Which countries are the most committed to development?

Flags of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Photo by: J-O Eriksson / CC BY-NC-SA

CANBERRA — Scandinavian countries are the most committed national development actors, according to this year’s Commitment to Development Index, which measures not just aid levels, but also how well other policies foster sustainable development. Germany ranked third, making it the first time a G-7 country is placed in the top three in CDI’s 15-year history. The United States, at 23rd, remains stagnant.

The ranking of 27 of the world’s richest countries, released Tuesday, places Sweden first and Denmark second, thanks to high scores on the environment and migration, and trade and security, respectively. Germany rises two spots from last year to enter the top three, equal with Finland, thanks to a strong migration and trade agenda. At the other end of the scale, Poland is in 25th position, followed by Greece and South Korea.

Sofia Svarfvar from CONCORD Sweden, an NGO platform, said the findings were consistent with her organization’s analysis, and praised the consensus among the Swedish government and parliament on the need for strong policy coherence for development.

Ian Mitchell, director of the CDI, said Germany had been the big mover in recent years. “They have taken a huge amount of migrants in and have, alongside that, increased their aid contribution. That has moved them substantially up in the rating, cracking the top three.”

No country led in all areas, however. Svarfvar backed the index’s finding that Stockholm should do more to address arms sales to poor and undemocratic countries, with Sweden ranking 20th for its security policies. South Korea meanwhile, was ranked 27th overall despite being the top performing country on technology via strong public investment in research and development.

Each year as the results are released, countries receive the opportunity to discuss their performance with the Center for Global Development, which oversees the index. They are also consulted during its development. The ranking is taken from thousands of indicators and can be used as a tool to open conversations with governments, Mitchell said. “In some of these areas, it is politically difficult to make progress,” he added. “But in other areas it is not — and whether this is international students or improving services, trade restriction, and biodiversity, there are areas a government can align with its own policies and make improvement on.”

The more things change...

Mitchell said the results have varied little over time, with some notable exceptions. The United States stands out for its downward spiral, down from 19th in 2012 to 23rd this year. “They have never scored strongly,” Mitchell said. “But things could get worse. The Paris Agreement [on climate change] is included in the measure, and if they formally withdraw from that, their score will drop further.”

For Poland in 25th position, the index does not offer any new insights, according to Jan Bazyl, executive director of Grupa Zagranica, a platform of Polish civil society organizations. “These are things that we’ve known for the last 10 years,” he said, adding that Warsaw’s official development assistance level of 0.13 percent of gross national income is unlikely to move closer to the United Nations’ benchmark of 0.7 percent without a budgetary roadmap from the government.

The European Union was not ranked overall, though Mitchell said member states received the same score on tariff issues, for instance, to reflect the EU’s single market.

Lonne Poissonnier, policy and advocacy coordinator at the NGO confederation CONCORD Europe, said the CDI is a useful advocacy tool when making the case for policy coherence with the European institutions. However, she lamented that it did not take into account the way EU free-trade agreements impact gender and women’s rights.

Policy coherence mechanisms within EU institutions are gradually improving, Poissonnier added, though she said the aspiration of the current European Commission to be more political sometimes means impact assessments are not carried out.

“We work very closely with the policy coherence unit [at DEVCO, the commission’s development department]. It’s true their staff has been cut. But what we also think is that as long as you keep policy coherence as the responsibility of a small unit within DEVCO that will not be the unit that convinces other big departments to change how they do policies,” Poissonnier said. An evaluation of how the EC has met its policy coherence commitments, including under the Lisbon Treaty, is expected before the end of the year.

An evolving index

Over its 15 years, the CDI has tried to adapt to the changing nature of development. “We could produce the same index every year and get a time series but we’d be missing very important things in the development discussion,” Mitchell said. “Our methodology and data has changed across time and we’re pretty up front about that.”

There are two changes to the methodology in this year’s index. Previously, tariffs were weighed by sector, but the index now assesses how tariffs are applied to individual countries. “If tariffs are applied to the very poorest countries, then you get penalized,” Mitchell said. “But if your tariffs apply to Luxembourg or Singapore, then we don’t care.” Japan, which has progressive tariffs, advanced two places in the index to 24th.

The second change is the analysis of aid quality, with indicators updated based on the forum on aid effectiveness. “It tells quite a different story from the last time we updated it,” Mitchell said. “There are obviously changes in the way countries are giving aid.”

Australia and New Zealand benefited most from this change, despite the quantity of their aid being relatively low. Australia rose four places from last year to 14th, with aid quality playing a major part.

“Australia scores particularly well on reducing burdens on recipients,” Mitchell said. “That will be things like specializing in certain sectors and not being fragmented across a number of government agencies in giving its aid.” 

Australia also scores well in reducing burden, fostering institutions, having untied aid, focusing on countries they know well, and giving to well-governed countries, but ranked poorly on transparency. It also joined the Czech Republic, Greece, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea in not publishing information on its arms exports.

Analyzing global politics for further changes

This year has only seen the start of the U.S. Trump administration’s stance on trade regimes and further adjustment may need to take place to factor in the impact of trade disputes.

“Some of the impact has come into play, but some is still rhetoric and threat,” Mitchell said. “The World Trade Organization complaints mechanism is difficult to analyze. But almost no country has developed without increasing its trade. If that becomes more difficult or worse, the world trade rules are undermined, that could be very difficult for the rich and poor worlds alike. We would need to be able to measure that.”

Additional changes may occur to incorporate new countries, including China, as well as assessments of environmental impact to look beyond greenhouse gas emissions. “We know Germany, for example, has made important progress to solar,” Mitchell said. “If that is adopted globally, that is a major contribution to fighting climate change.”

Editor’s note: Devex correspondent Vince Chadwick contributed reporting from Brussels.

About the authors

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.
  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.