Is there momentum for evidence-informed policy in developing countries?
Our hypothesis is that interest is growing. We’ll be watching to see if there are organizations and individuals—pioneering governments, think tanks, evaluators, data gurus, or evidence translators—leading the way in developing countries. Better yet, we hope to see a global community taking shape, with enthusiasm for collective learning across countries and areas of expertise.
Do global and regional efforts help at the country level?
Most of the events this fall will bring people together to learn about evidence-informed policymaking, build a community of practice, and share experiences. Will these meetings in New York, Pretoria, London, and Lima increase the use of evidence in developing countries? We won’t be able to identify country impacts right away, but we’ll be looking for promising signals.
What concepts and practices are we missing?
We are developing our own approach to evidence-informed policymaking at the Hewlett Foundation, but are eager to learn how others think and talk about what enables and motivates policymakers to use evidence.
Who else is working to promote and improve evidence-informed policymaking?
We know many great organization and individuals working in this area, but hope to see and learn from many more in the weeks ahead.
What are you hoping to get out of the global evidence-informed policymaking extravaganza?
September 8, 2016 — By Sarah Lucas and Rachel Quint
Hold on to your seats, evidence enthusiasts! Whether you’re a fan of evidence-informed policymaking, evidence-based decisions, or just what works, you’re in for an action-packed few weeks. Not even the most globetrotting devotee could make all the events September and October have in store, so here is a quick guide to what’s on, what we’re watching for, and how you can keep up with the details.
Follow the Evidence: The Promise and Potential for a Different Approach to Policymaking (Washington, DC, September 8)
The Bipartisan Policy Center event will be one of the first public discussions about the new U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, recently created with rare bipartisan support. These are tough political times for new policy initiatives in the United States, so we’ll be looking for champions in Congress, the administration and outside groups to talk about how to carry evidence-informed policymaking into the next administration and new Congress. You can count on our friends at Results for America to follow this one, or follow on Twitter @BPC_Bipartisan.
EVIDENCE 2016 (Pretoria, South Africa, September 20-22)
The Africa Evidence Network (AEN) will host EVIDENCE 2016. The event will draw senior policy officials from across Africa and organizations working to increase policymakers’ access to and use of evidence. AEN began as a network of partners in the DFID-funded Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (BCURE) program, and is now 700 organizations strong. We’re excited to see what the network’s members are learning about fostering an evidence-informed culture in Africa. We’ll especially be looking for conference reflections from the team at the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) given their leading role as an evidence-to-policy translator.
UN General Assembly annual meetings side events (New York, September 19-26)
The UN General Assembly (UNGA) will discuss the global refugee crisis and the Sustainable Development Goals. The week will include events on Big Data and Refugees and Data for Climate Resilience, and feature an event of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, and a “Data Playground.” We’ll be watching whether data enthusiasts focus on using better data to achieve the SDGs, not just monitor them. Keep the pulse through UN Global Pulse and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.
What Works Global Summit (London, September 26-28)
The What Works Global Summit (WWGS) will bring together hundreds of evidence-oriented policymakers, scholars, advocates and funders to dive into scores of evidence-informed policymaking topics. Hewlett’s Sarah Lucas will host a session that will put two Think Tank Initiative organizations on center stage. “Bringing Evidence-Informed Policymaking to Life: Films and Discussion from Senegal and India,” will feature research-to-policy stories from the Consortium for Economic and Social Research (CRES) in Senegal and the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) in India, and frank dialogue with the scholars and policymakers that made them possible. Get sneak peeks at the videos here and here, and keep track of WWGS highlights from Campbell Collaborative, 3ie, or any of the dozens of other partners. Or follow on Twitter at #WWGS2016.
Ghana Education Evidence Summit (Accra, September 27)
This Summit caught our attention because it is co-hosted by Innovation for Poverty Action (IPA) and the Ghana Ministry of Education. This collaboration reflects one of the main hypotheses about fostering evidence use: partner with policymakers from the outset to identify policy questions that evaluation (or research or data) should address. We’ll be looking to the team at IPA to share lessons about whether this approach leads to more reliance on evaluation findings in formulating policy and implementing programs. On Twitter @poverty_action.
Evidence Works 2016: Global Forum for Government (London, September 29-30)
Results for America / Results for All and NESTA will host Evidence Works 2016: A Global Forum for Government. Gathering policymakers from across the world, these sessions will share practical lessons from 40 different countries across six continents about the tools, incentives, and partnerships they are using to foster a culture of evidence-use. We are particularly interested to see if there is appetite among this community of like-minded, evidence-oriented government officials to collaborate and learn from each other in a more structured way going forward. Our friends at Results for All will track this closely. On Twitter: @nesta_uk and @Results4America.
International Open Data Conference (Madrid, October 6-7)
Madrid will host the International Open Data Conference (IODC) with open data experts in everything from agriculture and extractives to humanitarian assistance and transportation. At IODC we’ll be most interested in seeing how different data communities come together, including open data enthusiasts, data revolutionaries, and official statisticians. Our friends at Open Data Watch will be watching these dynamics closely. On Twitter: #IODC16 and @opendatacon.
Semana de la Evidencia 2016 (Peru, October 17-21)
Finally, Peru will welcome EIP enthusiasts from across Latin America at Semana de la Evidencia 2016 (Evidence Week 2016), hosted by the Peruvian Alliance for Evidence Use. The week promises to celebrate efforts to bring evidence into the policy process, and help build capacity to do so. We’ll be watching to see how the strong network of Latin American public policy think tanks uses this opportunity to better understand the questions public officials are grappling with, and how their research can address them. The team at On Think Tanks will surely offer useful insights from this exciting week. On Twitter: @Evidencia_Peru.
While we’ll only be able to make some of these events in person, we're excited to see a rapidly growing community of people pushing for, producing, and using evidence in policy decisions. We are eager to hear what you see and learn in the evidence extravaganza ahead.
Steven Radelet is Director of the Global Human Development Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Steve has served in several U.S. administrations, including at the Departments of Treasury and State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He serves as an economic adviser to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and has worked extensively in other countries including Indonesia, the Gambia, and Western Samoa. Steve’s work focuses on economic growth, foreign aid, debt, and financial crises, primarily in Africa and Asia.
Steve spoke at the Hewlett Foundation last month about his new book as part of our ongoing “shop talk” series in which we invite outside speakers to share their knowledge and expertise with our staff. In The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World, Steve argues that, contrary to the popular view of the Global South as “hopelessly mired in extreme poverty” and corruption, the last thirty years have been marked by unprecedented progress for the world’s poor. Following his inspiring and data-driven talk, I had the chance to ask him a few questions.
Sarah Lucas: I hope and imagine your book will inspire young people to consider the global development field as a career path. What are the most important skills and experience now, as compared to when you and Carrie, your wife to whom the book is dedicated, entered the global development field through your Peace Corp service in the 1980s?
Steve Radelet: The most important thing is to get experience early in your professional career living and working in developing countries. It doesn’t matter so much what you do –World Teach, Peace Corps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Grass roots Soccer, NGO, private company, or social entrepreneur—so long as you get one or two years of experience on the ground. There is simply no substitute for it in learning about the issues, constraints, and opportunities in development. In addition, of course, you need a solid academic foundation, both at an undergraduate level and, increasingly, at the master’s degree level (such as our Global Human Development Program at Georgetown). No matter what your area of specialization, you need some solid training in economics, political science, statistics, and management. It is essential to have strong skills in writing, quantitative analysis, and public speaking. And then on that foundation, build your deeper specialized knowledge in health, education, economics, environment, humanitarian relief, or other critical areas in development.
Sarah Lucas: For the analysis in the book, you use standard methods of assessing economic improvement, in terms of poverty levels, and rates of income growth, overall and per person, alongside a wide variety of other measures of social, political, and environmental change. What are the advantages and disadvantages of focusing on a relatively narrow economic measure to capture wellbeing? What potential value do you see, if any, in metrics that integrate social and environmental conditions, such as the as multi-dimensional poverty indices, “happiness” metrics, and sustainable development indices?
Steve Radelet: Far too often economists (in particular) focus almost exclusively on measure of income and GDP per capita, and equate that with wellbeing or development. Of course, these measures are powerful, and it is clear that widespread progress over time can’t happen without sustained and inclusive economic growth. But it is important to complement these economic indicators with other measures of development, which is why I dedicate a full chapter to poverty, another to health and education, and another to political change and conflict, and include discussion of nutrition, agricultural production, access to water and sanitation, and changes in political rights and civil liberties. Development is a broad and multi-faceted process, and we need to look at a wide variety of measures to get the full picture and to understand the interactions between them. This is one reason why the Millennium Development Goals and new Sustainable Development Goals are so helpful.
Having said that, I am not a big fan of creating a variety of indices that combine these separate indicators into one ranking. Doing so requires making many questionable assumptions (what to include and exclude? How much weight does each component receive? What scale do you use, since each is part is measured so differently?). These assumptions can make big differences in the ranking outcomes, which calls into question the validity of the rankings. So I prefer to look at the individual components separately and explore what they mean, why they change, and how they interact with other indicators, rather than artificially combining them into a less meaningful index.
Sarah Lucas: Some might argue that the progress of the last three decades has been the relatively low-hanging fruit, driven by favorable global dynamics, and that the remaining development challenges are more complex and intractable, while global dynamics are much less favorable. What would you say to that?
Steve Radelet: It’s a little hard to argue that this progress is just low-hanging fruit, since for centuries these countries made relatively little progress. If it was so easy, why wasn’t it done before? Moreover, it sure didn’t look like low-hanging fruit when the surge of progress started. Twenty-five years ago, most analysts looking at the end of the Cold War, the beginning of globalization, the huge overhang of the debt crisis, widespread war, and the raging HIV/AIDS pandemic, argued that developing countries were in for more stagnation, not a surge of progress (see, for example, Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy,” or, much earlier, Paul Erlich’s “The Population Bomb”). The challenges 25 years ago were at least as difficult as those we face today –they just look easier in hindsight. That’s not to say that the challenges that developing countries face today are easy—far from it.
But here is the key point: developing countries have undertaken deep, fundamental changes in the last two decades that make them better prepared to handle new challenges. They have many more trained and skilled leaders, far more women that are finally getting an education alongside political and economic opportunities, many more technological advances available, and are on far better financial footing than they were 25 years ago. Meeting the next set of challenges—especially climate change—will not be easy, and is far from guaranteed. But most developing countries are far better positioned to meet these challenges than they were two decades ago.
Sarah Lucas: The refugee crisis wasn't so starkly on the radar screen when you were writing the book. How does the current crisis, and wealthy nations’ response to it, change your narrative, if at all?
The book is intentionally written looking at big changes over decades, and therefore goes beyond immediate crises to the broader and longer trends that we sometimes miss when we look at today’s problems. Of course, the crisis in Syria and the refugee problem that has resulted from it are major problems that deserve serious attention. Over the last two decades there have been many serious crises that seemed like they might upend development progress, including the Asian financial crisis; famines in Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia; the world food crisis of 2007; the global financial crisis; the Iraq war; and many others. The amazing thing is the extent of continued progress despite these crises. Syria and the related refugee crisis demand immediate action, but they do not undermine the broader story line of the great surge of global development progress.
If the history of the data revolution were written today, it would include three major dates. May 2013, when the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda first coined the phrase “data revolution.” November 2014, when the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) set a vision for it. And April 2015, when five headliner stories pushed the data revolution from great idea to a concrete roadmap for action.
The April 2015 Data Revolution Headlines
1. The Africa Data Consensus puts Africa in the lead on bringing the data revolution to the regional level. The Africa Data Consensus (ADC) envisions “a profound shift in the way that data is harnessed to impact on development decision-making, with a particular emphasis on building a culture of usage.” The ADC finds consensus across 15 “data communities”—ranging from open data to official statistics to geospatial data, and is endorsed by Africa’s ministers of finance. The ADC gets top billing in my book, as the first contribution that truly reflects a large diversity of voices and creates a political hook for action. (Stay tuned for a blog from my colleague Rachel Quint on the ADC).
2. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) gets our minds (and wallets) around the data needed to measure the SDGs. The SDSN Needs Assessment for SDG Monitoring and Statistical Capacity Development maps the investments needed to improve official statistics. My favorite parts are the clear typology of data (see pg. 12), and that the authors are very open about the methods, assumptions, and leaps of faith they had to take in the costing exercise. They also start an important discussion about how advances in information and communications technology, satellite imagery, and other new technologies have the potential to expand coverage, increase analytic capacity, and reduce the cost of data systems.
3. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) calls on us to find the “missing millions.” ODI’s The Data Revolution: Finding the Missing Millions presents the stark reality of data gaps and what they mean for understanding and addressing development challenges. The authors highlight that even that most fundamental of measures—of poverty levels—could be understated by as much as a quarter. And that’s just the beginning. The report also pushes us to think beyond the costs of data, and focus on how much good data can save. With examples of data lowering the cost of doing government business, the authors remind us to think about data as an investment with real economic and social returns.
4. Paris21 offers a roadmap for putting national statistic offices (NSOs) at the heart of the data revolution. Paris21’s Roadmap for a Country-Led Data Revolution does not mince words. It calls on the data revolution to “turn a vicious cycle of [NSO] underperformance and inadequate resources into a virtuous one where increased demand leads to improved performance and an increase in resources and capacity.” It makes the case for why NSOs are central and need more support, while also pushing them to modernize, innovate, and open up. The roadmap gets my vote for best design. This ain’t your grandfather’s statistics report!
5. The Cartagena Data Festival features real-live data heroes and fosters new partnerships. The Festival featured data innovators (such as terra-i using satellite data to track deforestation), NSOs on the leading edge of modernization and reform (such as Colombia and the Philippines), traditional actors using old data in new ways (such as the Inter-American Development Bank’s fantasticenergy database), groups focused on citizen-generated data (such as The Data Shift and UN My World), private firms working with big data for social good (such as Telefónica), and many others—all reminding us that the data revolution is well underway and will not be stopped. Most importantly, it brought these actors together in one place. You could see the sparks flying as folks learned from each other and hatched plans together. The Festival gets my vote for best conference of a lifetime, with the perfect blend of substantive sessions, intense debate, learning, inspiration, new connections, and a lot of fun. (Stay tuned for a post from my colleague Kristen Stelljes and me for more on Cartagena).
This month full of headlines leaves no room for doubt—momentum is building fast on the data revolution. And just in time.
With the Financing for Development (FFD) conference in Addis Ababa in July, the agreement of Sustainable Development Goals in New York in September, and the Climate Summit in Paris in December, this is a big political year for global development. Data revolutionaries must seize this moment to push past vision, past roadmaps, to actual action and results.
In addition to all the important data work at the country and regional level, we have a major opportunity at the global level as well. This is the moment to identify champions and secure commitments from the highest levels of governments, businesses, international institutions, and civil society organizations. We must boldly ask of them:
What new data will you share?
How will you use traditional and new data sources to help solve development problems?
What new partners will you work with to do this?
We must ask, "Are you willing to be a champion -- on the global stage -- for using data to better understand and address development challenges?" If so, there will be a place for you at the podium in Addis, New York, or Paris. And there will be a page for you in the history of the data revolution.
(This blog post appeared, in slightly different from, on Post2015.org earlier this week. It is adapted from my remarks at the January 22 UN Foundation and World Bank hosted consultation on financing the data revolution. It’s not too late to comment on the background papers. )
2015 is a big year for global development. It is the year in which the current Millennium Development Goals come to an end, and the global community agrees on the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. When the Post-2015 process kicked off, the UN Secretary General convened a High Level Panel of Eminent Persons (HLP) to make recommendations for the goals. In their 2013 report, the HLP called for a “Data Revolution” to increase the coverage and quality of data—both official statistics and new data sources —to help both measure and achieve the new goals. Over the past year and half, there has been a flurry of activity to figure out what the Data Revolution should be.
Now, with less than six months until the Financing for Development (FFD) conference in Addis Ababa—a critical juncture in the Post-2105 process, we are finally starting to talk about how to finance the data revolution. As these conversations take shape, I see a collective to-do list emerging, both in creating a financing mechanism commensurate with the spirit of the Data Revolution, and in making FFD a success for the Data Revolution.
Financing for the Data Revolution – 4 Essential Ingredients
Recognizing that no single financing instrument will meet all the needs identified by the data revolution, I believe any instrument (existing, repurposed, or new), would need these four ingredients:
1. Credible and inclusive governance
The Data Revolution is meant to speak to a wide variety of players—national statistical offices, government leaders, private sector actors, data innovators, donors, civil society advocates, and so on. So while a given financing mechanism has to be housed in one place, it shouldn’t only reflect the priorities of that one place—a multi-donor trust fund housed at the World Bank, for example, would need guidance from and accountability to actors beyond the Bank. What lessons can we learn from other trust funds’ governance structures to help balance accountability to the home institution with accountability to the different actors it is meant to include and to serve?
The preliminary findings of the Post-2015 Data Test, as described in Part 1 of this post, add up to an important action agenda – one with both technical and political ramifications. On the technical side, it is clear that many countries have a long way to go to meet the data needs to measure against the Post-2015 agenda. The missing or weak data inspire an action agenda around a need for increased data coverage, quality, consistency, disaggregation, timeliness, and so on.
On the political side, the lessons across the seven country studies revealed a lot of tricky questions. How can we have common sustainable development goals (SDGs) that are both a rallying cry at the global level, yet meaningful at the country level? If you set and measure against country specific targets to make them more meaningful at home, where is the global accountability? Is there value in having a “global minimum standard” for some goals, if these minimums are long surpassed by the richest countries and out of reach for the poorest? Should we include goals in new and important areas, even if we don’t know how we’ll measure them? Why aren’t ministries of foreign affairs, who are leading negotiations, talking with national statistical offices who manage data? How do you build “demand” for solid data among policy makers and advocates? Who will pay to fill all the data gaps at the country and global level? This is a pretty complicated agenda, being hashed out in abstract through the UN process, and brought vividly to life by the data test country studies.
It’s tempting, as one (rather prominent) speaker at the Data Test event suggested, to keep these technical and political agendas separate. Keep the technical side to the statisticians. Limit their job to telling us which goals are measureable, and gathering data when we need it. Leave the political questions to the negotiators, the high-level representatives of the 193 UN member states. Put differently, and very dramatically, by one participant, “our data cannot be more revolutionary than our societal goals.”
However, the dichotomy of technical versus political misses an important point — these two parts of the agenda are deeply connected. The reason we have the data we have, and don’t have the data we don’t have, is all about politics. The politics of who decides what gets measured, who funds data collection in developing countries (hint: most often donors), what populations remain unmeasured and therefore officially invisible (hint: poor, minority, or remote communities). None of this is by accident. As Debapriya Bhattacharya of the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Bangladesh put it at the New York event, it is an “embedded social political relationship.” Rather than waiting for our societal goals to get more inclusive before we push our data to be, let’s use the gaps in data to inform how our societal goals need to shift!
To keep this dichotomy at bay, we need to proactively build bridges between the technical and the political sides. Who can do this well? We would argue that policy research centers – think tanks – in the global south are particularly well positioned to do this.
Think Tanks, like those involved in the Data Test and in the Southern Voice on Post-MDG International Development Goals network, naturally inhabit the in-between space between the technical and the political, bridging these worlds with research and policy engagement.
In fact, there are at least 5 bridges that southern think tanks can build to make the Post-2015 agenda more compelling at the global level and more meaningful at the country level.
Bridge #1 — Between using data to measure goals and achieve the goals. So far there has been much more focus on the data needed to measure the progress against the SDGs. But what about the data policy makers need to make decisions, target populations, set priorities and allocate budgets toward achieving the goals? Think tanks in many countries play a leading role in translating data into information policy makers can actually use to inform decisions.
Bridge #2 — Between what is currently measurable and what must be measured. In the broiling debates about how many goals we should have, it would be too easy to narrow the list of development goals by just taking off the ones that can’t currently be measured. But this would leave us without any of the new and controversial topics like governance, human rights and environment. Rather, negotiators should have the courage to keep in goals that truly matter for development, and commit to finding new ways to measure them. Well-timed research from the domain of think tanks could play an important role in filling this gap.
Bridge #3 — Among government entities in a given country. Almost all the Data Test scholars lamented the poor communication among ministries of foreign affairs, line ministries, and national statistical offices. This creates challenges for setting goals that are meaningful and measurable at the country level, and will wreak havoc on any efforts to actually implement the goals. Think tanks have the power to help here too, simply by convening. Having spent over six years in the U.S. government, one of us can vouch for how different agency officials scramble to get on the same page if they have to appear together on a panel. This may seem like a blunt instrument, but it works!
Bridge #4 — Between the national and global. The bridge between a mobilizing global Post-2015 agenda and targets that are tailored enough to be meaningful at the country level will be hard to build, particularly in the abstract. It will be critical to have people and organizations – beyond official government negotiators – shuttling between the national and global priorities. Southern Voice provides a great platform for country-level think tanks to bring country-level priorities to the global stage, and to bring global-level accountability to national discussions about the Post-2015 agenda.
Bridge #5 — Between civil society and governments. Who will hold national government accountable for negotiating positions that reflect citizens’ priorities, and for implementation against the globally-agreed goals? Civil society organizations will play a critical role here. Who will provide the data, research, and analysis, to make civil society’s advocacy stronger, and government decision-making more evidence-based? You guessed it – policy research centers.
So, for all the statisticians and political negotiators alike, keep Southern Voice and other think tanks on your radar screen. They can be a critical actor in getting to a set of goals that are both ambitious and achievable, both aspirational and (eventually) measurable, and both agenda-setting and implementable!
On October 14 in New York City, across the street from the hallowed halls of the United Nations, a group of scholars from Bangladesh, Canada, Peru, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Tanzania, and Turkey, came together to talk about data. Under the auspices of the Post-2015 Data Test, these scholars have spent the last year trying to answer one question — “How well prepared are these countries to measure progress on the Post-2015 development goals and targets?”
The Post-2015 Data Test - an initiative through which seven country teams are assessing the quality and availability of country-level data to measure progress on proposed post-2015 goals – held events in New York and Washington, D.C. to share the initial results from their work and to discuss implications for the Data Revolution and post-2015. Hosted by the UN Foundation in New York and the Center for Global Development in Washington D.C., the events brought together a wide range of stakeholders, including country team members, representatives from UN missions and agencies, civil society organizations, the private sector and the UN Secretary General’s Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution.
Here are four interesting (but not all-encompassing) takeaways from the New York event:
1. Countries have a long way to go to meet the technical data needs. While on average the data availability and quality are best (but still not great in most countries) in closely-watched areas like poverty, education, growth and employment, they are much worse in areas that weren’t in the Millennium Development Goals but are under negotiation for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – governance, human rights, environment. They are worse yet when trying to understand the experiences of specific segments of the population in a given country – like women, ethnic minorities, geographical locations – rather than national experience as a whole. This inspires an action agenda around increased data coverage, quality, consistency, disaggregation, timeliness, and so on. This is part of what people talk about when they say we need a “data revolution.”
2. A combination of global and local targets and indicators would be (very) complicated, but could work. The Post-2015 Data Test included a set of global targets for seven goal areas – poverty, education, employment and inclusive growth, energy and infrastructure, environment, governance, and global partnership – that all teams examined in their studies. Teams were also asked to select country-specific targets and indicators that resonated with country priorities. Once country teams selected their subset of metrics, they then investigated the availability of data for both the ‘global’ and ‘national’ level targets and indicators. Teams expressed enthusiasm for this global-local framing (and Special Advisor of the Secretary-General for Post-2015 Development Planning, Amina Mohammed cited this enthusiasm as “good news”), but the experience also revealed a lot of tricky questions about how we can have common goals that are both a rallying cry at the global level, yet meaningful at the country level.
3. A post-2015 architecture will need to take into account political incentives. In order for the post-2015 architecture to work, countries need resources to help achieve the goals they commit to, technical support to meet data requirements to measure progress, and a creative political design that creates incentives for accountability. Countries have to make bold post-2015 commitments at home and on the global stage, some of which they don’t currently have the resources or capacity to meet. Debapriya Bhattacharya, one of the leads on the Data Test, described the three reasons why countries might take this risk. The first is the hope of predicable, additional funds to help them solve country-level challenges. The second is the potential for partnership to solve problems that no one country can solve alone, such as climate change. And the third is the chance to push for agreement by other countries to address issues over which developing countries have little control, such as limiting international financial shocks. Will these existing incentives be sufficient to keep countries “on-the-hook” for post-2015 commitments? Or will new incentives need to be built in to the post-2015 architecture?
4. Intra-governmental dynamics will significantly impact goal-setting and implementation. Observers of the Post-2015 process focus a lot on dynamics between country governments. But what about what happens withinthem? When discussing both the negotiation and implementation stages of the Post-2015 agenda, national representatives spoke about lack of coordination within governments to be a major challenge. For example, ministries of foreign affairs, who are leading negotiations, rarely talk with line ministries who have substantive leadership in many areas covered by the goals, or with national statistical offices who manage data necessary to measure them. Lack of communication between ministries and mismatched priorities between federal and local governments was cited as one of the barriers to designing a post-2015 architecture, and to implement the SDGs.
So, how can the global community address these issues in the next year as the Post-2015 agenda takes shape? In Part 2 of this blog, we outline the role that Southern think tanks can play in this.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) won the race to the top in 2014. But if the past few years are any indication, it won’t hold onto the top spot for long. Last year the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation took top honors, and in 2012 it was the UK Department for International Development. The fact that the race is on—for increased transparency in foreign assistance—is a huge tribute to Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index (ATI). The Index, in its fourth year of publication, ranks an ever-growing number of global donors (currently 68) on how transparent their spending is.
Last week’s launch of the 2014 ATI at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC offered four very different leaders in transparency a chance to talk about how ATI is inspiring agencies to action, and why that matters—one each from a multilateral donor, a bilateral donor, a civil society network, and a ministry of finance.
Ranking tenth in 2012, and forth in 2013, UNDP crept their way up to #1 on the Index in 2014. They took the long-view, built the necessary systems, and in the words of Haoliang Xu, United Nations Assistant Secretary General and UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, they made a deliberate decision to change their culture and mindset toward openness—not just at headquarters, but across their 140 country offices.
If UNDP ran a marathon to the top spot, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) ran a sprint. PEPFAR ranks only 30th on the 2014 Index, so why the hype? Well, just last year they were number 50. PEPFAR is a clear case of what you can achieve if you have a real champion for open data in the drivers’ seat. Ambassador Deborah Birx, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and head of PEPFAR, is just that. With three decades working in HIV/AIDS immunology, vaccine research, and global health, she came into office with a clear-eyed and heartfelt interest in data. She started at PEPFAR in April 2014, just three months before the cut-off for data collection for the 2014 ATI. After the launch event, a representative of Publish What you Fund mentioned that Birx has asked them what she could do to improve on the Index. No one believed she could move the needle in 2014 because she had so little time. But in the course of just a few weeks, she took the program up 20 spots. Proof positive that political will is more important than the technical or administrative complications of opening the books.
As interesting as the horserace is, it is not nearly as interesting as why UNDP and PEPFAR made these moves. Why do these agencies want to be in the race at all?
Fair warning: I am asking you to pay attention to something that some people argue is of dwindling relevance. Development assistance—the taxpayer dollars that the U.S. government spends globally to reduce poverty, foster economic growth, and help improve the human condition—makes up a smaller slice of the development finance pie than it once did. Private financial flows now dwarf donor-provided funds, and the strong economic growth in many developing countries means their domestic resources play an increasingly important role, too.
Does this mean we should turn our backs on aid? On the contrary. Aid can play a pivotal role in creating the environment—in terms of reliable infrastructure, skilled workforce, legal frameworks, and good governance that attract all this new private investment. And despite being relatively smaller in terms of dollars, improving how we spend aid can have an outsized impact—to ensure that fewer dollars go farther, that the assistance we do offer is worthy of U.S. leadership on the global stage, and that it helps set a standard for global engagement by all actors, old and new.
How we design, allocate and implement development assistance is precisely the question that the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) is tackling. MFAN (which the Hewlett Foundation has supported since 2008) is a coalition of research, grassroots, implementing, and advocacy organizations pushing for more effective U.S. development assistance, originally formed in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections to get development issues on the political radar screen. It re-emerged last week in version 2.0. Its new reform agenda focuses on two fundamental principles to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective: accountability, through increased transparency, evaluation, and learning; and country ownership of the priorities, resources, and implementation of development investments.
Why getting the “how” of development assistance right still matters.If the world’s biggest bilateral donor puts partner country priorities at the top of the agenda, invites their citizens to the table, and opens its books about how much it spends and what it does (or doesn’t) achieve, this sets a standard by which other actors, including partner countries themselves and private investors, are held to account. It allows the U.S. to lead by example and by conviction on the global stage. It helps raise the bar on the kinds of engagement and accountability citizens come to expect and demand of their own governments and of global partners.
Why now. The principles of accountability and country ownership are not new. Why has MFAN chosen now to bring these fundamental principles back into the spotlight? The last five years have brought an increasing supply of rigorous evaluations that test long-held assumptions about traditional development interventions, a major push on open data and aid transparency, and an increasingly frank discussion about the causes of and lessons from failure. In this context, “accountability” takes on a whole new meaning, with vastly more information and data in the hands of citizens, advocates, and governments. Likewise, the notion of “country ownership” gets much more sophisticated when technology enables citizen participation and feedback in ways unthinkable just five years ago. Finally, the concepts of accountability and ownership have been mainly applied to development assistance in stable, democratic countries; but they are largely absent in fragile environments. With poverty (and U.S. assistance) increasingly concentrated in these fragile environments, it is even more critical that we push ourselves to apply these pillars of effectiveness in those places.
There’s a window of opportunity to consider, as well—both at home and globally. The Obama administration, which has in fits and spurts embodied these principles, has less than three years to solidify the gains it has made so far—to embed these basic principles into the DNA of how the U.S. engages on development. Meanwhile, the U.S. government will be at the negotiating table next year to establish the next set of global development goals, the so-called post-2015 goals. What these goals are, and how they are set, should absolutely align with the principles of ownership and accountability, and the U.S. is an important player in making sure they do.
What to watch for.My eyes will be on three things as MFAN pushes this policy platform over the next few years.
First, what do the U.S. Administration and Congress do? MFAN’s policy paper calls for specific and high-profile actions, like U.S. compliance with the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and reducing the number of Congressional earmarks and Presidential directives that make U.S. assistance more about what Americans want than what poor countries need. But we should be watching behind the scenes too, to monitor how the Administration’s initiatives (things like Power Africa and USAID’s Development Lab) embody the principles of accountability and ownership, and the degree to which agencies live up to their own policies for local solutions, evaluation, or transparency. For real impact, these principles need to be embedded in how agencies do all their business.
Second, what does the U.S. development community do? The government is not the only one that bears responsibility to make aid more effective. The broader community, including organizations that contract with the U.S. government to implement development programs, have to walk the talk too. If they advocate for more country ownership, they must also make room for partner country priorities, citizens, and businesses in their own work. If they advocate for greater evaluation and transparency by the U.S. government, they must bring these practices in-house as well.
Finally, what does MFAN do? Ambitious goals like shaping how the U.S. government engages with country partners and on the global stage require a sophisticated campaign founded on solid research and analysis—one that taps into the sensibilities of grassroots coalitions, and leverages the skills of seasoned policy advocates. No one organization holds all this capacity. But across its diverse membership, the MFAN network does. There’s real potential for this network of organizations to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
I joined the Hewlett Foundation earlier this year after more than a decade in Washington, DC. My time in Washington was dedicated to many things, but a common thread throughout them was gathering lessons learned (on behalf of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Center for Global Development)about design, implementation, and evaluation of U.S. development assistance programs. I learned a lot. But, two months in at the Foundation, it’s all about what I am un-learning. For example:
The amount of money you spend is not necessarily related to the influence you have. In Washington I got used to thinking about bilateral grants in the hundreds of millions of dollars, supporting direct investments for economic growth and poverty reduction. I wasn’t sure how I’d react to making grants in the millions (or less) here at the Hewlett Foundation. One month in, I am getting a sense of the big impact that smaller dollars can have. The secret is not just thinking about the scale of direct investments, but also what resources can leverage and signal.
Leverage can mean using grant resources to connect the dots along a chain. For example, supporting groups that generate data about whether kids are learning in school; funding community-based groups that use the data to advocate for better services; and supporting organizations that help build government capacity to use the data for policy-making. Leverage can also mean using anchor funding to attract other funders to a new idea, much more nimbly than bilateral and multilateral donors can.
Signaling matters too—when the size of the check is less important than the strength of the principles. The Foundation’s independence allows it to stick by deeply-held principles over decades, such as standing firm on a woman’s right to an abortion, or to combating climate change, no matter where the political winds blow. Or backing efforts to increase transparency—of government spending, aid dollars, or service delivery—long before transparency was the sexiest thing in development.