After 2015: new challenges in development - learning from success

10 March 2011 13:00 - 14:30 GMT+00
Public event
Streamed live online

Charles Kenny
- Fellow, Centre for Global Development and author of Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More
Patrick Watt- Director of Development Policy, Save the Children
Milo Vandemoortele- Research Officer, Growth and Equity Programme, ODI


Things are getting better.  That’s the message from a number of recent studies, showing amazing progress on a range of issues, from income poverty, to health to education.   

At this event, Charles Kenny, fellow at the Centre for Global Development in Washington and author of 'Getting Better: Why global development is succeeding and how we can improve the world even more', presented his largely optimistic view of global progress.  Like ODI's 'Development Progress Stories' and other recent work, this book is shaping a new narrative on success in development.  What are the policy and political implications of the stories of success? 

1. Claire Melamed, chair, set out the main aspects the meeting hoped to cover. The aim was to look at the current debates in development and to and begin to explore the potential for a post-2015 international agreement on development. The meeting aimed to be an upbeat assessment of the successes achieved so far and the lessons learned.

2. Charles Kenny, Fellow at the Centre for Global Development, spoke first.

His overarching argument was that the progress witnessed in development worldwide was not due to policies or to institutional change but rather an improvement in the quality and quantity of technology. He started by discussing the ‘Bad News’ in international development before working up to the ‘Good News’.

2. i. ‘Bad News’: He stated that the average incomes of the richest countries continue to grow rapidly whilst those of the poorest remain stagnant: a ‘divergence, big-time’.

ii. ‘Worse News’: He argued that the developed world doesn’t know how to respond. Spreading hi-tech technology doesn’t seem to have worked, he argued. Afghanistan, for instance, is one of the poorest countries of the world yet has a very high concentration of cars and computers. He also argued against the logic that good policies are necessary for change on the basis that policies tend to change slowly whilst growth rates can change rapidly.

iii. ‘Recipe for Riches’: Charles argued that those countries that were poor in the 1820s remain poor today – those that were rich have got richer. There is therefore much to be said for having an initial advantage.

iv. ‘The Good News’: Despite this, Charles stated that ‘there is no such evidence of a poverty trap of any kind’. He argued that the Malthusian Dilemma simply does not exist.

v. ‘Better News’: He argued that there has been great improvements in quality of life. The infant mortality of Costa Rica, for instance, has fallen dramatically since the 1920s and is now at a similar level to that of the United States. Niger, too, has seen great improvements in its child healthcare systems. He went on to state that the worldwide primary enrolment rate has increased and, by this measure, countries which were the furthest behind have improved at the quickest rate.

vi. ‘What’s Going On?’:Essentially there have been improvements in quality of life, despite there not being huge increases in the growth rate. What is causing this divergence are technological improvements. Charles pointed to small-pox: a disease which had reached an 80% vaccination rate by 2000. Such examples as this have led him to conclude that there has been ‘huge progress in the spread of health technology’. He argued that it is not just about spreading new technologies but also basic sanitation advice - such as using soap.

vii. Charles went on to argue that cash-transfers have also aided progress. By paying people to carry out roles such as immunisation – he argued – improvements in the wellbeing of populations can be achieved.

viii. He also stated that education too has seen some remarkable changes in recent years. He argued that it is increasingly common to see female education as the norm. He argued that the change in social attitudes has been ‘remarkably rapid’.

ix. In conjunction with this Charles also argued that it is increasingly becoming the norm for populations to expect their government to provide them with basic human rights.

x. ‘How has this happened?’: The main actor forcing this change, Charles argued, is technology. The spread of communications – radio, television, the telephone – has helped to spread ideas and values. The populations of developing countries increasingly wish to see the type of values portrayed on television replicated in their real lives.

xi. Conclusion: In his concluding remarks Charles tried to argue against a focus on either policy or economic growth as the main arbiter of development.

  • Firstly, he argued that the developed world simply isn’t good at encouraging economic growth outside its own boundaries.
  • Secondly, he stated that you don’t have to increase economic growth to improve livelihoods.
  • Thirdly, we have to make good outcomes the norm and the basic expectation.
  • Finally, international development agencies must celebrate the success which has been achieved.

3.Milo Vandemoortele, Research Officer with the ‘Growth and Equity Programme’ at the ODI,spoke next. She presented on the ‘Development Progress Stories’ project.

The research she presented was conducted under the broader Development progress stories project – funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project grew out of a growing sense within some parts of the international community that there was too little attention paid to progress being made in development. This has led to a general feeling of pessimism around the whole development enterprise.  The objective of this project is to demonstrate that, despite challenges, there has been significant progress in development. That development is far from a hopeless enterprise.This means that the selection process for the case studies reflects this objective.

When measuring progress, results depend on the measure used.Milo then gave a brief overview of the biases in measuring progress. She contrasted absolute and relative measures of progress, how different measures of relative progress produce distinct results, and she illustrated how equitable progress can be measured. She highlighted that individually, measures provide a valid, yet incomplete view of progress. It is therefore important for them to complement each other, and for development researchers to be critical of these measures, in order to obtain a more comprehensive view of progress.

Milothen ran through three case-studies of progress in economic conditions.

Mauritius: Mauritius presents an unusual story in that it has managed to combine a high growth rate with reduction in inequality. Whilst in the 1960s many argued it had the odds stacked against it, ; today it is a lead performer in Africa.

Viet Nam presents an example of where an equitable initial condition can subsequently help to encourage promote economic development. The Doi Moi policies of the 1990s helped to encourage this progress. A key challenge of rising inequality remains.

Poverty in Malawi fell from 52 to 39 per cent, between 2004 and 2009. It also enjoyed growth rates well above the sub-Saharan average. Precarious factors raise valid concerns about the sustainability of this progress .

What were the key factors contributing to progress in economic condition (which includes poverty reduction, reduction in inequality and economic growth)?

Firstly, Policy Coherence and Continuity. Development is unlikely to take place without a clear strategy laid out without contradictions. For instance Mauritius had a sustained development strategy for four decades.

Secondly, Human Capital had been important in both quality and equity.

Thirdly, sound monetary and fiscal policies had provided the environment for progress across the three examples she gave.

Finally, pragmatic trade liberalisation. Countries did not take a ‘big-bang’ approach – rather liberalisation was a mixture of heterodox and orthodox policies combined with government intervention.

4. Patrick Watt, Director of Development Policy at Save the Children, spoke next.

He spoke about the dilemmas encountered in development agencies trying to communicate the issues of international development as well as presenting some of the issues agencies might face in the future, post-2015.

i. Patrick argued that development organisations need to avoid being either too despondent or too positive – the latter can lead to complacency.

ii. Nonetheless, he stated that agencies need to become more adept at communicating success stories. Organisations should, he argued, still be prepared to be honest in laying claim to particular success stories: those involving issues such as political change, for instance, are probably not areas that agencies can affect.

iii. Patrick argued that whilst there have been great successes – there could have been more. Moreover, those successes we have seen could have been more sustained.

iv. Patrick stated the MDGs often had most success in areas which were easier to reach. This is the case, he argued, with immunisation. Unfortunately, he stated, those that haven’t been reached are at greatest risk.

v. Patrick then began to look at the future beyond 2015.

  • He argued that there’d be more poor people living in middle-income countries.
  • He also predicted that poverty would be concentrated in a smaller number of counties and that political struggles were going to be a major source of tension.
  • He also predicted a flattening off of aid budgets as countries became less keen on sending aid abroad.

5. The debate then passed to the floor. The main questions raised were:

i. What is the role for governments?

ii. 80% of poverty reduction comes from economic growth so it must play a role – why dismiss it?

iii. Is there not a link between growth and quality of life in terms of the benefits that the state can supply through tax revenues?

iv. Are these improvements likely to be sustained?

v. What will happen post-2015?

vi. How much can foreign aid contribute to institutional change?

vii. How should the World Bank and the Department for International Development (DFID) and other organisations treat political change? They naturally don’t want to appear too ‘political’ but then in encouraging change don’t they have to?

6. The main answers offered to the above questions, in order, were:

i. Charles stated that governments do play a role but their role is in rolling out technology or in paying for schools

ii. Charles acknowledged that growth does play a role but that his main argument is that one shouldn’t focus on income. He stated that if you die aged 5 then you won’t get to receive an income. This is wrong, he argued, not only because you won’t have a chance to earn but also because you won’t be experiencing good health – and this is what is important to quality of life.

iii. Milo stated that revenues can contribute to progress when allocated to productive sectors. In Mauritius, for instance, used it revenue form sugar exports to build a manufacturing sector and sustain high quality social services in health and education.

iv. Charles argued that there are plenty of improvements that can still be made – increasing the use of bed nets for instance can help to improve health.

v. Patrick stated that one of the main concerns for post-2015 will be the effect of climate change. Charles agreed but also argued that advances could be continued for sometime without this being an issue – though it also something which has to be dealt with.

vi. Patrick argued that although aid can help it cannot deal with underlying beliefs and values which might be preventing progress.

vii. Charles argued that in reality the World Bank has always had a political agenda – it has suggested policies and these will either be supported or rejected by particular parties. There are also clear political areas where the World Bank should be involved in: encouraging political transparency for example. Taking this much further might be worrying, however.

7. Summary. Overall there was broad agreement amongst the panel that there had been great successes in international development and that these need to be communicated. Lessons can be learned from the MDGs on what is both good and bad practice. There was also general agreement that there should be a post-2015 strategy but some anxiety that such an agreement is not yet on the horizon. Charles Kenny put forward quite an innovative take on the story of development and one which received a great deal of feedback and questioning from the audience. His emphasis on technology and not growth or government policies garnered some of the most interest and there was some disagreement, both in the floor and on the panel, as to whether this emphasis was correct. Milo in particular did discuss the role of policies and institutions in her presentation – but the different focuses made for an interesting debate. Patrick Watt was able to raise some of the concerns – both in the results of the MDGs and for the post-2015 era – whilst also retaining a positive outlook on the current status of international development. His discussion of the role of development agencies also encouraged a lively discussion as to the role that agencies can play and how much success they can claim.