Slouching Towards Flatland: Reflections on the Millennium Development Goals and Their Impact

by Zaid Hassan, 2007

Download the PDF


“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” —WB Yeats

“If your life has not three dimensions, if you don’t live in the body, if you live in the two—dimensional plane in the paper world that is flat and printed, as if you were only living your biography, then you are nowhere. You don’t see the archetypical world, but live like a pressed flower in the pages of a book, a mere memory of yourself.” —Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Carl G. Jung

“Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows—only hard and with luminous edges—and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen. Alas, a few years ago, I should have said “my universe”: but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things.” —Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, Edwin A. Abbott


India is the land of my grandparents and a country my family has fled from several times. For some reason, it keeps calling us back. We keep going back, to discover how much and how little it has changed. In 2006 I was involved the launch of an ambitious development project in India. Its initial stated goal was to halve the rate of child malnutrition in India within ten years. There are some 100 million children in India that suffer from some form of under-nutrition. The goals of this project were derived from and closely linked to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—in particular those relating to women and children.

The project took roughly three years to put together. A large part of this time was spent talking to stakeholders and funders. Stakeholders largely consisted of government officials (including some panchayat leaders), corporate executives and civil society leaders. Part of the reason this phase of the project took three years was that in its earliest conception the project was to be located in India, without a decision being made about where exactly in India. Over the course of this time the geographic focus of the project emerged, with factors such as political support and infrastructure being key determinants for where to start work. The project ultimately involved a number of Indian institutions, including various departments from the Government of Maharashtra, a UN agency, a small number of corporations, a number of NGOs, a New York-based development NGO and us.

In many conversations with stakeholders and funders, a PowerPoint “deck” was used to frame and explain the project, its scope and its reason for being. A set of the MDGs relating to women and child development in India were used near the start of the presentation. The “indicators” concerning the question of India meeting its MDGs came from UNICEF, part of the UN system that conceived the MDGs. This data showed that India was not going to meet these goals. In the meetings that I sat in, I remember many questions being asked, such as where the funding would come from and so on, but I have no recollection of the goals ever being questioned nor the data ever being queried—even though it was a key part of framing the project. The Economist itself, staunch defender of the market-as-solution, points out the attraction of MDG-think.

This MDG-think is seductive. It is a potent mix of inspiration (saving lives and educating minds is eminently doable) and accusation (why, then, is the rich world not doing it?). But this thinking is also misleading. However laudable, the goals wrongly invite people to think of development as akin to an “engineering problem”, as Lant Pritchett, now of Harvard University, and Michael Woolcock of the World Bank have argued. The task is to pour money in one end of the MDG pipeline and then count the tubewells and school enrolments emerging from the other.[i]

The MDGs themselves and the whole business of tracking indicators can be thought of as an intellectual and cognitive exercise belong to a very peculiar universe, one that many people, at least in the West, are increasingly choosing to live within (and one that most people in the non-West do not yet live within). The MDGs come from a way of being and thinking, from a place, that can be thought of as “Flatland” a two-dimensional, self-referential, closed universe defined by the boundaries of reports and PowerPoint presentations.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8