Within ODI, this project has brought together a research team from almost all programmes, giving researchers the chance to work together and learn about new areas. It has also been an example of close collaboration between the research and communications side of ODI, with communications built into the project from the outset.
With just five years to go until the deadline for achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, the knives were out in the run-up to the MDG Summit in New York in September 2010. There was widespread skepticism about the goals and, indeed, about the setting of development targets as a whole. Many commentators were focused on the goals and regions that were falling behind and the obstacles to progress, rather than on the genuine progress that had been made or the ingredients for success. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the MDG optimists.
With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and working closely with the Millennium Campaign, ODI set out a stall somewhere between these two camps. ODI provided evidence on the very real progress that has been made, highlighted the factors in this progress, and stressed the need for equity if the MDGs are to be reached.
Led by Liesbet Steer, the team mobilised researchers and communicators across ODI to produce a set of Development Progress Stories and a Report Card on the MDGs, with communication outputs stressed from the outset. The entire approach was informed by feedback from focus groups in Nairobi, Brussels and London, and communication from the outset including working with PR agencies, a massive website push, building media contacts, and pre-release exclusives to media partners. This resulted in worldwide media coverage by key media outlets, including the BBC World Service, NPR America, Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist, The East African, The Standard (Kenya), AllAfrica.com and many more.
The Development Progress Stories outline what has worked in development, and why, with each story highlighting progress in a specific country. To develop these case studies, ODI researchers assessed more than 250 potential stories of progress across eight sectors from economic growth to water and sanitation. More than 100 experts, drawn from academia, donor agencies, end users, politicians, civil servants and civil society organisations in both the North and the South, were consulted. The 24 resulting stories were also vetted by the project’s external expert panel.
The MDG Report Card shared a methodology for analysing progress on the MDGs and presented league tables on selected MDG indicators to show where substantial advances have been made, as well as areas where progress has been most sustained and equitable.
The report revealed a number of high achievers. Vietnam made unprecedented progress in improving the lives of the poor. It featured in the top ten of several indicators, including halving the proportion of underweight children, and reducing the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day from nearly two-thirds to one-fifth in just 14 years.
Ghana outperformed all other countries around the world by reducing hunger by nearly three-quarters, from 34% to 9%, between 1990 and 2004. It will achieve MDG 1 – the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger – before 2015.
Many other African nations have made considerable progress. Ten African countries, including Ethiopia, Egypt, and post-conflict Angola, have already halved their absolute poverty levels.
The initiative confirmed that the MDGs have galvanized and focused the efforts of the global development community as never before. Whilst recognizing that there is still a long way to go, the project highlighted the opportunities to learn from examples of dramatic progress that have been somewhat hidden.
Speaking at the UN MDG Summit in New York September, Melinda Gates drew on the Development Progress Stories and the Report Card when she said:
‘The world is not called on to conjure progress from a void. Instead, it is called on to learn from very real progress on nearly all the MDGs, to expand it, and speed it up ... The task ahead is to learn what the most successful countries are doing right, so that we can spread their best practices.’
Externally, this initiative helped to change the spin of the MDG Summit away from one reflecting on missing targets to one that celebrated progress and the lessons that could be shared. It has helped to build a consensus that development ‘works’, a crucial shift in the current climate, when policy makers are under increasing pressure to demonstrate progress and value for money.
ODI’s work on the MDGs has bridged the gap between research and the more public face of development, and the media coverage has been massive, global and of high quality.
Internally, this initiative played to our strengths in communication, and in the wide span of ODI research and policy engagement. It also highlights the importance of getting stories that are well known within ODI and our immediate research community out to a wider audience, and pushing the communications envelope, even in the earliest days of an outreach strategy.