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Global development in the last chance saloon….

– Development assistance is drifting. No Focus. Asleep at the wheel.

– What needs to happen – and urgently.

– Out of the MDG frying pan….and into the SDG fire.

– Good Governance – spectre missing from the feast. Who’s up for grasping the nettle…….

First, let’s be clear: poor governance standards are the central problem afflicting all developing countries. Look no further: the rest stem from this and come a rather distant second. Strategically this manifests itself in two ways. In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) kick started things in a different way – setting a framework for global development – but completely missed out on (or just plain avoided) the two vital ingredients: good governance and accountability and placing developing country government responsibility front and centre for investing in the wellbeing of their own citizens. Their  omission also meant no way to measure the associated impact or change was designed in. Without countries signing up to them, the other MDGs (and development, however well intentioned) don’t work. They stayed largely aspirational and unsustainable. It’s getting rather late in the day for experimenting.

Over the years the MDGs gradually sank into a bureaucratic monitoring exercise, seemingly to hold donors to account – especially at G7 annual summits. Developing countries were not held to account. Having set off on the wrong track, the MDG’s lessons that we urgently needed to apply to the future from 2016 are equally off-centre. So there goes 15 years – half a generation – and the problems continue to pile up relentlessly. The plight of boat people in the Mediterranean and the Andaman Sea illustrate the international community’s collective failure – but only taking a hard look at the underlying push factors behind this migration phenomenon will reveal the lessons. Each year the number of refugees globally is on the increase.

At individual country level, which is also the human level at which most of us operate and can comprehend, this means that developing countries do not invest in the sort of basic services that most people in OECD countries take as a right and for granted – clean water, education and health services, paved roads and electricity, traffic lights that work and which drivers respect, the rule of law[1].

In 2015 discussions around the SDGs generated the usual UN-led feeding frenzy of fantasy numbers defining the task and the estimated financing gap to 2030. Expert groups reported on a new set of big numbers Commission for Africa style – for example the Lancet Commission on Investing in Health, the Overseas Development Institute’s Financing the Future 2015. Nice work if you can get it. The calculations – for Universal Health Care achievement, for sustainable agriculture, for education are churned out in good faith, based on sound analysis in the main, but then it starts to unravel. The hard job of signing up those who will pay is left for another day. This happens so frequently that it cannot be a casual error. And no one is held to account.

So it’s time for a switch. If  it’s not already too late. This is what has to happen. I’ll make it easy for you. First, the developing countries themselves take the lead role. Most of them are poor because they are badly governed. Domestic financing is not pulling its weight. Until their governments start taking their responsibilities seriously, development spending is wasted. So take a rain check on development programmes – except for those that strengthen governance[2]. Then it’s over to the governments and the development community to get real. Why wouldn’t they?

Development finance too often ends up substituting for a government’s own responsibilities. It needs to get additional. Since this state of affairs has now gone on so long it’s become the conventional wisdom, and is hardly challenged. And the impact of all these millions of development dollars can only be marginal.

It is not rocket science to identify the problems and obstacles poor people face, including the stigma of poverty. There’s plenty of information, of data and robust technical solutions for most of the world’s problems. Development/concessional finance can only do so much, even including the Bretton Woods Institutions – and only work when in support of an explicit, measurable and accountable government policy.

Most development thinking gets confused with generating increasingly refined solutions to the supply side of the equation – how to deliver more effectively, how to achieve value for money, how to measure etc. This sloppy approach to the series of global problems that we face every day has been going on since the Berlin Wall came down. Instead of ushering in a new world of possibilities, we got debt relief, the arrival – especially  in global health – of new institutions springing up (while in the next breath joining the clamour over the overcomplexity of the global health architecture[3] ) and results based financing.  Refining the supply side is no solution. It is one side of the equation, and the easy bit[4].

All this while studiously ignoring the demand side. Not to be confused with the need,which is generally self – evident to anyone taking the bus ride into town from any developing country airport, watching the Rio Olympics or the chaos that is Libya and Syria from the safety of our TV screens. Does any of this ring a bell?

[1] Standards are not that great in all the OECD countries either but that’s for another day.

[2] Emergency and disaster relief must of course continue. Room for improvement there too.

[3] GFATM,GAVI,UNITAID spring to mind

[4] It also provides ammunition for the anti-development brigade.


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