At the end of this year the 15-year period for achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDG) will run out and the UN will launch a new 15-year plan for development. The focus of the current programme has been reducing poverty and there has been progress on this front although one billion of world’s seven billion people still live in extreme poverty.

However, the next set of goals will focus on sustainable development – a term coined in the late 1980s and formally adopted by the UN at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The idea then was that development should not happen in a way that destroyed the environment for future generations, and the way to ensure this was to renew efforts to control population growth. The UN women’s conference at Beijing in 1995 gave this old campaign the new name of “women’s reproductive health”.

In other words, there were new terms but the approach did not change, not even with the MDGs. It is assumed to this day by the UN, the World Bank and its academic and activist partners that population growth is the cause of poverty and that controlling it is one side of a grand bargain with the governments of developing countries. The other side is that the rich world will give them money for economic development and not ask too many questions about how it is spent.

However, the winds of change are blowing through the development community, and they have been stirred up mainly by economists in the United States.

“Within the last 10 to 15 years a big revolution has taken place in the profession of economics, as to what economic development means and what are the means to attain it,” says Maria Sophia Aguirre, a professor of economics at the Catholic University of America. “The profession is split on this issue,” she told MercatorNet in an interview.

Economists like Jeffrey D. Sachs of The Earth Institute at Columbia University who work with the UN still plump for more millions poured in at the top of developing countries and population control at the bottom, as the way to achieve sustainable development.

“But another whole group of people coming out of MIT, Catholic University of America, the University of New York, are saying no, this is not the way to go. We have done this for 30 to 40 years and it’s not going anywhere. For sustainable development we need a bottom-up approach, because the locals know best. What we need to do is create opportunities and let them take the responsibility.

“For example, the African Development Bank is taking a very proactive approach, saying: ‘It’s our responsibility, it’s not about you giving us more money but about us getting our act together and doing something for ourselves – investing in infrastructure, focusing on private investment, going after corruption,’ and this is the type of development that will be really sustainable.

“Attached to that is a whole body of literature and practitioners who say that we have to start measuring correctly, learn to see what works and what doesn’t. And that is bringing a lot of common sense to economic development. Instead of people sitting in an office and talking about it, letting the locals find out what works.”

There are enough locals who really do want to be evaluated rigorously, says Dr Aguirre. They are not interested in photo shoots show-casing projects, or people handing over cheques and shaking hands. And there are willing partners, such as the International Financial Corporation, that will work with them.

“These changes can be seen in sub-Saharan Africa, in parts of South America such as Peru and Chile, and some regions of Mexico. Even the World Bank has incorporated some of this methodology. So the music is changing, and we are seeing the end of nonsense driven by sheer ideology rather than sound economics. All this is good news for economic development.”

Human capital: the family

But there is another whole perspective on development that economists are taking on board: the human capital generated by social institutions – in particular, the family.

“Before, we thought that people on the ground don’t matter, but now we see that it’s necessary to take into account even what’s happening in the home, in the family. Because more and more it is clear that there is a connection between family structure, lifestyle, virtues, human capital, the capacity to be educated or contribute to education, social responsibility, civic responsibility – and the economy. All these things are connected.”

At the International Conference on Family and Society: Family and Sustainable Development held in Barcelona last September to mark the International Year of the Family, Dr Aguirre presented new evidence on this link. It comes from research she is conducting in Guatemala, a Central American country with high inequality (more than half the population is ranked poor) and very high rates of crime and violence fed by the drug trade.

The study, soon to be published, evaluated two educational programmes for development among grade school children, parents and teachers in “red zones” of Guatemala City – the two highest crime areas in the city, in fact, where gang activity and extortion are rife. It aimed to throw light on the relationship between human and social capital.

One programme teaches values to the children (values education is compulsory in all the country’s schools), while the other involves parents and teachers in an effort to improve the quality of family life and so strengthen education as well. Nearly 3,800 individuals were involved in the evaluation in question, including control groups.

The assessment focused on how values were actually lived: Did the children respect their parents? Did the members of the family help their neighbours? Did they spend time at home with the family? Did they talk? Did they pray? Had the parents helped the children with their problems?

“Based on this data we evaluated how different family structures and other characteristics affected these outcomes,” said Dr Aguirre. “We also measured individuals’ social and civic responsibility and how the quality of their lives measured up to their human dignity. Typically studies will look at material things – do they own a house, do they have running water, lights. We looked at that but also at many more things that make up one’s quality of life: the dynamics within the home, the relationships there and within the extended family, communication, their life of faith, sense of security (in relation to crime) and we found that several variables were significant in terms of outcomes.

Of these, family structure had the most impact.

“Married couple families systematically performed better than any other structure. We also distinguished between the institution of marriage and de facto marriages (that is, stable de facto couples) and we saw that married couples still performed better on all the measures.

“Single mother families by comparison performed negatively on the whole. There is an extremely high likelihood in these areas that if a child comes from a single parent – and especially a single mother – home he or she will be involved in drugs, be sexually active — and I am talking about children up to sixth grade — and suffer abuse whether verbal, sexual or physical violence in the home.”

Single parents sometimes do better than those who are divorced, or divorce and remarried, that is not the norm, Dr Aguirre adds.

It’s the same the world over

It’s the same the world over. “I have performed this analysis in Latin America, in sub-Saharan Africa, in Indonesia, in the Muslim world and in developed countries. Always there is a significantly higher impact on social and economic capital from the stable married family. It’s not an issue of religion, or culture; it is what it is.”

It is true that the effects of single parenthood and family breakdown can be ameliorated by the presence of an extended family, as in sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America, or by social security programmes as in the US, but there is still a social deficit. Conversely, even during the financially devastating sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007-2009 it was not married couples but single parents who had to fall back on welfare. “We are talking about 5 per cent versus 95 percent – the difference is huge.”

Even in Scandinavia, where very high levels of taxation and government spending seem to make family structure irrelevant, Sweden, for example, is having second thoughts. “Now that the family is completely destroyed they realise that they cannot sustain themselves. They are trying to convince people to get married; they are trying to convince mothers to stay home after they made every possible effort to get them out.

“The ageing population, I think, has forced us to face reality and decide what is important. Which brings us back to the work of the home. Where do you learn to not respect the law? In the home. Think about pollution – where do we learn to be polluters? Where do we learn the culture of waste? Not in school – by then it is too late. You learn it at home. All these things, whether it is nutrition, the environment, social stability – and we saw what happened in Paris – whether organized crime, armaments trafficking, child trafficking, prostitution, drugs – it all goes back to the characteristics of the family. This is what the data shows.”

So what should governments be doing these days?

Dr Aguirre strongly believes that the family should be at the heart of all government programs. 

“All the data shows that governments should ask about every policy they are designing: What is the purpose? What will be its impact on family structure? Is it helping married families, yes or no?

“This is a big question too when it comes to immigration. What illegal immigration is doing is destroying both social and financial capital in developing countries. Because then you have teenagers left behind without adequate supervision – in other words, gang members, which is what we find in the red zones we have studied. I have dealt with a third grade class where 30 percent tell me they want to be gang members. This is what I find in my data, and it is very serious.

“We have 30 million illegal immigrants in the US, and we need that labour force; if we didn’t they wouldn’t be here. But why don’t we issue them temporary visas and encourage them to go back? We are not making them citizens – and many of them don’t want to be – what they want is enough money to go back and build their home in their own country – so that these broken families do not happen,  so these families are not fatherless, or motherless, or childless.

“Companies too should be asking: What is the impact of this business policy on the family? Does it build social capital and produce responsible workers? Can we help by offering flexible hours, working remotely, and providing the right kind of benefits?

“In education we should be looking at the role of parents – how do we engage them in this task? People are finding their own answers as home schooling grows and charter schools multiply. Why are the best SATS (standardized tests required for entrance to university) results for the past 10 years from home-schooled kids – as an educator who researched the data pointed out to me recently. Not only because home-schooling has become much more organized and sophisticated, but because these children typically have a good family structure behind them. They are not out of school every second day because of health and other problems that come from family breakdown.”

Last week the president of the UN’s General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, told reporters that member states want a bold, ambitious and transformative post-2015 development agenda that leaves no-one behind – “an inspiring agenda that can energise the international community, governments everywhere and the citizens of the world.”

It’s very clear from the work of Dr Aguirre and others that the family based on marriage should be one of the pillars of the new sustainability agenda. But will those given the task of forging it be bold and ambitious enough to recognize that?

Maria Sophia Aguirre is an economist specializing in international finance and economic development. She teaches courses in Macroeconomics, International Finance and Economic Development at Catholic University of America.