With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, the development community has set its guideposts for the next 15 years.
From our experience with the Millennium Development Goals, we know that there is tremendous value in setting targets; particularly, they focus attention and resources on internationally agreed priorities.
But more important than agreeing on goals is achieving them. As we now move into the implementation phase, one of the major keys to success will be improving how the community works together in pursuit of these new objectives.
The global development partnership should pay particular attention to three critical elements of the endeavor:
1. Pursuing integrated approaches that are multisector and multidisciplinary;
2. Taking a new look at funding structures; and
3. Effective scaling.
Integrating development work
The sheer amount of knowledge, experience and capabilities that different stakeholders in development bring to the table is an uplifting reminder of the potential of our community to transform the lives of the poor over the next 15 years.
It also sheds light on an opportunity to break down sector- and discipline-specific silos to build more integrated approaches that tackle development challenges from every angle.
The hardest, last-mile problems of international development persist because they are complex and require a multidisciplinary approach.
Improving food security, for example, requires addressing multiple facets — availability, access, utilization and stability — in a coordinated way. Increased agricultural productivity for smallholder farmers means little if markets do not function or diets remain nutritionally inadequate.
The U.S. Agency for International Development’s ENVISION project is one example of a development program operating successfully across disciplines. It necessarily draws on a wide and diverse body of experts in infectious diseases, health systems, epidemiology, data science, information and communications technology, and other areas, to reduce the burden of neglected tropical diseases as a public health problem.
Building such integrated approaches, however, is easier said than done. Research identifying potential fruitful synergies between and within sectors — and how to build them — is key to unlocking the power of integration.
Structuring funding for success
For programs to operate successfully across sectors and disciplines, funding must be structured accordingly. We are beginning to see some initial positive steps.
The health sector is moving away from “vertical” funding initiatives that focus on a particular disease to more integrated programs that are supportive of strengthening overall health systems. Similarly, the development community is increasingly supporting integrated approaches to tackle poverty and hunger that cross the traditionally defined sectors.
More needs to be done, as illustrated most starkly by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Despite the success of well-resourced programs focused on combatting specific challenges such as HIV and AIDS, country health systems were not sufficiently robust to handle the crisis. As the Gates Foundationnotes: “Without a systematic effort to improve coordination and create shared delivery channels, health programs will remain fragmented and resources will be wasted on redundant systems.”
Funding structures that support a diverse — yet inextricably connected — range of goals and approaches will be a vital innovation in pursuit of the SDGs.
Scaling for sustainability
Ultimately, SDG-level success requires scaling. That an intervention worked in a village does not necessarily mean that it will work nationally or regionally; funding can sometimes “muscle” a program to small-scale success, while lack of physical or systemic infrastructure — or simple differences from one village to another — can preclude the same approach from being successful on a separate or broader level.
Several principles underpin successful program scaling:
First, implementers must gather evidence of what has worked and what has not, correctly assess how that translates to a broader level, and apply that information on the broader level.
Second, the program must have demonstrated success, not just in terms of administering aid, but in changing behaviors.
Third, programs must be designed and administered with enough flexibility so that they may be tailored on the ground. Implementers must capitalize on effective program components; conversely, failing components should be allowed to fail fast.
Lastly, data will be key to informing the way forward. Advancements in disciplines such as cognitive computing and data analysis have opened opportunities for a “data revolution for development” to help transform development approaches around the world and bring them to scale. RTI International’s Luis Crouch recently published a paper analyzing four critical points for making the data revolution relevant for development:
1. Improve the quality and use of “little data”;
2. Better integrate, curate and classify;
3. Add analytical value; and
4. Demonstrate uses.
In the broadest sense, the SDGs are a challenge for the global development partnership as a whole. But in a practical, day-to-day sense, they represent a special challenge for each individual development actor — to look at ourselves not as contributing to specific components in isolation, but as part of an integrated movement whose individual actions have the potential to add up to a sum greater than their parts.
That is how we’ll turn the potential embodied by the development community into outcomes, and ultimately how we’ll turn these goals into achievements.
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Paul Weisenfeld, executive vice president of RTI International’s International Development Group, was a foreign service officer at USAID for 22 years, serving as mission director in Peru and Zimbabwe and as head of the Bureau for Food Security. He retired in 2013 as a career minister.
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