UN summit roundup: three development narratives

The Guardian's data visualisation

Last week’s UN meetings in New York prompted a flurry of papers, speeches, documents, announcements and articles about development in general, and the Millennium Development Goals in particular.  There seem to be three emerging development narratives which are not obviously completely compatible.  I’ll summarize them here, and in a later post I’ll look at whether there they can be brought together into a coherent synthesis.

Narrative 1: Glass half full: we need a big heave

The dominant story from the summit was that development can be achieved if the world would only come together with a big heave. On this view, the glass is half full. We have made good progress towards the MDGs (supported by the new MDG report card by ODI; and their excellent new Development Progress Stories website); and with more money, we can do more.  Jeff Sachs, whose Millennium Villages Project exemplifies the idea of a big, coordinated push, called in the FT for aid to be scaled up through pooled donor funding, “to scale up what has been proven to work”. (Oddly, he chose the Global Fund rather than the World Bank as his example of effective multilateral institution.)

The new report of the Commission for Africa advocates a further big heave

A new Commission for Africa report, Still Our Common Interest, agrees. The original 2005 report was probably the most authoritative (certainly the most weighty) argument for a big heave; and it concluded (among other things) that donors should treble their aid to Africa.  The updated 2010 report reiterates that view, celebrates the progress that has been made, and calls for donors to increase their aid, including – very oddly – a proposal for a new Global Fund for Education.

Probably the biggest announcement this week, which sits squarely in the big heave narrative, was for a new UN Global Strategy for Women and Children’s Health.  As I argued here the other day, the focus on women and children’s health is welcome, but this is no strategy: it is another list of spending commitments, which the UN press release says is worth $40 billion. The only interesting feature of it is that it lists commitments by private companies and NGOs as well as official donors.  All very big heave; all very retro.

Narrative 2: More accountability leads to better institutions

While the UN institutions and the NGOs promote the big heave, donor governments, particularly the US and UK, are beginning to tell a different story which focuses on the need for more transparent and accountable institutions, both in developing countries and in the international development system.  This was most evident in President Obama’s speech which announced a new US development strategy.   President Obama explicitly distanced himself from the big heave:

“This is the reality we must face — that if the international community just keeps doing the same things the same way, we may make some modest progress here and there, but we will miss many development goals.”

Both the US and the UK government argue that the efforts of donors should be measured not by what is spent, but by what is achieved, both by aid and by other policies.  Cynics might think this is preparing the ground for aid cuts in the face of tight government budgets, though this does not appear to be the motive of the UK government which has committed to increasing aid to 0.7% of GDP by 2013.

The emphasis in the new US policy on growth as the permanent path out of poverty is not as new as the President’s speech implies; but the renewed emphasis will be welcome to those who think that the importance of growth is sometimes forgotten. As Lant Pritchett writes:

The “development is about more than growth” backlash, which had important elements of truth, easily got carried away into “development isn’t at all about growth” and it is good to see economic growth back front and center of development objectives.

A more novel feature of the new US policy is the emphasis on investing in systems and institutions, for service delivery, public administration, and other government functions, and the importance of country ownership.  This is new for the US.  For many European donors it is this reasoning that brought them to give more of their aid through governments as budget support, so this new US approach will be seen as a welcome conversion.

What is striking about this narrative is the emphasis it puts on transparency and accountability as ways to make institutions work better.  President Obama set out the argument in his General Assembly speech the following day:

The arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble and by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change and by free media that held the powerful accountable.   … In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. Now, we must build on that progress. And when we gather back here next year, we should bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; and to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundation of freedom in our own countries, while living up to ideals that can light the world.

This emphasis on accountability seems to resonate closely with the approach of the UK Government.  The UK International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, set out a similar argument in his first major speech, in which he emphasized outputs and outcomes rather than inputs, and launched the new UK Aid Transparency Guarantee.   Paul Collier and Jamie Drummond, writing in the Guardian, make a similar point about the need for transparency and accountability in the use of natural resources.

The 32 page outcome document, Keeping the Promise, sets out the usual long list of activities which with increased political commitment .. could be replicated and scaled up for accelerating progress.  But experienced communiqué watchers (like Lawrence Haddad) also detect a new theme: the need for more citizen-led monitoring of delivery.  For example, the outcome document calls on donors to:

[Work] towards greater transparency and accountability in international development cooperation, in both donor and developing countries, focusing on adequate and predictable financial resources as well as their improved quality and targeting; …. To build on progress achieved in ensuring that ODA is used effectively, we stress the importance of democratic governance, improved transparency and accountability, and managing for results.

Until now, I think many people working in the development community have seen transparency as an add-on, at best a way of retaining public support for aid while they get on with figuring out how to use the aid money wisely (and at worst an annoying additional bureaucratic burden).  Perhaps I am tempted to read too much into these speeches, because my day job is working towards more transparent and accountable institutions, but it was striking to see Raj Shah, Administrator of USAID, talking about the use of new media to build an online platform to help the government to reach its development goals.  I think it is now clear that, for the US and UK at least, transparency and accountability will play a more central role in their development strategies, both as drivers of change in developing countries, and forces for improvements in the effectiveness of development agencies and institutions.

A sign that this narrative is beginning to take shape is that it is already under attack.  In an interesting article in The New Republic, David Rieff is sceptical of the idea that donor nations can offer a path out of poverty:

The problem is not with the analysis but rather with the president’s implicit claim that we know how to offer peoples and nations such a path. … The stark fact is that only if one fetishizes the idea of civil society as a kind of universal ideological solvent, and believes that, in tandem with scientific innovation, the road to our collective salvation is now open to us, can such optimism be justified.

An interesting feature of this narrative is that it emphasizes the need for a wider range of instruments (known either as beyond aid or – ghastly term – policy coherence).  For example, in his speech, President Obama said:

Development is helping nations to actually develop — moving from poverty to prosperity.  And we need more than just aid to unleash that change.  We need to harness all the tools at our disposal — from our diplomacy to our trade policies to our investment policies.

Andrew Mitchell’s speech in June said something similar:

21st century development is a complex tapestry of trade, investment and enterprise, climate change, economic growth, debt relief, financial services, intellectual property and advancing new technologies.

Bill Easterly argued in the pages of the FT that trade, not aid, is needed to promote development. I’ve argued elsewhere that we don’t know very much about whether and how aid promotes economic and development, but we do know that it enables people to live better lives while that transformation is taking place.  So it may be that these beyond aid policies are the best hope for promoting development, while aid should focus primarily on improving lives in the meantime.

Narrative 3: The challenge is increasingly inequality, not absolute poverty

In my view, by far the most interesting and important paper to be published around the summit was The World’s Poor Aren’t Where We Think They Are, by Andy Sumner from IDS. Here’s the key conclusion:

In 1990, we estimate that 93 per cent of the world’s poor people lived in low income countries. In contrast, in 2007 we estimate that three-quarters of the world’s approximately 1.3bn poor people now live in middle-income countries (MICs) and only about a quarter of the world’s poor – about 370 million people live in the remaining 39 low-income countries, which are largely in sub-Saharan Africa.

The paper also shows that just 12 percent of the world’s poor live in fragile low-income countries.  Take a look at this Guardian data visualisation tool.

The Guardian's data visualisation

Data visualisation by the Guardian

This change in the reality on the ground has profound implications for development policy, and my sense is that the discussion in New York is not yet grappling with these issues.  Readers of Paul Collier’s book The Bottom Billion will recall his analysis that the world’s poorest people lived in about 50 very poor countries which he said were stuck in a series of poverty traps.  Policy should be focused on helping those countries to escape that trap. But if three quarters of the world’s poor live in middle income countries, the challenge is to reduce inequality in these countries.  The figures suggest that the biggest causes of poverty are not lack of development in the country as a whole, but political, economic and social marginalisation of particular groups in countries that are otherwise doing quite well.

It is not clear that additional resources from abroad are an important part of the answer to this. At The Guardian, Jonathan Glennie says:

The world needs to find new ways to help other countries respond to persistant poverty and increasing inequality. The era of aid as we know it is ending. Let’s hope that a new era of development cooperation takes its place.

For some people this suggests that we should reconceptualise development as the ability of all the world’s citizens to live decent lives, rather a problem of economic industrialisation of poor countries. This view has the advantage of focusing on people and communities, rather than countries.  A recurring theme of the Chronic Poverty conference, which took place just before the MDG Summit, was the right of all citizens to a basic standard of living, and there is growing interest in the possible role of various kinds of social protection (social safety-nets, conditional and unconditional cash transfers, family grants and so on).

Similarly, a new report from Phil Vernon and Deborrah Barksh at International Alert asks us to get “beyond the MDGs”.  They call for a

… a new narrative, based on a vision of a world in which people can resolve their differences without violence, while continuing to make equitable social and economic progress, and without lessening the opportunities for their neighbours or future generations to do the same. This vision would be both enabled and recognisable by five core factors: equal access to justice, political voice, security, economic opportunity and well-being. These would in their turn be underpinned by a self-reinforcing set of values and institutions.

On this view, poverty is a problem of political and economic marginalisation which can affect communities within industrialised, industrialising and low income countries.  It calls for a different kind of policy agenda, which is as much to do with empowerment and political voice as the transfer of resources and investment in public services.


These seem to be three quite different views of development.  There is a substantial gap between advocating a big heave of more aid to ignite a cycle of industrialisation in the poorest countries, a focus on more transparent and accountable institutions in developing countries and in the development system, and political change that protects the rights of society’s most marginalised groups in whatever country they happen to live.

But while there are tensions and trade-offs, these views are not intrinsically contradictory, and in a subsequent post I’ll look at how these three narratives can be stitched together into a coherent whole.

17 thoughts on “UN summit roundup: three development narratives”

  1. Dear Owen,
    interesting overview. A pity that you only mention the AngloSaxon (UK and US) sources. Same so for your blogroll. I admit, as a European (Netherlands) based magazine/website (The Broker) we have also difficulties to look beyond these, mainly because of the language bias. Take a look at our blog we did from the UN MDG Summit (http://tinyurl.com/38l6phh) and you will see that our guest bloggers are more or less the same you mentioned.
    But we at The Broker do our best to also include people and sources from other, less obvious countries and regions, with the result that sometimes the language is less fluent English in our blog posts (the articles in the magazine are edited by native speakers).

    Owen replies: thanks Frans. Always happy to listen to and learn from other points of view. And I’m glad to give you this opportunity to advertise your website.

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  3. Thanks for these reflections (and your very interesting blog, generally!) Took up some of the points you made on a post at my blog (http://bit.ly/aRfNVA), following the implications of realising that poor people are actually not living in poor countries, and what this could mean for aid allocation… Should low income countries have their allocated share of aid reduced in favour of middle income countries?

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  6. Interesting analysis, Owen. Christian Aid’s report – at http://bit.ly/pOVERty – emphasises a partly overlapping three main areas in which the ambition of the Millennium Declaration was lost: inequality (as you have here, but with more focus on gender and horizontal inequalities); democratic and participatory governance (including at least some of the accountability agenda you discuss, but perhaps more focus on people); and sustainability.

    Interestingly (perhaps!), when we started writing this, it felt as if we could be going a bit out on a limb with some of the analysis. By the time we were at proof stage, there seemed to be a fair few other MDG reports pointing in the same direction; UNRISD above all, but a number of more conservative NGO voices as well.

    Is this the basis for a broad consensus on where the post-2015 MDG successor must break with the current version?

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  9. I would argue that Local Government is a central delivery partner in following up on the challenges, particularly in addressing the two strands of accountability and inequality.

    “there is now general agreement that a key part of any strategy for poverty reduction and for achievement of the Millennium Development Goals lies in improved delivery of basic public infrastructure and related services. This point has been forcefully made in “Investing in Development”, which calls for a major increase in funding for public investments, for poor people and in poor areas – and also calls for the rapid deployment of locally appropriate and replicable delivery systems to ensure effective absorption of funds for delivery of this infrastructure on the scale required. The Millennium Project report also endorses the now widely-held view that much of this basic infrastructure is most appropriately delivered locally, through decentralized financing, planning and delivery systems, and that local government bodies should play a key role in this.” Source: UN Capital Development Fund

    Examination of the final draft resolution to the MDG Summit highlights a number of areas, across all of the MDGs, where local government will have a role to play. The introductory elements of the agreement highlight broad themes relating to the local government role and their capacity needs, in terms of:

    1. Local government inclusion in ‘national development efforts’
    2. Promoting universal access to basic services
    3. Improving capacity to deliver quality services equitably and reduce exclusion and discrimination

    The UN Development Programme makes four key arguments relating to the localisation of the MDGs:

    (i) Subsidiarity – there are legitimate differences in spheres (levels) of government, and that issues should be dealt with by the level of government most appropriate to the nature of each issue. Specifically, subsidiarity suggests that implementation is likely to be more efficient locally because of local knowledge, sensitivity to specific local conditions, local ownership, engagement and participation.
    (ii) Inequality – this points to the fact that national averages tend to mask significant local variations in types and level of poverty. With, in the most extreme cases, the national averages being misleading or even meaningless. Tackling the MDGs more locally reduces this danger and the engagement of local partners allows a more equitable response to MDG challenges, focusing in on the issues and priorities specific to a particular local area.
    (iii) Complementarity – this case rejects the dichotomy and confrontation of national versus local, and recognises the essential linkages between national and local priorities (and, indeed, global-national-local, and vice versa). Like the subsidiarity argument, there are advantages and disadvantages attached to each level and thus greater vertical or two-way coordination is important.
    (iv) Thematic integration – local government has to take a holistic approach in working at the local level and delivery of MDG -related programmes. A national perspective – often linked to the structure of national government administration – may encourage the separate ‘silo’ treatment of MDGs into gender, education, maternal health, environment etc, ignoring the fact that in practice, poor people suffer multiple aspects of deprivation. A local – and specifically a local government – perspective can better highlight the interrelatedness of different sources of disadvantage and encourage a holistic and integrated response.

    Source: UNDP (2005) http://content.undp.org/go/cms-service/download/asset/?asset_id=1634559

    There are clearly challenges in working with politically-led democratically elected sub-national governments, but the question must be one of ‘how to improve it’ rather than ignore its role. “Moving out of poverty: Success from the Bottom up” by Deepa Narayan (2009, World Bank) presented the views of people living in poverty from 15 developing countries. She refers to cases of local corruption and how democracies have been ‘captured by local elites’, who prevent representative responses to the real needs of local people. But she also points to communities where local governments have changed positively over time, where good leaders, free and fair elections, access to information about local government activities, and people’s participation are emerging. Narayan asks the ‘development community’ to reassess their basic assumptions, notably that ‘Responsive local democracies can help reduce poverty’.

    DFID, along with other donors, has continually failed to strategically target local government improvement. The Local Government Association (UK) is working in partnership with various local government partners, as well as with NGO and private sector actors to try and address this gap. We see this is a critical piece in the jigsaw in bringing the ‘democratisation of development’ programmes, aiming greater self-sufficiency and more sustained results in the long-term.

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  11. A follow-up to my earlier comment: UN Development Group produced a useful Good Practice Guide on delivering the MGDs. The first Chapter on ‘Poverty, Employment and Hunger’ highlights a number of examples of targeted local government strengthening resulting in poverty reduction:

    “Uganda’s National Fiscal Decentralization Policy was implemented to facilitate greater efficiency of service provision at the local level. Responsibilities for education, health, water, rural road construction and other community services were transferred from the central government to local governments, along with the power of local governments to tax their constituents to fund those services. In addition, grants were provided by the central government to local governments to fund many programmes. In Uganda, decentralization reduced the information costs of identifying the poor and the transaction costs of designing poverty reduction policies, since governments closer to the people are often in a better position to deliver services more aligned with the needs of the community. Since the Local Government Act was enacted in 1997, there has been a 30.8 percent reduction in poverty nationwide.
    In Rwanda, Community Development Support” (MDG Good Practice Guide, Ch1. pp 17)

    “In Albania, twelve MDG Regional Development Strategies were adopted by each of the twelve Albanian regional authorities, as per their mandate defined by the Albanian Law on Decentralization and Local Government, to frame regional and local development in full alignment with national development priorities and MDG integration. Regional Development Strategies provided socio-economic analysis of the respective region by goals and identified local challenges while offering a comprehensive strategy for development. The Regional Strategies gave local meaning to the global MDGs and fostered participation and bottom-up development planning. This local planning improved poverty-reduction efforts as Albania integrated the MDGs into its National Strategy for Development and Integration. This not only strengthened local governance with better coordination between national and regional governments, but also led to more efficient service delivery and the alleviation of poverty at local level.”

    “Sri Lanka’s Area-Based Growth and Equity Programme for Poverty Reduction highlights how innovation and partnership working resulted in new business, over 10,000 new jobs and new electricity supply from mini-hydro plants. Some of the lessons learned included:
    • Provincial and local governments are important agents for supporting local transformation.
    • Be aware of corruption – there were some modest, but high-profile cases of misappropriation of resources.
    • Implementing innovative high-risk, high-disbursement projects in rural areas depends on partnerships among key actors at the national, provincial and local levels. The absence of any of these ingredients can cause major obstacles” (pp 34)

    Source: http://www.undg-policynet.org/ext/MDG-Good-Practices/GP_chapter1_poverty.pdf

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