Reframing Development Cooperation

    EDITOR’S NOTE: “The world of development cooperation is riddled with myths.” So says Laurence Chandy, a fellow at the Global Economy and Development program and Development Assistance and Governance Initiative. Chandy examines these myths and offers recommendations on how to reframe development cooperation. A few excerpts:

    When U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart uttered the phrase “I know it when I see it,” he might just as well have been attempting to define the goal of development cooperation. For although “development” is a universally understood term, it is multifarious and lacks clearly defined parameters. Development is at once about people and states, about opportunity and  outcomes, about productivity and sustainability, and about freedoms that empower and institutions that impose rules. Such a breadth of issues does not lend itself to a straightforward prioritization and sequence of interventions to be undertaken by external actors or a simple process for monitoring progress.

    The development community has tended to ignore this reality. Many policymakers and practitioners have found solace in the goal of poverty reduction, which is designated as the singular mission of several official aid agencies, including the World Bank and the U.K.’s Department for International Development. Stipulating such a goal provides an inspirational message and may help to prevent the diversion of resources for other causes, but it does not make the mission any more straightforward.

    Development actors can still choose, for instance, between palliative measures (such as humanitarian and food aid, or social safety nets), which are relatively straightforward to deliver, and attempts to engender transformational change (capacity building, institutional and economic development), which hold the promise of more lasting results. In a world of finite resources, policy options imply trade-offs—including helping one group in preference to another—and there may be no such thing as the “right choice.”

    Furthermore, measuring international poverty has proven to be extremely problematic and subject to interminable delays. The most recent offi cial estimate of global poverty is for 2005—an age ago in the context of global development, given that between then and now, the economies of the developing world have grown collectively by 50 percent. Poverty measures for India and China—two countries that officially accounted for half the world’s extreme poor in 2005—face serious credibility issues that undermine the accuracy of global poverty aggregates.

    The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) provide an alternative attempt to capture the essence of development cooperation. With eight goals, 21 targets and 60 indicators, the MDG framework submits to a broader definition of development, but still leaves out as much as it includes. Its utility derives from being a rallying call for development and a basis for recording achievement, rather than an elucidation of purpose. As Lant Pritchett (2010) succinctly put it, “The MDGs are correctly interpreted as what will be accomplished when there has been development—and not vice versa.”

    In certain settings, the MDGs may draw resources toward the wrong priorities. Leaders of the g7+ group of fragile states agreed at a meeting in June 2011 that while the MDGs remain important to their countries, the objectives of peace building and state building are more immediate priorities. The development community has yet to come up with a reliable and relevant set of indicators to monitor progress in these critical environments.

    The issues faced by fragile states serve as a reminder that the scope of development cooperation has expanded. Until recently, attention focused on stable, low-income countries, on the assumption that these countries have the most to benefit from external support. But fewer than a dozen countries still fi t this description. Of the 66 countries that were classified as low-income a decade ago, only 35 remain (the others having graduated to middle-income status) and two-thirds of these are classified as fragile states. If this same focus were to be used today, there would be little left for development cooperation to do.

    Instead, development cooperation is taking on new challenges. Low-income fragile states may be among the hardest countries to help, but it has been decided that they can no longer be ignored. Some of the countries that have graduated to middle-income status also remain serious concerns. Countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan have succeeded in attaining a level of economic development beyond several more stable countries, but they have not been able to translate this success into stability and improved capacity and governance, increasing the likelihood that they could slip backwards. The different circumstances faced by these groups of countries means that it no longer makes sense to think in terms of a single development trajectory along which all countries proceed.

    To further complicate matters, the development community is being tasked with an even broader set of objectives under the rubric of “global public goods.” Many of these global public goods remain poorly understood, but their emergence will demand new ways of characterizing development problems and solutions.

    Republished with permission from the Wolfensohn Center for Development at Brookings. Visit the original article.

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