Commentary, Projects

The Elusive Art Of Sustainable Development (Part 1)

Written by Hannah Todd

With the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) looming and criticism of aid unabating, governments have begun to increase cooperation between departments towards the creation of a successor to the MDGs – the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs), due to be launched next year. Specifically this forges a triangle between economics, development and political strategy that has been lacking from aid and development to date.

Although bilateral aid (passing directly between governments) and multilateral aid (between countries via aid agencies and/or multilateral institutions) dwarfs the charitable and emergency aid of smaller NGOs like Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) it is important that we do not disregard the work of such agencies. It is precisely because smaller organisations have less margin for waste that they are forced to maximise their own efficiency. They thereby gain a better grasp of sustainability and their morals and mechanisms of working should arguably be made more central to the politics of bilateral and multilateral aid distribution.

Organisations such as HART not only help the communities they work with but also strive to engage with the principles and responsibilities surrounding aid and development. The most illuminating lesson I have learnt through working with HART this summer has been that aid is not cold hard cash. Instead, it is a decision. Most importantly, it is a decision that affects the course of a communities’ history. If delivered in the right way, for the right length of time, and in the most appropriate form aid has the potential to lay the foundations for an affluent and peaceful society.

Aid distribution: partners

The way aid is delivered dictates its value. HART exists to support its partners on the ground in eight countries around the world. Many international organisations can only go to locations with the permission of a sovereign government. But because HART’s partners are local, it maintains access to these areas even during times of crisis – when others have been forced to withdraw, either through conflict or because permission is withdrawn by the government. HART has no in-country staff and so if violence breaks out it doesn’t have an obligation to pull its staff out. In other words, HART maintains an access point to societies in need when they are most in need.

HART’s partners know how society works in their country and can achieve things that outsiders cannot. They are both the recipients and distributors of the aid HART sends them and this makes them more able to lay a sustainable foundation for the work that they do. The ‘partner model’ restores local agency and makes HART’s aid a form of private investment albeit without the conditions of repayment. HART’s aid provides the capital for project start-ups, local crisis relief and a range of other initiatives that contribute towards the overall improvement of a community’s standard of living.

This model successfully promotes sustainable development. The relationship is temporary and the supply of aid is withdrawn once the partner has built up their own contacts, thereby enabling them to continue along the path they started with HART’s help.

The unique role aid agencies such as HART play in facilitating this starting point is lending their voice and unique access to international governments that partners on the ground lack. This highlights the importance of the second of HART’s twofold remit: advocacy. Frequently partners move onto bigger funders but it was HART who got their work off the ground and HART who can recommend them as a referee in their applications to larger funders. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Yei, South Sudan, is one such example. Its healthcare clinics and agriculture projects no longer need funding from HART because EPC has grown to the point where it can forge partnerships across the country on its own and teach others, drawing on its now considerable experience.

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Experiences, Learning

The Age of Sustainable Development: What gets measured, gets managed

This is a series from our writers Holly Narey and Michelle Gonzalez Amador who are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ online course The Age of Sustainable Development. They will be sending out an update on the course every week. Click here for more on all our writers. Check this tag to see all posts on this topic.

Have you heard the phrase ‘what gets measured, gets managed’? Jeffrey Sachs has, apparently, and he is a big fan.

When talking about development projects in a wider context, it is hard to get a clear picture. Part of the reason of this is because most projects have such a small impact in the overall development framework. It is easy to have a pessimistic view when we remember the statistic which introduced us to this course: there are one billion people living in extreme poverty.

This one statistic, however, does not show the progress over time. In the 1980’s, for example, the World Bank calculated that a little more than half of the people n the developing world lived in extreme poverty. By 1990, it had gone down to 45%, and by 2010, around 20%.

Setting goals

Lesson 5 of the series focused on the importance of setting goals for development, using the Millennium Development Goals as an example.

Economic progress, Sachs echoed from Keynesian ideas, is not the permanent problem of the human race – given no important wars and no significant population increase, that is. The real problem lies in concentrating efforts for a particular goal. That is true achievement of the MDGs: an ambitious project to fight extreme poverty. They are clear goals for people to understand, to promote, and to use to urge governments to take serious action that could end extreme poverty. They may be ambitious, and to a certain point, onerous, but they serve the purpose of setting the ideal to help mobilize efforts that would otherwise be disperse. Beneath those eight, broad and ambitious goals, there are twenty one specific and quantified targets and sixty detailed indicators that have better allowed us to measure the progress made.

The story so far

Because of the unenforceable nature of the MDGs, efforts may be uneven or prioritized differently from country to country. For example, China’s remarkable economic growth is a big part of the success of reduction of poverty (MDG 1). However, more globalized achievements have been found in the steady decline of malaria and other tropical diseases.

The establishment of the MDGs has both propelled the scaling up of development projects, and also permitted us to identify the remaining challenges. These include:

  • Agriculture in Africa. The source of food supply for the continent faces many obstacles. Namely the low yield and the lack of funding to invest in better management for irrigation, good seeds variety, etc.
  • The lack of government investment in infrastructure. A particular issue in certain parts of the developing world, this leaves regions isolated, hindering trade and its spillovers.
  • High fertility rates. Not only does this pose a problem for urban-planners but also, in terms of food and other production, directly influencing the environment.
  • Food security. As broad as this is it continues to be one of the biggest challenges if poverty eradication wishes to be environmentally sustainable.

How to tackle poverty

Sachs makes an interesting three-pronged proposal to tackle poverty:

  1. Investing in GMOs. Sachs used the case of India’s green revolution in the 60’s to back this point up. Certainly a controversial topic, as GMO production is, to my knowledge, monopolized by MONSANTO. Sachs himself did not say it, but perhaps it is important to note that, for such an action to work, certain prerequisites need to be met, particularly concentrating research in solving specific agricultural challenges in poor regions, as opposed to general increase in food production.
  2. Official Development Assistance. Otherwise said, a temporary injection of funds for targeted investments so that a poor place can jump-start a process of sustainable growth. Highly contested by other experts, such as Easterly or Moyo, who’ve used Sach’s own love for hard data against himself by exposing the side-effects of Aid money in African countries, it is probably the most complex solution, for it involves political will and efficient management from the part of the receiver-country. Sachs argues that because of the inherent risks of borrowing money, such as debt-crisis, a financial grant could provide the initial investment a country needs to leave the poverty-trap. Sadly, it has been shown that certain countries have become dependent on AID money, in detriment of initiatives to mobilize their own resources.
  3. Practical interventions: specifically, the Millennium Villages. Implementation has always been a big issue for development practitioners. By designing such a project and applying the MDGs as a guiding principle, Sachs wished to understand through empirical evidence which where the hardest steps of implementation. In its eighth year, the extremely controversial Millennium Villages project has, Sachs argues, shown that it is possible to help mobilize a community. ‘By harnessing the energies of communities, with a little bit of help, best practices, etc. tremendous things can be achieved’ concluded Sachs. Probably the solution that concentrated more on explaining the project than on explaining the findings, it still gave a spot-on argument. Realizing the potential of social capital in each community can lead to high-impact beneficial changes in a development framework.

Lesson 5 has been the most controversial lesson thus far, exposing the personally biased ideas of the professor. Whatever the faults of Sachs and despite his many detractors, he has clearly held onto his vision of ending poverty sometime soon.

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Learning, Platform

Community Driven Development & The Challenge of Governance

I recently attended a talk at The Hertie School in Berlin by the acclaimed political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Whether or not you agree with his famous ‘End of History’ thesis, it’s always interesting to hear from such a famous academic name.

The talk mostly focused on the importance of thinking about the implementation side of governance – what Fukuyama termed ‘public administration’. He also touched on an aspect of international development thinking over the last twenty years or so which I thought was very interesting.

He was using the example of various World Bank driven projects but never explicitly mentioned Jeffrey Sachs and his Millennium Development Villages while roundly criticising the methodology behind them. As most people interested in global development will know, yet another voice from development attacked Sachs recently in a scathing piece for the New York Times which documented a reporter’s increasing disillusionment with Sachs’ projects as she spent several years investigating them all over Africa. Sachs has long been the recipient of some fierce criticism from development academics (most notably Bill Easterly and Michael Clemens) and now, it would seem, lay-observers are coming to similar conclusions.

The question of governance in international development, Fukuyama argued, is a way for the development community to avoid talking about two things: democracy and government. Because of various historical and contextual issues with these terms have become tainted and subsequently euphemised. The anti-government movement in the West, the rise of NGOs as powerful domestic and international actors, the relative successes of authoritarian governments in accelerating development and the increasing globalisation and networked world we live in – all of these things have muddled the post Cold War picture of progress. I should note that Fukuyama neatly sidestepped mentioning his own most famous work while talking about these issues!

Regardless, this is an interesting point. Governance remains the most common way the international community refers to the proper management of large scale development – like health, education, combating corruption and most of the other Millennium Development Goals. Are development actors like international lending agencies and large NGOs actually worsening these issues by looking to go direct to the people they want to help and cutting out state or local governments?

Another recent fad in the development blogosphere has been the championing of direct cash transfer programmes (here is a good, if critical look at the topic from AidSpeak). While Economic researchers get all hot and heavy about the idea of development being as simple as handing out wodges of cash like Mario Balotelli at Christmas time, perhaps they should think about the infantilisation of institutions and structures that this system will almost certainly contribute to.

Are the short term gains of this set-up worth potentially crippling the very institutions that underpin the functioning developed states around the world?

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