Cold Home-Front: Why development should look inwards

Much of the United States spent the past week shivering through the coldest few days of the last decade. With temperatures well into the negatives and piercing wind chills forcing the mercury to record lows, Americans headed for the hills (colloquially, of course, because a real hill would just be more exposed).

As with any minor inconvenience, the American media reported on the cold snap with its characteristic talent for repetition (ad nauseum) and sensationalism. The storm, named Hercules (of all names), received near constant coverage on all of the 24-hour news stations.

Things took a remarkable turn when Fox News correspondents, and some Republican politicians, began suggest the cold snap disproved the well-researched and documented trend of global warming. I had trouble finding clips of those particular moments on the Fox News website so I have resorted to this montage made by the Daily Show.

One commentator exclaims, “All this snow and still cries over global warming!” with a decidedly smug smile. Another predicts, that “global warming, a phrase we are all familiar with… is going to die this year… given the kind of incredible cold weather we’ve had this weekend.”

I, like many others, was disturbed to hear this sort of rhetoric from an organization with such a huge audience. Studying and understanding climate change has been an integral part my education and professional career. Currently, I am writing a thesis on pastoral herders in the Sahel, a region that has been drastically affected by global climatic change. Annual rains south of the Sahara have slowly declined over the last two or three decades, expanding Africa’s great desert into more heavily populated areas. Similarly, droughts of increasing frequency and severity have plagued the region. Whether part of a longer term trend, or a short term patch of poor weather, the idea that some sort of climatic change is occurring seems fairly certain. These changes have terrible implication for herders in the Sahel, as well as their agriculturalist neighbors.

Lake Chad is the Sahel’s grimmest tale of climate change. Since the 1960’s the lake, a crucial source of water for the four Sahelian nations that border it, has slowly diminished to about a 20th of its original size.

Such shocking changes are hard to ignore. Yet somehow the people at Fox News have managed to do just that.

I was glad to hear many of my development intern peers and classmates were equally distraught this trend of climate change denial in the US. My peers, with their different regional concentrations, were rich in global examples of climate change. I have linked a few below:

What we realized collectively is that as internationally focused development students, researchers, and interns we sometimes forget to give the home-front its due attention. While we have come to admire those in our given regions of interest abroad who lobby for better governance, responsible economic management, and empirically proven policies, we have shirked our own responsibility to participate in domestic affairs.

Further, the experiences we have abroad give us a unique capacity (not to mention responsibility) to inform social policies. By bringing in experiences from across the globe we expand the sample size in humankind’s constant fleshing out of ideas, policies, and projects. Our insights can be valuable because our perspectives are different.




Open Data In Development: Finding its feet

On October 28, the North-South Institute hosted the Ottawa event for Global Transparency Week. This was one of 18 high-profile events taking place around the globe focused on open data, transparency, accountability and good governance. For those who don’t know, open data for development is all about making information and data more freely available to encourage feedback, transparency, information sharing, and most importantly accountability.

Although its a relatively new phenomenon, I find the drive towards open data absolutely fascinating and feel it has the potential to revolutionize the development field. That being said, this movement also has the potential to culminate in a whole lot of nothing unless 1) we ensure the participation of all stakeholders and 2) there is a clearer articulation of the desired outcomes, and how increased transparency will lead to accountability.

During the event, the panelists discussed the importance of open data and transparency in relation to Canada’s development objectives, the changing open government narrative, challenges in delivering on transparency, and lessons learned from the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) experience. The IATI Standard is a publishing framework that was developed following the 2008 High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Accra, Ghana. It is a multi-stakeholder initiative that has become the standard to which donors, developing country governments and NGOs are supposed to publish information on their aid spending and activities.

It is important to note that successfully publishing to the IATI standard requires a huge commitment on the part of donors and NGOs. They are required to meet a very extensive set of criteria which at the bare minimum requires publishing on aid activities in a timely manner, and in a variety of useful formats that can be easily accessed, compared and utilized.

While this may sound like a simple feat, if you actually take a look at an IATI data file you will quickly discover that it is not.

Organizations are also required to report on a number of ‘value added’ fields including project documents, impact assessments, and precise geographic information. Providing a diverse assortment of data is a necessary component of the IATI standard, as it is crucial to respond to the needs and interests of different data users.

However, as mentioned previously, two things need to happen if we really want to see the see the concrete benefits of publishing to the IATI standard. Firstly, while many donors have committed to becoming IATI compliant, there are still many development agencies, NGOs, and CSOs that have failed to follow suit. The irony is that these were the very organizations that campaigned for the government to commit to IATI in the first place. In order to see the transformative benefits of aid transparency in both developed and developing countries, all development organizations that are receiving funding from the government, providing aid, or conducting projects in developing countries should also be publishing to the IATI standard.

The hesitation of many small NGOs and CSOs is warranted. With minimal budgets and limited IT capacity these organizations question the feasibility of publishing to IATI and feel as though they are on an unequal playing field. Despite this, there are ways for NGOs and CSOs circumvent these roadblocks, and take on the IATI commitment without taking on excessive risk. Donor agencies can follow the example set by the UK in which all NGOs and CSOs receiving public resources are mandated to comply with the IATI standard, but are also provided with technical support as well as additional funding to help cover the costs involved.

The second area for concern, and in my opinion the most pressing, is the need to unpack what we mean by “transparency” (i.e. transparency to whom, to what end); and how transparency leads to “accountability”. One of the panelists expressed fear that when donors limit their focus to increasing the quality and quantity of their aid data, they risk getting caught up in the disclosure of information and losing sight of what is really important about that information.

Donors need to move away from focusing exclusively on transparency, and towards increased accountability both at home and abroad.

There should be more of an effort to evaluate whether IATI and other open data initiatives are realizing the ultimate goal of better coordinated aid, improved resource allocation, and greater participation and empowerment of citizens in developing countries who are the ultimate beneficiaries of these efforts. In this respect, there is little evidence whether these investments are having the desired impacts.

There is much work that needs to be done to generate a clearer picture of how open aid data will interface with state and citizen actors to bring about this desired accountability. One thing we know for certain is that there is considerable traction surrounding open data [Ed: particularly within governments], which is at an important starting point. Hopefully these concerns will be properly addressed so that we can achieve the ultimate goals of aid transparency; harmonization and co-ordination between donors, and real partnerships with recipient countries.

For more highlights from the event, be sure to check out the full report – available here

Experiences, Learning

After The Internship: What I have learned

It’s almost two weeks into September, and I’m only now coming to terms with the fact that summer has come and gone. While most students dread the end of summer because it marks a return to the daily grind of juggling classes, coursework, a job, and a social life, for me heading back to school has always been something to look forward too. A challenge of sorts.

However, this year, for the first time ever – I’m not excited about it. I suspect that some of this unwillingness to return to the classroom stems from the fact that I’ve had a taste of my future career path and going back to school feels like a backwards step.

Like many students who use the summer months to attempt to gain a foothold in their chosen field, I landed a summer internship. My experience was with a Canadian policy research institution specializing in international development called the North-South Institute (NSI). Although I’m thankful to have had this experience, part of me wishes that I had gotten this internship after I graduated instead of before – stopping my newly found career momentum feels counter-productive. But that’s the way it goes.

In the months leading up to my graduation, I really could stand to benefit from a reflection on the valuable lessons that I have learned throughout my internship. At the end of the day, it’s all about building on what you know and refining your skill set to become the best candidate possible for future positions.

Working for the North-South Institute was not my first internship in the field of international development, but it was by far the most educational and enriching experience I have had to date.

When people ask about how my internship went, the first thing that comes to my mind is how fortunate I was to have such amazing colleagues. I can’t oversell the importance of networking and building personal connections with your coworkers! An integral part of success is your ability to cultivate emerging relationships and how well you can leverage your network. Working at NSI provided me with many networking opportunities, and I even got to meet many key international figures, ranging from the President of the World Bank, to member of the Post-2015 High-level Panel, to high ranking officials of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD).  Of course, building strong relationships is critical to advancing your career, but developing a rapport with your coworkers is about so much more than reaping the benefits of networking.

Throughout my work term, I held the position of research assistant with the Governance for Equitable Growth team. I was completely blown away by their passion, their work ethic, and the innovative research they were doing.

At first, I was extremely intimidated and felt like I was in way over my head.

My research skills were inadequate, my writing skills far inferior, and my ideas bland and uncreative. When I was first asked to help draft a policy brief I distinctly remember glaring at my computer screen in frustration, overwhelmed by the desire to send it to the trash instead of to my supervisor for review.

Luckily, by the end of my work term I had lightened up a bit and realized I was being far too hard on myself. At 22 years old, and having only studied international development for two years, to place such unattainable expectations on myself was not doing me any favours. For every aspect of life there is a learning curve, and while it is essential to aim high and push yourself in order to improve, there was just no way I was going to be spewing epoch-changing genius when I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the issues I was writing about.

Over the summer months, I continued to become better versed in many of these subjects which helped me to accept that gaining expertise takes time. This learning process can be accelerated in an environment where you have the opportunity to consult experts and ask questions on a daily basis. In my opinion, that is the true benefit of getting work experience and building a rapport with talented coworkers. I’ve often heard the saying ‘surround yourself with greatness, and you will become great’, and I think that will most likely be my strategy moving forward.

Now to get back into student life!

Experiences, Learning, Platform

Post-MDG Roundtable: Business as usual is not an option

For the past three months, my internship has revolved around tirelessly tracking the Post-2015 Development Agenda. If you are in the development field, you most likely know what I am referring to (if not, for shame!) but just in case I will give a quick review. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a United Nations initiative that has become a central reference point for development efforts and aid, is set to expire in 2015. As the end date approaches, the world is asking “what should come next?”

That’s where the Post-2015 Development Agenda comes in. In an attempt to build on the momentum and (debated) success of the MDGs, the United Nations is calling for contributions to shape the Post-2015 framework. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is contributing to this process – international organizations, governments, private corporations, NGOs, civil society groups – you name it. This amount of stakeholder engagement and consultation is completely unprecedented, especially in light of the fact that the MDGs were formulated in a closed-door process. Although this level of outreach is welcomed, it has made following these debates complicated and quite frankly overwhelming at times.

So now let’s get down to business. Last week, my employer hosted a roundtable discussion with Dr. Homi Kharas, Executive Secretary and Lead Author of the High-level Panel Secretariat, and Molly Elgin-Cossart, Chief of Staff of the High-level Panel Secretariat, to speak with leaders from the Canadian civil society, business and research communities in an attempt to learn more about the HLP report, and discuss its implications for global and Canadian engagement on international development.

Dr. Kharas began this discussion by providing us with an overview of the HLP report outlining its vision, the consultation process, the proposed framework, and the importance of this agenda in light of the changing global context. My greatest take-away from this portion of the discussion: business as usual is not an option!

Populations are exploding, natural disasters are becoming more frequent, resources are becoming increasingly strained, carbon emissions are causing global temperatures to rise, and half of the world’s poor live in conflict affected countries. These can no longer be considered ‘developing country’ problems – in an increasingly interconnected world these are global problems that need global solutions. That is why the high-level panel (HLP) report proposed a truly universal post-2015 framework that is relevant to and actionable by all countries. They suggest that the post-2015 goals and targets should be embedded within the national plans of every country (both developed and developing), and that unique national targets should be developed through a national consultative process. This differs greatly from the implementation of the MDGs.

After Dr. Kharas completed his presentation, he engaged in a meaningful discussion with various members of Canada’s development community including representatives from the Aga Khan Foundation, Oxfam, Unilever, and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and International Development – to name a few.

Below I will touch on three of the main issues that were discussed during this roundtable.

1. Is change in the face of uncertainty possible?

It is likely that the final Post-2015 Development Agenda will be significantly bolder, broader, and more transformational than its predecessor. Is such an agenda even possible in an age of such uncertainty and fragmentation? Economies are under stress, demand for resources is on the rise, and north-south relations are evolving – How can we ensure that the post-2015 process stays on track, and does not go down the same road as global climate change and international trade negotiations?

2. Potential of the ‘data revolution’

The HLP report calls for a ‘data revolution’ to improve the quality of statistics and information available to track development progress. In my opinion, this initiative is much needed and if executed correctly has the greatest potential to help people in developing countries achieve transformative and lasting change. However, this is only possible if the data generated through these efforts reaches people at the local level, who can then use this information to hold decision makers to account.

3. Political buy in

Strong leadership will be essential to realizing the post-2015 agenda. Some representatives questioned whether the post-2015 development agenda will be able to generate the necessary political support to provide such leadership. Dr. Kharas promptly responded “this train is already leaving the station, with or without governments!” Many non-state stakeholders – including businesses, civil society, philanthropy, international organizations – have already demonstrated strong leadership on this agenda, and will continue to do so. That being said, governments will be on-board: states are clearly recognizing that development and self-interest are increasingly aligned, and that such an agenda is in the best interest of all countries.

Overall, it was a fascinating discussion. Afterwards, we hosted a reception where I got to listen to some juicy stories about the HLP consultation process (which I unfortunately can’t disclose!) and got a chance to talk with Dr. Kharas. As an intern, I couldn’t engage much in the conversation, but just being in a room with HLP members and Canada’s development leadership left me star struck I probably wouldn’t have said much anyways. Even so, I was happy to learn more about what the post-2015 development agenda will mean for Canada, and I hope anyone who is reading this will look into what it means for their country and the future of development policy as well!

For more information on the evolution of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, check out this ‘Tracking Post-2015 Tool (http://cidpnsi.ca/blog/portfolio/tracking-post-2015/ ) that organizes, visualizes, and analyses global Post-2015 proposals as they are released.