Published on Let's Talk Development

Maria Montessori and the MDGs

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Earlier this year, I attended a first-rate workshop on the Post-2015 Development Goals, hosted by Barry Carin (Centre for International Governance Innovation) and Wonhyuk Lim (Korean Development Institute). The event took place in the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center on the shores of Lake Como in Italy, a truly idyllic place for productive brainstorms. The groundwork for the workshop was flawless. CIGI and KDI had prepared an excellent report that outlined 11 goals, ranging from inclusive growth and environmental sustainability to security and political rights. The report put flesh on the bones of that skeleton by specifying multiple targets per goal and numerous indicators per target. It is difficult to find something on the post-2015 development agenda that is more comprehensive, more convincing, or more operational.

Still, as we discussed the formulation and the relative importance of the different goals, I increasingly felt that there is still a lot of work to be done before we get it right. My unease was fueled by the following passage in the report: “The impulse of wise officials, who have no appetite for the vigorous debate involved, will be to publish some unobjectionable principles, leaving it to individual countries to specify their own goals, targets and indicators. This would be the easy way out, avoiding compromises and accepting imperfect results, under the context of promoting ‘country ownership’.”  It suggests that the post-2015 agenda should not be about unobjectionable principles, but about compromises. And indeed, parts of the debate felt like a negotiation in which officials tried to get as much as possible of their own agenda in the final document. Probably because of the beautiful Italian scenery, suddenly the image of Maria Montessori appeared to me.

Maria Montessori was an Italian pedagogue, whose teaching method was based on the observation that each child is eager to learn and each child wants to develop. Best results are achieved when children can follow their own initiative, using their own natural abilities. Best results are not achieved when the same specific goals are set for all children. A crucial component of the Montessori Method is that children learn from each other. Kids of different ages are in the same classroom. Young smart kids can still learn from older children. And, through explaining things to younger kids, older kids learn themselves too.

Similarly, people and countries want to develop. Development Goals should be general and are actually “unobjectionable principles”. The real value added of the global process and the post-2015 agenda should be that an environment is created in which countries can learn from each other. We don’t need negotiations; we need an exchange of practical insights. The United Nations’ High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda calls in another excellent report for a new global partnership. That should be a partnership of students, eager to gain knowledge and keen to learn from each other. It should not be a partnership of teachers that want to set goals and rate progress.


Hans Timmer

Chief Economist, South Asia, World Bank

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