As we head into a year of renewed global commitment to sustainable development, we know that the stakes are high, and so is the level of ambition. But will this ambition translate into effective delivery? And is the international development community ready to learn from past experience – and to do things differently?
The gaps are widening, and the poorest are losing out
The Millennium Development Goals are a story of uneven progress. While more children now enrol in primary education, it has been much harder to ensure they are actually learning. While global targets on access to adequate water sources have largely been met, it has been much more challenging to deliver improved sanitation coverage – something which is particularly worrying for many rapidly urbanising countries in Africa and Asia.
Overall it is the most complex issues, requiring changes in behaviour, motivations, and systems, that lag furthest behind. And is it the poorest and most disadvantaged who miss out most. Unless the pace and pattern of change improves, it will take a very long time for the poorest to have access to quality basic services.
Post-2015 development must transform the agenda, not deliver more of the same
So will a new set of goals succeed in reducing these gaps? That depends.
Our research (coming out in January) has found that countries experiencing similar levels of growth and resourcing in recent years, including those that are part of the ‘Africa rising’ phenomenon, continue to have significantly diverging results. Ten years on from the World Bank’s landmark World Development Report 2004 on service delivery for the poor, it is now clear that money – whether through accelerated growth or increased aid – will simply not be enough to fix the problem.
Nor will calls for far-reaching institutional reforms under the banner of ‘good governance’, which tend to overlook the political realities of power structures and incentives at play, be enough to close these gaps.
If the Sustainable Development Goals bring us ‘more of the same’, we will continue to leave many without access to the services they need to live their lives with dignity and hope.
Building an evidence base for ‘doing development differently’
Fortunately concrete examples are now emerging of ways of working that can lead to concrete results. These approaches include things like being locally led, adaptive, politically smart, and entrepreneurial. We’re starting to be able to show that paying more attention to processes gets better results, and to document who the reformers (or 'development entrepreneurs') really are.
With Matt Andrews and others at the Building State Capability Programme at Harvard University we have begun to bring together development practitioners and observers with direct experience of approaches like these. Starting at an event in October, we’ve created space for discussion of how they work, who they work with, and of the obstacles and opportunities to more effective ways of working. The Doing Development Differently community was born, with a manifesto and commitment to change.
Bringing radical thinking into the mainstream
What will it take to bring these ideas into the mainstream of discussions for a new goal framework?
It will mean looking again at the targets and indicators being put forward for ‘governance’ and linking these much more concretely to the capacity to deliver tangible improvements to citizens. It will need innovative proposals for how to ensure development done anywhere is genuinely locally led and user-focused. And crucially, this all needs to build from a stronger evidence base, with more examples of different and more effective ways of working.
At the end of 2014, our feelings are therefore mixed. Too much of the debate around the post-2015 development agenda is still focused on the ‘what’ and ‘how much will it cost’. But this is a critical opportunity to shift global attention to the ‘how’ of development practice and progress.
Meeting this challenge will require some radical shifts, including for aid thinking and practice, as we will be exploring in our forthcoming report. In 2015, will the international development community be up to the challenge?