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The landscape within which new MDGs will emerge, post-2015

November 15, 2011

I attended a round table meeting with staff from one of the UN agencies in Geneva last week, brainstorming on their approach to the discussions about what should come after the MDGs in 2015. Like other UN agencies, this one has begun to mobilise its own ideas as the debate about what comes after 2015 begins to take shape. One thing we discussed is the global environment within which the new MDGs will emerge. The world is ever-changing in multiple dimensions to be sure, but if one limits oneself to the “aid sector”, one can discern six obvious trends relevant to this discussion.

1. The Need to Show Concrete Results

Three factors have contributed to an increased demand for aid and development programmes to demonstrate relevant and concrete results. First, the economic recession has made donor country taxpayers less generous, so their elected politicians are reassuring them with stories of concrete achievements in combating poverty overseas. Second, fifteen years of ever-rising aid budgets and an increasing proportion going to opaque multi-lateral organisations and government budget support somewhat on faith has made those in the sector nervous about whether this “faith based” approach to aid is having an impact commensurate with the amount of money spent. Third, and most important, people in many aid recipient countries are paying more attention to aid inflows than in the past, and asking harder questions of their governments and donors: this too provides an incentive to be clearer about the intended and actual results of aid.

All this is very welcome: who could argue with results and accountability? But the concern associated with this trend is that we need to avoid being driven by what’s most easily measurable, rather than by trying to measure what matters most.

2. Collier’s Bottom Billion

Well, not really Paul Collier’s but he did coin the phrase Bottom Billion. What I mean by this is the recognition that at least a billion people – the 2011 World Developent Report claims 1.5 bn – live in conflict-affected or fragile contexts, where the very same circumstances which allow conflict and violence to flourish also conspire to keep people poor, living undignified lives with insufficient income, assets and services, and with limited voice and power through which to reshape their circumstances.

The two main themes emerging from this line of debate are the need for better institutions, more fit for the purpose of governance and providing security; and the need for a major boost in the availability and accessibilty of decent economic opportunities for people, notably jobs.

The concern associate with this trend is we need to avoid seeing this as an emergency or a crisis. Emergency and crisis approaches to promoting improved institutions seem oxymoronic and doomed to do more harm than good…

3. Sumner’s Bottom Billion

Last year Andy Sumner identified an additional bottom billion, i.e. a billion extremely poor people living in Middle Income Countries (MICs). Some of these are also members of Collier’s club, but in the main this is a different group.

Much of this group lives in countries with established and emerging middle classes, paying taxes, politically engaged and with an eye on their own priviliges and benefits, and in some cases with a fair degree of democratic accountability, e.g. in India. Thus the importance of political debate in each country, to figure out its own tolerance of and approach to structural poverty. A swift look at Venezuela gives a sense of how this can play out: a left-wing populist president committed to redistribution, pitted against a middle class who claim he is destroying their wealth, and the nation’s with it – and with some reason. It’s by no means clear that Venezuelans’ institutions are up to the task of mediating their political differences peacefully. So poverty in MICs is above all a national, not an international issue; and it is highly political in a way that can put institutions under a great deal of stress and spark instability and violence – look also at Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 to see how …

4. New players within a changing architecture

Meanwhile, there are new players out there. According to Andy Sumner and Clare Melamed’s recent paper, the BRICS are providing over $11bn per year in aid, compared with $129 bn from the OECD countries. So the proportion is still low overall, yet is growing in importance, and in specific places and cases is more significant than in others. They also point out that BRICS provide an alternative role model for debveloping countries – perhaps helping some of them see ways to make progress somewhat different from the OECD prescriptions.

There’s also the looming $100 bn per year in climate adaptation and mitigation financing to be added to the pie. And a growing trend of big new philanthropy – pulling in two quite different directions. First, the Gatesian approach, characterised by two big ideas inspired by the world of the techno-entrepreneur: Focus, and Technology. These come together most obviously in projects like the Global Alliance for Vaccination and Immunisation. There’s much to recommend this, but it seems rather blind to issues like governance, and the need for better institutions. Bill Gates himself, when asked by a campaigning journalist on British TV recently whether it would not be better to focus as much on governance as on the techniques and technologies for child health, probably spoke and reinforced the view of millions of others, when he responded with a simple rhetorical question: “so are you saying it would be better not to save thousands of children’s lives?”. If only eradicating poverty were so simple…

The other philanthropic strand is symbolised by George Soros and his various Open Society Initiatives and the like: focused at the other extreme from Gates, attempting to foster, promote and incentivise the nudges and little improvements that make governance better and help subjects become like citizens. This seems a very sensible approach, but Soros is much quieter and less messianic than Gates.

Finally in this trend, and looking beyond the narrow world of aid, we have the shifting tectonic plates of global governance. Are we now moving beyond the unipolar world which was declared at the end of the Cold War? It looks like it; and we are also nearing the end of the “western hegemony”. This is greeted with a sigh of relief by so many – but a result of more countries having a say in global governance has so far been an inablity to agree on very much. That’s an indicator of two things: that getting global agreement among countries with different individual interests and needs is always going to be mighty hard by definition; and also that some of our global governance institutions are not fit for purpose in this more complex world. The Doha Round of the WTO – who even remembers what it was about? – and the long-running saga of Climate Change non-agreements are just two examples of how difficult it is to get everyone signed up.

Result: confusion, uncertainty and a very complicated game of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, with many prisoners taking part….

5. From “aid effectiveness” to “development effectiveness”

The rhetoric seems to be convening around the idea – captured already in the largely forgotten Millennium Declaration –  that instead of more goals and targets  about how poor countries can get better, we should develop a framework which is applied to the whole world, rich and poor. This would have the great advantage of undermining “us and them”, while recognising that all countries, rich and poor, have important equity challenges to meet. It would also take the conversation away from “how best to use aid”, to “how best to improve our societies and the lives of their members” – a far less technically and more politically oriented debate. As it should be.

6. Special interests

And finally: the chaos of special interests lobbies competing and collaborating to be heard. As the post-2015/post-MDGs debate gets underway, which lobby is not being heard? We have the cautious re-emergence of the population lobby, re-booting a Malthusian view of how many human beings this planet can sustain, and lobbying for this to be made more prominent in the gobal development narrative. Environmentalists and climate change lobbyists are pushing their perspectives. Peace and security-focused agencies clamour for peace and security to be central to the development narrative. Human rights activists see a rights-based model as most appropriate, and gender specialists are still quite rightly pushing for gender to be taken properly seriously. And so it goes on: people-with-disabilities, children’s rights activists, people living with HIV/AIDS, the better governance crowd, the statebuilding crew….. and all the rest.

… which tells us above all that whatever we – the international community – come up with, it had better provide space for all these issues and hundreds more, to be debated by those making decisions about development where it matters: in countries and localities where poor people live. Otherwise, it’s a recipe for chaos, confusion and more perverse incentives.

And so?

My own view: perhaps we can’t expect too much agreement between the representatives of 7 billion people, about what’s the right or best pathway to progress. But if the need to devise some kind of replacement for the MDGs provides us all with an opportunity to debate the issue, and we keep our minds as open as possible as the debate proceeds… well, we’ll probably learn quite a bit, even as we are reminded of how little we still know.

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