grassroots development research. Through this participatory medium, national capacity, the characteristics of the economy (i.e. GDP), and a country’s financial state would have to be taken into consideration and formulated into national priorities, targets and indicators for achieving national development goals. Thereafter, a thematic consultation between the national governments and global institutions should be facilitated. This would ensure that important national development issues with differentiated targets that reflect a universal goal framework are derived in a participatory process.

Secondly, an independent development commission should be inaugurated by the United Nations General Assembly in each country that is signatory to the post-2015 development agenda. The commission should be allowed to perform its responsibilities independently without undue interference from national governments and international institutions. The composition of the commission should include: local activists and NGOs, a national government official, local academics, development experts, a UNDP official and a representative of global financial institutions. The commission should be saddled with matter relating with global development financing, fund disbursement, monitoring, evaluation and implementation of development projects. The commission must also ensure that funds are channelled to approved projects, projects are executed according to approved standards and reflect the real costs of the projects. In evaluating the projects, the commission should develop its own yardstick for measuring whether targets and indicators outlined to actualise (a) particular goal(s) are achieved or not. This will help to checkmate the griming reality of weak state institutions, corruption and mismanagement that undermined the performance of the MDGs especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Finally, a fundamental re-examination of global development financing from aid dependent relationship (over-reliance on ODA as enshrined in the MDGs) to available domestic fiscal affordability is needed. This will help to create independent financial pathways for LDCs to achieve the development goals at their own pace and level of development. Rather than relying on donor’s agencies and international institutions in implementing all development goals and targets, the financial gap between country’s fiscal capabilities and national priorities has to be plugged through debt relief, ODA and financial aid from international institutions.

Conclusively, the ideas and practices of global sustainable development that would come after 2015 should be developed in relation to the complexities of development issues in the LDCs and not on abstract agendas and strategies that are constituted in a universalistic frame. This will incorporate the perspectives of the North and the Global South in the participatory process of drawing up a new agenda that will reflect a win-win situation where strategic ‘’engagement of local mobilization with global discourses, and of local discourses with the global structure of power’’ as Cooper (1997: 85) brilliantly captured, are entrenched.

* A. Bayo Ogunrotifa teaches at the University of Edinburgh, UK.


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