The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 20, 2013

The continued decline of North Korea demonstrates why Inclusive Politics must be part of the next round of Millennium Development Goals

May 20, 2013

There’s been a lot of talk about North Korea in the news cycle of late, but little of it relates to the most prominent humanitarian crises occurring within its borders.

In 2000, all 193 U.N. member states, including North Korea, agreed to meet eight human development goals by 2015, including:

  • Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger,
  • Achieving universal primary education,
  • Promoting gender equality and empowering women,
  • Improving maternal health,
  • Reducing child mortality rates,
  • Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases,
  • Ensuring environmental sustainability,
  • Developing a global partnership for development.

Since these “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) were adopted, some 600 million people worldwide have escaped abject poverty, which is defined as living on less than $1.25 a day.

But as the contrast of North Korea and its neighbor China show us, this progress has been lopsided.

Most of the global reduction in extreme poverty comes from the dramatic growth in China, India, and a few other countries.

On the other hand, in North Korea, with the loss of markets in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the communist world, per capita income fell by 50 percent, life expectancy has declined by at least five years, and child and maternal mortality has increased. On top of that, one-third of North Korea’s population faces food shortage.

Proving the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, the famous nighttime satellite image of the Korean peninsula tells the same story. 

So while North Korea’s missiles may be a threat to the millions living in South Korea, its own government policies threaten the lives of its 12 million citizens who live in extreme poverty, and the one-third of its children who are stunted by malnourishment.

And, of course, these measures do not account for the burden North Korea’s human rights record imposes on its people. The surest sign of this political and social oppression is perhaps the flagging rates of productivity and innovation.

So as the 2015 date for achieving the MDGs approaches, and as the international community begins considering new goals for improving the human condition, North Korea’s case highlights a broader gap in the current MDG roadmap and a topic that needs to be part of the framework going forward.

While North Korea’s declining living conditions can be visibly and unarguably connected to its politics, there are plenty of other countries where government policies—more so than geography, climate, colonial history, or natural resources—are the main impediment to meeting the MDGs or any new set of targets.

North Korea provides a clear illustration of a vital component missing from the original MDGs: inclusive political institutions are essential to sustained growth.

It is therefore somewhat refreshing that concepts generating buzz in the discussions of post-2015 development goals are an “inclusive future” and “inclusive growth.”

Precise definitions for these concepts are a work in progress, but they generally hone in on the development community’s concerns about growing inequality and the lack of shared benefits resulting from post-2000 development.

It is hard to be against “inclusive growth,” especially in an era of increasing income and wealth inequality. But it is hard to agree on how this can be achieved. In meetings organized by the United Nations and other international institutions, people with various interests and perspectives on how poverty should be eliminated are weighing in.

In their 2012 book “Why Nations Fail,” academics Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson theorize that inclusive economic policies are only sustained in places with inclusive politics.

“Inclusive politics,” as general a concept as it is, is at least more specific than “inclusive growth,” and targets political processes and structures that sustain a polarizing status quo in many places.

This is an advance on the simple-minded ideas that led to past fads in goal-setting, such as “participatory development,” in which excluded groups were invited into discussions of development projects and programs.

These efforts were not wrong, but they never confronted the growth-killing political climates of the countries in question.

Now, as we go about setting new post 2015 targets, we have the opportunity to integrate politics into the thinking and activities of the development/anti-poverty community.

Activists and policymakers serious about making headway would do well to revisit Mancur Olson’s Power and Prosperity, which anticipated the vital nature of politics when it comes to progress.

Olson explained that market-augmenting institutions provided by a capable, but democratically constrained state are the necessary other invisible hand.

I doubt the North Koreans would have agreed to the UN’s 2000 MDG commitment if it had listed “inclusive politics” amongst the goals. But if we’re serious about “inclusive growth,” we should include these goals in the 2015 batch and be clear what we mean, even at the risk of having fewer members of the General Assembly sign up.

Nighttime view of the Korean Peninsula from NASA

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