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Ten steps to a new development agenda

Written by Simon Maxwell

This is a time of transition in politics and policy.  What contribution can ODI make?
We are always careful not to be party political and not be tarred as
advocates or campaigners.  Nor do we have an institutional view which
might constrain researchers.  ODI’s reputation rests on its ability to
privilege high-quality research, and use evidence to inform policy
Nevertheless, it is incumbent on us to be useful.  How can we help
new leaders in the UK, France, the World Bank, the United Nations, and
elsewhere?  As we reported last year, and in a continuing series of
public events, we have been debating ‘What’s Next in International
Development?’  Good question.  What’s the answer?
Of course there is no single institutional answer.  The mandate of
researchers is specifically to challenge consensus.  What follows,
therefore, is a personal prospectus.
The key question is whether the Millennium Development Goals provide
sufficient purchase for current development policy.  The ‘poverty
reduction paradigm’ has been a powerful driver of both thinking and
action in international development – certainly since the publication of
the 1990 World Development and Human Development Reports.  The dominant
paradigm has never been uncontested nor risk free, but it has been
remarkably successful in focusing the minds of donors and recipients,
especially on the purpose and use of aid.
The agenda is changing, however, in three important ways.  China is
reshaping the global economy, especially through its impact on the
manufacturing prospects of poor countries.
Security issues are
everywhere rising up the agenda.  And the focus on national development
strategies is being supplemented in different ways by regional and
global issues: climate change is the obvious example, but there are many
Much else is changing too.  Urbanisation is spreading fast.  Supply
chains are being reconfigured as globalisation proceeds.  And,
interestingly, social policy debates are being re-cast.  For example,
inequality is becoming a more prominent issue.
We miss all this at our peril.  An analogy I have drawn is with a
visit to a game park.  All eyes and lenses are focused on the lioness
and her cubs on one side of the car.  Meanwhile, on the
other, unnoticed, a large bull elephant advances…
Ten steps to a new development agenda
What should be our response?  There are ten key elements:

    A vision of social justice, which extends beyond simple measures of
    poverty.  A useful formulation emphasises equal citizenship, equality of
    opportunity, and a reasonable fairness in the distribution of
    outcomes.  If this is applied at a global scale, it challenges
    policy-makers: global inequality becomes an immediate barrier to global
    An approach to growth which recognises the impact of
    globalisation.  Supply chains, including in agriculture, have become
    more highly integrated and more geographically specialised, requiring
    higher standards and greater timeliness.  Furthermore, the entry of
    China’s large labour force into the world economy has halved the global
    capital-labour ratio, driven the price of manufactures down and of
    primary commodities up.  Africa is growing, on average faster than
    Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries,
    but mainly on the back of a commodity boom with relatively low prospects
    for job creation.  Aid for trade is one response, but other supply-side
    measures will also be needed.
    Recognition that delivering a ‘social minimum’ is a priority,
    whether in the form of humanitarian aid or social protection.  The
    imperative is founded in international jurisprudence on economic and
    social rights, but also in the self-interest of developed-country
    governments worried about migration pressure and security risks.
    A commitment to joined-up thinking in government.  The current
    debate about the dissolving boundary between development and foreign
    policy is not simply a manufactured response by ministries of foreign
    affairs to the sight of development budgets rising; nor a simplistic
    counter to terrorism.  There are many regions of the world – the Horn of
    Africa is one – where complex patterns of conflict interact with
    poverty, and where an integrated approach is necessary.  Yet governments
    are not often well-equipped to think and act as one.
    Global challenges need governments to work together better than
    they currently do. Institutional reform, in the UN and elsewhere, needs
    to be driven by a better understanding of the conditions for successful
    collective action.  As a recent UK Government policy paper, ‘Britain in
    the World’, observed, ‘the strength of governments in the future will
    be as much to do with their ability to harness the power of others as
    their own direct power and influence’.
    The effort to increase aid must continue.  Though some argue
    that absorptive capacity is limited and that aid can decapitate
    political accountability in developing countries, the scale of need is
    such that the argument needs to be reconfigured: the question
    researchers must answer is how to increase capacity and simultaneously
    preserve domestic accountability.
    A major effort to simplify and multilateralise aid.  At
    present, two-thirds of aid is bilateral, only one-third multilateral –
    and the bilateral share is growing.  The proliferation of aid agencies
    imposes high costs on poor countries.  Donors have concentrated on
    improving aid effectiveness by aligning behind government plans and
    harmonising procedures among themselves.  They should in addition take a
    more systematic look at the overall aid architecture, including the
    role of the UN, the European Union (EU) and the multilateral development
    UN reform is a priority, in aid and more widely.  The various
    High-level Panels have delivered only modest improvements so far,
    constrained by lack of trust as much as by differences of view.  The
    alternatives to a better-functioning and more accountable UN are all
    problematic: ‘multilateralism minus one’, ad hoc ‘coalitions of the
    willing’ or new, special purpose formations.
    The EU is an essential pillar of a new development
    architecture.  It has the great advantage of bringing together aid,
    trade and foreign policy, and has mechanisms in place to improve the
    accountability of rich countries to poor ones.  Continued reform is
    needed here also.
    Independent evaluation as an essential component of mutual
    accountability.  Many countries and agencies have strengthened
    evaluation and made it more independent.  The next step must be to
    internationalise, and enable comparative data to be assembled.  This
    will raise standards and help developing countries make informed

None of the above is especially controversial.  It does, however,
have implications for the way governments and aid agencies manage their
business.  Some countries maintain separate aid or development
ministries; others do not.  In either case, it seems clear that the
evolving agenda will need cross-government working on a new scale. 
Furthermore, the skills needed in development ministries will need to
In the past, such departments contained many people with sectoral
skills in different aspects of country-level development policy – civil
engineers, for example, or agricultural specialists.  In more recent
years, new cadres have been added, for example with expertise in public
finance and international trade.  In the future, while elements of the
current skill mix will need to be retained, there will also need to be
expertise in managing global negotiations and in influencing the change
process in international organisations.  This is why I have talked about
the need to ‘re-vision’ aid.
The MDGs do not become irrelevant in the new policy environment. 
Reducing absolute poverty by half by 2015 remains a necessary – and
minimal – ambition.  Nevertheless, the MDGs were always somewhat
selective from the range of targets set by the UN Conferences of the
1990s.  We can now see clearly how the context is changing and what
needs to be added to the policy mix.