Op-Ed: Why is it so hard to prioritize development goals?

(Credit: Adam Adamus/Flickr)

By Michael Hobbes special to Humanosphere

British trains used to “slam doors,” metal slabs that swung outward, a latch on the outside. If the train was pulling into a station, passengers could reach out through the window, swing the door open and hop off without waiting the extra few seconds for the train to come to a full stop. During long delays, they could lean out, have a cigarette and shut it again when the train started moving.

The downside of the slam doors was the accidents. Every year, a few people fell off the back, pulled under the wheels. Passengers waiting at train platforms got bashed in the face by the doors as they swung open. The trains put up signs, of course, don’t open this, watch your step, but every year, the doors caused between five and 10 deaths, and dozens of injuries.

The need for replacing the doors seems obvious, but for decades, the U.K. stubbornly refused. Updating the doors would have required designing an automatic opening mechanism, then paying workers to replace each swinging door with a sliding one. With hundreds of trains, thousands of doors, the cost was in the billions. So Britain did nothing. It left the doors as they were, cleaned up the mess from the fatalities but did nothing to prevent them.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. (Credit: Tony Kent/Flickr)

The Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. (Credit: Tony Kent/Flickr)

I spent last month in Seattle. The city has been in a decade-long debate about what to do about the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated waterfront freeway, one of the city’s busiest north-south arterials. In 2001, an earthquake rattled the viaduct, weakened it. Even after retrofitting – the city added extra steel and sensors to all the weak points – everyone knows it’s not going to survive the next earthquake. As my friend, a Seattle city planner, puts it, “the next time someone sneezes on that thing, it’s coming down.”

And again, it seems obvious what the city should do. Close the viaduct, tear it down, build a safer one. But they haven’t. Fourteen years now, it simply remains, carrying just as many passengers as before. When the next earthquake happens – and in Seattle, it is indeed a when, not an if – an undetermined number of people will die in their cars, crushed by concrete and steel. There’s even a road underneath the viaduct, a popular tourist area, bike lanes, hot dog stands. Those people, if the earthquake is during the day, will probably die too.

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Countries have a formula they apply to these sorts of problems, it’s called the value of preventing a fatality, or VPF. In Jonathan Wolff’s Ethics and Public Policy, where I read about the train doors, he notes that in the U.K., the value of a human life is 1.4 million pounds, or about $2 million. In the U.S., it’s apparently $6 million.

What’s interesting to me isn’t that we make these choices, but that we are only allowed to make them invisibly. A politician who said “saving 10 lives isn’t worth more than 14 million pounds” would be seen as a monster. Yet that is indeed the decision Britain’s politicians reached, and the one we live with intrinsically in things like our drinking age, our speed limits, our pharmaceutical regulations, our sentencing laws.

Next month, the international community will come together to sign the Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious framework to end poverty, achieve gender equality and improve global health. As I’ve written before, it’s a mess, a soup of unmeasurable indicators and undefined targets, things like “halve per capita global food waste” and “encourage companies … to adopt sustainable practices.”

One of the reasons why it’s so bad, I’m convinced, is that in development, we aren’t allowed to talk about these simple trade-offs, the kinds governments and citizens make every day. With the viaduct, with cigarette lighters, we traded a small risk of fatalities for a the inconvenience of preventing them. With train doors, Britain decided there were more pressing risks to spend its resources on, more passengers it could save for its pounds elsewhere.

Yet in development, we never talk like this. One of the main criticisms of the Millennium Development Goals, the precursor to the Sustainable Development Goals, was that they neglected some development issues in favor of others. Domestic violence, human trafficking, corporate tax evasion, all of them got left behind.

I remember a meeting at my last human rights job. We were a department of four people, trying to plan our activities for the next year. We brought in a strategy consultant, he gave us each a matrix of organizational priorities, stuff like land resettlements in Africa, foreign direct investment in Myanmar, sexual harassment in the Middle East. He asked us to rank them in priority from high to low.

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After a few minutes of scribbling, one of my colleagues reported that she had marked every issue as “high priority.” The consultant looked confused. “Those are all really critical issues,” she said, “with profound impacts on peoples lives. We should be working on all of them.” I looked around, everyone else in the department was nodding.

It’s understandable, this. No one wants to argue that one development issue is more pressing than another, to stand up and declare “state surveillance of political dissidents affects fewer people, and less severely, than human trafficking. Lets prioritize the latter.” No one wants to admit that working on one problem leaves all the other ones in place.

When you work at Nike, when you have to decide on launching an ad campaign for sandals instead of sneakers, you can make arguments why one should take precedence over the other. But in development, lives on the line, you can’t. So we say yes to everything, we plan our years without differentiating between priorities, we stretch ourselves thin. And we fail, again and again.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Sustainable Development Goals. Maybe governments will pick the ones they want to reach, will defend the choice to leave others behind. Maybe they will be honest about the choices they make, we make, all the time, the trade-offs that come with resource constraints and political realities.

But I think, I fear, that they won’t. That the international community will fail to make the decisions that governments do every day, that we will give developing countries rules and principles, but no tools for choosing between them. That we will, once again, tell poor countries to replace their train doors and rebuild their viaducts all at once.

Michael Hobbes is a human rights consultant based in Berlin. Hobbes blogs at Rottin’ in Denmark and has written about development for The New Republic, Huffington Post and other publications.



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