Bad lives matter, but less

  • Opinion by Jomo Kwame Sundaram (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
  • Inter Press Service

Collect enough national data to properly monitor progress on sustainable development Goals is expensive. The costs of data collection, usually borne by the countries themselves, have been estimated to be at least three times the total of official development assistance (ODA).

Recall that aid declined after the US-Soviet Cold War and again after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. More recently, many more ODA is reserved “Support” private investments from donor countries.

With the increase in demand for data, increased pressure to measure has led to overestimating or underestimating both problems and progress, sometimes without dishonest intent. The “errors” can easily be explained because statistics for poor countries are notoriously unreliable.

Political, bureaucratic and financial considerations limit the willingness to admit that the reported data is suspect lest it mislead those responsible. And once the baseline statistics have been established, similar considerations dictate subsequent “consistency” or “compliance” in reporting.

And when problems need to be recognized, “double talk” can result. Organizations can then begin to release certain statistics to the public, along with other data used, usually in confidence, for “internal” operational purposes.

Money, money, money
Economists generally prefer and even require the use of monetary measures. The reasoning is often that no other meaningful measure is available. Many believe that showing the apparent costs and benefits is more likely to raise the necessary funds. The use of exchange rates or purchasing power parity (PPP) has been the subject of much debate. Some advocate even more practical measures such as the prices of a standard McDonald’s burger in different countries.

Monetary measures imply that estimated economic losses due, for example, to smoking or noncommunicable diseases (MNT), including obesity, tend to be much higher in richer countries, due to the much higher income lost or lost as well as the costs involved.

Changes in the discourse on development
The four decades of development of the United Nations after 1960 sought to accelerate economic progress and improve social welfare. Unsurprisingly, for decades there have been various debates in the development discourse about measuring progress.

Rather, the rise of neoliberal economic thought, claiming free markets, has mainly strengthened and extended private property rights. Rejecting Keynesian and development economics, both associated with state intervention, the influence of neoliberalism peaked at the turn of the century.

The said ‘Washington Consensus‘1980s US federal institutions also involved the Bretton Woods institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, both based in the US capital.

In 2000, the United Nations Secretariat drafted the Millennium Declaration. This, in turn, became the basis of the Millennium Development Goals which gave primacy to halving the number of poor people. After all, who would oppose poverty reduction? The poor were defined by reference to a poverty line, defined somewhat arbitrarily by the Bank.

Poverty fetish
Assuming that monetary income is a universal criterion of well-being, this poverty measurement has been challenged on various grounds. Most of the poorest developing countries feel that these measures lose a lot of nuance and variation, not only for poverty but also for, for example, hunger.

Anyone who is aware of the varying importance, over time, of cash income and prices in most countries will be uncomfortable with these singular measures. But they are nevertheless highly publicized and involve continued progress until the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rejection of such a singular poverty measures has led to multidimensional poverty indicators, usually to address “basic needs”. While these “dashboard” statistics offer more nuance, the constant desire for a single metric has led to the development, promotion and popularization of composite indicators.

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

Blind neglect
Improving these metrics has therefore become an end in itself, with little debate on these one-dimensional means of measuring progress. The resulting “tunnel vision” led to ignoring other measures and indicators of well-being.

In recent decades, instead of subsistence farming, cash crops have been encouraged. Yet too many children of cash-poor subsistence farmers are better nourished and healthier than the offspring of better-off cash crop or “commercial” farmers.

Meanwhile, as cash income increases, people with food-related noncommunicable diseases have increased. While life expectancy has increased in much of the world, healthy life expectancy has increased less as poor health increasingly haunts the end-of-life years of longer lives.

Be careful what you wish
Meanwhile, as poor countries receive limited assistance in their efforts to adapt to global warming, the focus by rich countries on supporting mitigation efforts has included, among others, promoting ” no-till agriculture ”. Thus, the attribution of greenhouse gas emissions implies corresponding mitigation efforts via increased use of herbicides.

To maximize carbon sequestration in non-tilled topsoil, greater use should be made of generally toxic or even carcinogenic pesticides, especially herbicides. But the fight against global warming should not come at the expense of sustainable agriculture.

Likewise, imposing a global carbon tax will increase the price of electricity and reduce access for the “energy poor”, who make up one-fifth of the world’s population. Rich countries subsidizing affordable renewable energy for poor countries and populations would solve this dilemma.

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

The G20 London summit in 2009 managed to raise more than the targeted trillion dollars. But the resources have mainly gone to strengthening the IMF, rather than to the GGND proposal. Thus, the finance fetish has blocked a chance to revive global economic growth, with sustainable development gains for all.

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© Inter Press Service (2021) – All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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