Keeping the promise – ‘Lower your voice’

Development Policy21 Sep 2010Martin Greeley

The UN Secretary-General’s report speaks firmly on keeping international commitments and this week’s Summit will no doubt produce some strengthening of global commitment towards the MDGs. This is good and important for welfare in poor countries. But, we sometimes forget that development aid is a second-best solution.

Countries receive aid to meet financing gaps and in doing so lay themselves open to outside interference in policy processes, since the aid is effectively conditional and they become accountable to donors. If instead they could rely on domestic resources, they are more likely to be accountable to their citizens. This problem with aid is well recognized. The first two Principles of the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, endorsed by everyone, are on country ownership of their own development strategies and donor alignment behind those strategies. But actually delivering meaningfully on these declared principles has proved difficult for most donors.

The promise that donors should be trying to keep most of all is to lower their voice and give more space to national processes. There are attendant risks, of course, but the potential gains in terms of sustainable human development performance are substantial. After all, most developing country national development strategies and PRSPs are monitored through progress on the MDGs. The MDGs are partly rights-based and their endorsement by developing countries is not just to comply with donors.

Pursuing the human development priorities reflected in the MDGs depends upon economic growth, but perhaps our most important collective learning is that the size and quality of that growth is dependent upon and shaped by investments in human development. A success of the MDG approach is that they now provide a human development foundation for national development strategies in many countries. In order to be effective, donor efforts to scale up must be anchored in support to country-led development strategies through planning that is inclusive and that promotes state accountability to its citizens.

Some critics are unhappy because the MDGs sound very target-driven and narrow but in practice this is less clearly so. Delivering sustainably on the MDGs requires building up services that serve a wider set of human development needs; the MDGs are a useful shorthand but public investment is really about building inclusive and sustainable services. The MDGs then provide minimum standards to assess such development strategies.

The key component for strengthening international action on the MDGs is to provide more effective support for national decision-making processes that are based on the accountability of the state to its citizens. This core governance concern requires that civil society should participate in the design, implementation and assessment of government policies through appropriate dialogue. Recent initiatives to promote national ownership of governance assessments are recognition that it is local accountability that has to be fostered and has important implications for how capacity building is approached.

Beyond unfavourable global conditions and the failure to deliver on commitments to provide the necessary financial resources, an important set of reasons why MDG performance is sometimes less than stellar has to do with weaknesses in country performance. There are sometimes systemic weaknesses of capacity that have seemed intractable. These weaknesses discourage donors from letting go. But in many countries and sectors, such weaknesses have been successfully addressed. A UN Task Force on the MDGs has prepared five thematic papers that report on our collective learning about the conditions for such success: six inter-related priorities can be identified:

i) Country-led MDG strategiesIntegrate MDGs in national development strategies grounded in annual resource budgets planned through a medium-term expenditure framework.

ii) Local accountabilityPlan, implement and evaluate results with mechanisms that are transparent and are accountable to citizens. Policy, legal and institutional frameworks must make accountability real.

iii) Community participation and partnershipsPrioritize and plan to take full advantage of the efficiency and effectiveness gains from community involvement and through the use of the private sector and south-south partnerships.

iv) Gender equality and women’s empowermentRecognize that progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment is critical to progress on the MDGs overall.

v) Inclusion – addressing inequality, exclusion and discriminationAssess and strengthen the targeting of public services and programmes to address inequality and all those that suffer from discrimination and social exclusion.

vi) Resilience – protecting the most vulnerable, adapting to changeAdopt an effective and inclusive approach to social protection. Prioritize sustainable development and promote adaption to climate change.

Over the last decade, since the MDGs were endorsed, there has been a fundamental change in the way they have been understood and responded to in policy contexts and in the wider practice of development. Part of that change is because they have moved from being a distant aspiration to a grounded and purposeful agenda driven by learning about what does and what does not work for human development. The performance priorities listed above reflect this learning and these familiar messages have added purpose today, because they now provide tested means to accelerate progress. They provide a contemporary agenda for country development strategies that can inform and energize a renewed commitment to the MDGs.

This blog is based on his recent paper ‘Priorities for Accelerating Progress on the MDGs‘.