The Concept of Meritocracy in International Development
In 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published its Global Social Mobility report titled “Equality, Opportunity and a New Economic Imperative”. In this report, they call for a new social mobility agenda based on meritocratic principles to tackle global inequality. While meritocratic principles may play a significant role in international development by promoting human capital development, good governance, economic growth and social inclusion, critics warn that they might polarize societies into winners and losers and exacerbate existing inequalities. This raises an important question: While the meritocratic ideal has benefited many in the past, is it now time to reassess its promise and consider alternative approaches, especially when addressing the complex web of inequalities in international development?
‘You can go as far as your talents will take you’ - This embodies a sense of fairness, does it not? Instead of your social status, family background, or wealth determining your destiny, meritocracy promises that your achievements, rewards, and positions are rooted in your individual 'merit'—in other words, your abilities, talents, and the effort you invest. Today, the belief that meritocratic principles lead to improved social mobility appeals to many and is commonly accepted (see Figure 1). As Barack Obama, who is quite the social mobility champion himself, has put it: “We do expect everybody can reach as far as their dreams and hard work will carry them” (Obama, 2015, n.p.).
Meritocratic principles, however, are not without its critics. Van Pinxteren and De Beer (2016), Reeves (2017), Sandel (2020) and many others generally build on the argument that, in practice, meritocracies tend to exacerbate inequality by producing polarization, both within and between societies, in the sense of distinguishing the ‘winners’ from the ‘losers’. Surely, when you receive what you rightfully earn through your own merit, a failure to do so is also your own fault? In his book ‘The Tyranny of Merit’ (2020), Sandel calls this the myth of the meritocracy, arguing that it is not only “self-deluding, it also fuels our divisiveness”. Why? Because some ‘cheat’ the promise of meritocracy. For example, by way of bribing or, more indirectly, by paying for exclusive premium services to get ahead. But Sandel’s argument runs deeper. It is because of the attitudes that those who prevail in a meritocracy attribute to themselves. This is worrying, as “the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility” (Sandel, 2021, n.p.). The World Economic Forum (WEF) acknowledges the shortcomings of the meritocratic system, by stating that, increasingly, one’s starting point determines one’s chances and opportunities in life – which is clearly a matter of luck, certainly not merit. This provides ammunition to the argument that alleged meritocratic economies and societies reproduce rather than reduce historical inequalities (WEF, p .8).
We argue that the WEF’s proposal to tackle global inequality through a new social mobility agenda based on meritocratic principles should be met with caution. The concept of meritocracy might imply that global inequality the result of a different distribution of talents and efforts. But the reality is much more complex and multi-faceted. What about addressing those historical, structural and systemic factors that have caused global inequalities in the first place? While the meritocracy promises a level playing field, it is currently skewed to the disadvantage of those in the Global South. Rather than a lack of talent or effort, it is those historical and systemic disadvantages (colonial legacies, economic exploitations, debt burdens, etc.) that have prevented them from competing on an equal footing. Viewing the world through the meritocratic lens oversimplifies the lack of development in the Global South. Building on Sandel’s argument, it may even lead to a lack of empathy and support as some might consider it to be ‘their own fault’ rather than a systemic global failure. Vice versa, those in the Global North might consider their wealth to be the result of their own hard work and merit – thereby overlooking the fact that the extraction of wealth and exploitation of resources and indigenous people has fueled their wealth in the first place. As Hickel (2017) puts it: “It might be easiest to blame poor countries for their own misfortunes, but if we give it enough thought it becomes clear that there is much more to the story” (p. 254-255). Both Sandel and Hickel stress the need to acknowledge these systemic and historical issues and urge us to consider different and more equitable approaches to international development.
How can we do this? In our view, a good starting point would be to have a debate on what we mean by the terms ‘development’ and ‘social mobility’ and what it looks like for different countries, communities and individuals. Does the social mobility ladder look the same everywhere? Should everyone move up the ladder of social mobility? What exactly is the top, and what is the bottom? It is important that the Global South takes a leading role in this debate. Additionally, we could look at implementing new policies, for example, by leveling the international playing field through universal education, healthcare and basic income. In any case, we need to critically assess the meritocratic mentality in international development. To achieve this, essential steps are acknowledging historical injustices, addressing structural challenges, and promoting a more holistic approach to development.
Figure 1: The World Economic Forum’s Global Social Mobility Index Framework
Hickel, J. (2017). The divide: A brief guide to global inequality and its solutions. Penguin UK.
Obama, B. (2015). Remarks by the President on America's College Promise. The White House.
Retrieved from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/09/remarks...
Reeves, R. (2017). Dream Hoarders: How the American upper middle class is leaving everyone else in the dust, why that is a problem, and what to do about it. Brookings Institution.
Sandel, M. J. (2020). The tyranny of merit: What's become of the common good? Penguin UK.
Sandel, M. J. (2021). The myth of meritocracy, according to Michael Sandel.
Retrieved from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/01/the-myth-of-meritocracy-a...
Van Pinxteren, M., & De Beer, P. (2016). Meritocratie: Op weg naar een nieuwe klassensamenleving. Amsterdam University Press.
World Economic Forum (2020). Intro + Chapter 1 (pp. 8-18) in Global Social Mobility Index 2020.