Can we really end poverty?

poverty debate
Click to find out more about the debate

Development issues are often shrouded in a fog of jargon – “institutional capacity building”, “accountability”, “concessional lending”. The list goes on (and on and on …). But, occasionally, an idea emerges that is strikingly clear. The latest is this: End extreme poverty by the year 2030.

OK, so there’s one word in there that might need explaining – extreme. To explain, extreme poverty is usually defined as people living on less than $1.25 a day, although it also carries a sense of people lacking the most basic resources in terms of food, shelter, access to healthcare and so on. Understand that, and the fact that perhaps around 1.3 billion people worldwide live on less than $1.25 a day, and the ambition of the goal of eradicating such poverty becomes clear.

Can it be done? Growing numbers of people believe it can, including no less than President Barack Obama who, in his 2013 State of the Union speech, declared that the U.S. would join the effort to end “extreme poverty in the next two decades”.

The idea is also at the core of the latest edition of the OECD’s Development Co-operation Report, which carries the simple subtitle “Ending Poverty”. And it’s the topic of a special debate in London next week, organized by the OECD and Intelligence Squared, where speakers like Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution and Priyanthi Fernando of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Poverty Analysis will discuss the prospects for, and challenges of, ending extreme poverty (more details below).

Despite the ambitiousness of this goal, the prospects for achieving it look reasonably encouraging. As we’ve noted before on the blog, the long-term trend of extreme poverty is downwards. In 1820, it’s estimated that around 84% of people on the planet were living in extreme poverty. In other words, only around three in 20 people weren’t poor. More recently, it’s now generally believed that the Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty has already been met, ahead of the 2015 deadline (although much of this fall is attributable to large-scale poverty reduction in China).

So what’s to stop us going all the way and finally eradicating extreme poverty, possibly as part of the next round of Millennium Development Goals?

Writing in the upcoming Development Co-operation Report, Andy Sumner of King’s College, London says it’s “entirely feasible” to meet this goal, or come very close, by 2030, but only under the right conditions. One of those conditions is strong economic growth; the other is a fall in income inequality within countries.

That last point is interesting: As we’ve noted before, Andy Sumner has done some fascinating work to explain where exactly the poor live. In the 1990s, this wasn’t an issue: The poor lived in poor countries. Today, the picture is less clear-cut. Around half of the world’s poor live in China and India, both of which are now classed as middle-income countries. What happens in these countries – especially in terms of income distribution – will go a long way to determining the world’s success in eliminating poverty.

But as Andy Sumner also points out, eradicating extreme poverty won’t mean the end of poverty. The $1.25-a-day figure is just one of several poverty indicators, and a very low one at that. “Poverty does not end above one or two dollars a day,” he writes, “the risk of falling into poverty may only diminish when people reach about $10 a day.”

That point is echoed by another contributor to the Development Co-operation Report, Andrew Shepherd of the UK’s Overseas Development Institute, who focuses on the poor living in fragile states. He argues that it’s important not just to help people out of long-term poverty, but to ensure they stay out of it. Doing that, he says, requires bold action, including “unthinkable” steps like providing families with conditional cash transfers and rethinking approaches to agriculture, education, energy and employment. Policy makers, he writes, “must be prepared to borrow ideas and experiences from other societies, and to take some risks on behalf of the poorest.”

Can We Really End Poverty?, an OECD/Intelligence Squared debate, takes place on Thursday 5 December, 2013, at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. The event is sold out, but you can join the waiting list for tickets by contacting [email protected]. The event will be streamed live starting at 7pm London time (that’s 1900 GMT, 2pm in New York, 8pm in Paris and 4am in Tokyo). You can also follow the run up to the debate on Twitter using the hashtag #PovertyDebate.

Useful links

Development Co-operation Report

OECD Insights: From Aid to Development

Why Finland isn’t fragile – and three reasons for linking gender equality to statebuilding in the post-2015 framework

Click to see OECD Wikigender
Click to see OECD Wikigender

Today’s post is by Diana Koester, a consultant working with the International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF).

On Thursday, 26th September, the UN’s Conference Room 1 was packed with over 25 ministers from around the world. They had accepted an invitation by the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) and UN Women to discuss “women’s economic empowerment for peacebuilding” only a day after the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Special Event on achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

You may wonder why that’s especially worth noting. After all, outside of this event the UNGA week heard pleas for related causes: a post-MDG framework that would “make the 21st century the century of women” and a post-MDG framework that would “make the 21st century the century of peace”. And these pleas echoed the proposals for respective standalone goals that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his High-Level Panel had already expressed in their visions for the post-2015 development framework.

What makes the PBC/UN Women event especially worth noting is that discussions of the post-MDG approach to building peaceful and effective states have typically proceeded as though the century of women and the century of peace would take place in parallel worlds. There has been little emphasis on the specific links between these goals and their achievement.

We need to work to bridge this gap by emphasizing women’s important role – and challenges – in peacebuilding and statebuilding, as well as the need for targeted and integrated responses in the post-2015 approach to institutions and conflict.  There are at least three good reasons why.

First, statebuilding in fragile and conflict-affected situations can provide critical opportunities to pursue gender equality. Empowering the world’s women requires special efforts to tackle the severe and specific challenges women face in fragile situations. Sexual and domestic violence, economic marginalisation, and exclusion from the decisions that determine women’s futures help explain why fragile and conflict-affected states have made relatively slow progress on the MDGs overall, but also have notably lagged on most of the gender-specific MDG areas.

The good news is that post-conflict situations also offer immense opportunities to “build back better”, for example by supporting women’s participation in peace negotiations, constitution-making and emerging political processes. In this context it is interesting to note that about one-third of the countries with 30% or more women in parliament are also countries that have experienced conflict, fragility or recent transitions to democracy. Taking the example of Rwanda and Burundi, the Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support Judy Cheng-Hopkins highlighted during the PBC/UN Women event how such increased participation can in turn lead to better outcomes for women, thus transforming vicious into virtuous circles.

Second, gender equality is not only “smart economics” – it’s also smart peacebuilding and statebuilding. The fundamental aim of statebuilding should be a state that is legitimate, responsive and accountable to all. Tackling the marginalisation of women and girls is a precondition for realising this vision.

What’s more, women’s empowerment can help achieve internationally agreed peacebuilding and statebuilding goals. “Women’s political participation is associated with lower levels of corruption, more inclusive decision-making, greater investment in social services, job creation for women, and family welfare”, the new Executive Director of UN-Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka pointed out.  In like manner, PBC Chair and Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusić recalled the strong evidence that “women’s access to land and productive assets, to jobs and markets, results in improvements in family well-being, community stability and poverty reduction.”

In other words, gender equality goes beyond “smart economics”. It can strengthen key pillars of peace. Reflecting on his own country the day before the PBC event, Finland’s Foreign Minister, H.E. Mr. Erkki Tuomioja, affirmed these links: “If I was asked to give one specific reason why Finland is rated in the index of failed states as the least failed state in the world, I would answer that it is gender equality and the empowerment of women.”

Finally, the post-2015 framework offers a historic opportunity to realize women’s rights in fragile states and make smarter peacebuilding and statebuilding the norm. Current approaches tend to neglect women’s potential and priorities. “Let’s face it”, Cheng-Hopkins proposed, “women play peacebuilding roles every day (…) Sadly though, when negotiations get serious, when stakes get high and when money shows up, women are pushed into the background.“ The OECD INCAF’s forthcoming policy paper on Gender and Statebuilding aims to address this gap by offering a set of specific recommendations to help donors integrate a gender perspective into their work on statebuilding.

The post-2015 framework is one of the key opportunities the new INCAF publication highlights in this regard. In the words of the President of the UNGA, John W. Ashe, this is a “historic opportunity to define development.” The post-MDGs can therefore also be a historic opportunity to make women’s full participation in peacebuilding and statebuilding the norm and the PBC declaration’s call for “further measures to improve women’s participation during all stages of peace processes” a reality. We can and must seize it.

Useful links

OECD work on gender equality and development

OECD work on conflict and stability

OECD work on gender

What did you learn in school today?

The happiest days of your life, they said
The happiest days of your life, they said

It’s probably safe to say that, in absolute terms, more children are now in school than at any other time in human history. Not just that, it’s also likely that a greater proportion of children – both boys and girls – are in school than ever before.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, just under three in five children of primary school age attended class at the turn of the century; today, that figure is above three in four, according to Unesco. Similarly, back in 1999 in the world’s developing countries, there were around ten boys in school for every nine girls; today, the ratio is close to parity. All this represents good progress for the Millennium Development Goals on education.

But here’s a question: What are all those children actually learning in school? Regrettably, in many developing countries the answer looks to be not much or, at least, not enough. It’s become increasingly clear that the progress developing countries are making in improving the quantity of education is not being matched by a rise in quality. The problem was described in stark terms last year by the Africa Progress Panel, which stated that many children in African schools “are receiving an education of such abysmal quality that they are learning very little. Far from accumulating ‘21st century skills’, millions of Africa’s children are emerging from primary school lacking basic literacy and numeracy.”

The problem is not confined to Africa. Despite a big rise in enrolments and numerous government initiatives, India, too, has many failing schools, as writer Rakesh Mani found when he arrived to teach at a school in Mumbai: “Only a handful of my third-grade students could read first-grade books, and almost all struggled with elementary arithmetic,” he wrote recently. “Despite this being an English-language school, few teachers – and fewer students – could speak the language at all. Indeed, most of my students were unable to recognize basic alphabets or perform simple addition.” The quality deficit in Indian education was also highlighted in an OECD report a couple of years ago, which noted that “barely over one-half of fifth-grade [rural] students demonstrated a sound ability to read a second-grade text”.

The reasons for all this are no mystery. In many developing countries, teachers are in short supply, while those who are available have often received little training and may rely on outdated techniques like rote learning. Teacher absenteeism can also be an issue. On the student side, malnourishment and sickness can hold back children’s learning – it’s hard to study when your stomach is growling. Families may also struggle to pay school fees and may take children – especially girls – out of school before they finish their education or for parts of the year.

So, if we’re to measure progress on education, it’s clearly not enough to look just at enrolment rates. We need also to examine quality in education – an idea that’s emerging strongly in the Post-2015 process of creating a new round of global development goals.

Of course, a number of models for assessing how well students are doing in school already exist, including the OECD’s PISA programme, which examines the performance of 15-year-old students in over 70 countries every three years. While most of the focus has been on the performance of developed countries in PISA, a growing number of developing countries have also been taking part in recent rounds of the three-yearly assessment as well as in follow-up rounds.

PISA’s role in development could be extended still further: “With increased numbers of developing countries participating in the PISA 2015 cycle this could potentially serve as a baseline for measuring progress by developing countries, including some of the least developed, towards a post-2015 education goal,” a recent paper from the OECD notes. Indeed, work has already begun at the OECD to make PISA more relevant to developing countries, with the aim – as a recent blog post noted – of ensuring the programme offers “developing countries more tailored and relevant policy analysis and insights”.

Useful links

PISA for Development

OECD Insights: From Aid to Development

What’s next for the MDGs?

OECD post-2015If you follow development issues, you’ll know that a major effort is under way to agree a successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) before they expire at the end of 2015. This month should bring another milestone on that road with the completion of a report by an international panel of 27 political leaders and experts outlining the possible shape of the post-2015 goals.

When that report lands on the desk of the United Nations’ secretary-general, it will no doubt join a large pile of other submissions and recommendations on how best to follow up on the MDGs. Already this year, the UN has published findings from an ongoing “global conversation” about the MDGs. The organisation is also inviting people to share their views in its MY World survey  – more than a third of a million people have already done so. Civil society has been busy, too, holding meetings and launching Beyond2015 , as have independent think-tanks like the UK’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

It all adds up to a lot of activity. It’s also all very different from the process that led up to the creation of the original MDGs at the turn of the century. Back then, the draft MDGs were written in a basement office at the UN in New York. The then-head of the UNDP, Mark Malloch-Brown, later admitted that his team almost forgot to include any reference to environmental sustainability: “I was walking along the corridor, relieved at job done,” he told journalist Mark Tran last year, “when I ran into the beaming head of the UN environment programme and a terrible swearword crossed my mind when I realised we’d forgotten an environmental goal … we raced back to put in the sustainable development goal.”

Of course, the Millennium Development Goals weren’t just the product of chance encounters in the bowels of the UN. In reality, many of the ideas and targets they embody had bubbled up through international conferences in the 1980s and ’90s. And the idea of bringing all this work together in a set of headline international goals that – crucially – could be monitored had its roots in OECD work in the mid-1990s. (Richard Manning’s account of the MDG’s history is here.)

Still, when you contrast the level of interest in the MDGs today with their relatively informal origins (and the oft-forgotten fact that they were never formally endorsed by the UN General Assembly), it’s clear that – unlike many international agreements – they’ve only grown in stature. Critics might argue that much of this esteem is unwarranted – after all, it’s unlikely as of now that most of the goals will be met by the 2015 deadline. But, as even The Economist has noted, the MDGs have played a key role in how we think of development, shifting the debate away from “how much is being spent on development towards how much is being achieved”.

So how will all this attention shape the next round of MDGs? Views differ: One risk, as the ODI’s Claire Melamed has warned, is that the post-2015 process will become like a Christmas tree, “handing out baubles to single issue groups without thinking hard about how it all fits together”. On the other hand, the breadth of consultation in the post-2015 process should go some way to redressing a criticism of the original MDGs, namely that they were driven by the perspective of Western donors and not that of the developing world.

Indeed, one idea that’s already emerging in the post-2015 debate is that the next set of goals could be truly global, applying to developing and developed countries. The idea is that the post-2015 process would produce a small set of global goals, which would be translated at the national level into a set of specific targets reflecting each country’s particular needs and capabilities. Or, as a new paper from the OECD expresses it, “A post-2015 goals framework needs to be relevant to all countries and should propose truly global goals with shared – but not equal – responsibilities for all countries.”

The post-2015 process is already far more inclusive than its predecessor; over the next few months, we should get a sense of how far that’s reflected in the next set of  goals themselves.

Useful links

OECD work on development

OECD Insights: From Aid to Development

Aid: Should the OECD hand over to the UN?

Click to find out more about 50 years of DAC work

In May, the Insights blog and The Guardian co-hosted a debate on the OECD’s role in official development assistance (ODA). Jonathan Glennie of the Overseas Development Institute argued that it was time for the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) to hand over to the UN. Brian Atwood, DAC chair, replied.

In July, the ODI organised a debate in London, at the Houses of Parliament. You can listen to Jonathan Glennie and Brian Atwood , as well as His Excellency Ernest Rwamucyo, High Commissioner of Rwanda to the United Kingdom, by clicking on the links below. Daleep Mukarji, ODI Council Chair, introduced the debate.

Among other questions, the debate explored the growing role and influence of non-traditional development actors such as China, and what could be achieved at this year’s Busan conference on aid effectiveness, and beyond.

Audio downloads

Introduction and Jonathan Glennie (MP3, 18.9mb)

Brian Atwood (MP3, 16mb)

Ernest Rwamucyo (MP3, 25.1mb)

 Useful links

OECD work on aid effectiveness including the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda

Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness Busan, Korea, 29 November – 1 December 2011

The road to Busan

An editor I once worked for had a golden rule for his reporters and editors: We don’t do process. By that he meant that news stories should focus on what had happened, not the tedious ins and outs of how it had happened. Not bad advice it you want to write a vivid story, and many journalists would probably subscribe to it. Indeed, it may help to explain why there’s such a gap in public awareness regarding two of the landmark development declarations of the 2000s.

The first, the Millennium Development Goals, is known worldwide. Under eight main headings, it sets down a series of anti-poverty goals to be attained by the year 2015, including a memorable pledge to cut by half the number of people living on less than a dollar a day.

The second declaration is less well known, in part, perhaps, because it’s all process. While the Millennium Development Goals are about what development should seek to achieve, the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness is about the processes developing and developed countries should follow to achieve those goals. The language of the declaration and its five core principles can be a little obscure, but the message basically boils down to this: Development won’t happen sustainably unless developing countries themselves – and not donors – take the lead in setting priorities and coordinating activities.

Since it was adopted in 2005, the Paris Declaration has been widely credited with helping to reshape relations between donor and developing countries – development expert Homi Kharas describes the process that created the declaration as a “watershed”. But whether enough has really changed is a matter for debate: It’s probably fair to say that developing countries still feel their donor partners could do more.

How much more? That question, and many others, will be keenly debated at a major conference on development and aid effectiveness in November in the Korean city of Busan. The issues on the table are previewed in an article by OECD colleague Stephen Groff in the latest issue of Global Asia.

As Steve points out, this forum – the latest in a series over the past decade – “will be the first international meeting of its kind to focus on aid in the new development landscape”. That landscape is, indeed, new: Traditional donors in North America and Europe are facing squeezed budgets and rising pressure to get value for money for their aid budgets. Newer donors, like China, India and Brazil, are becoming ever more important players in development. And there’s the evolving political and social situation, in which, as the Arab Spring has shown, things can change in a heartbeat.

Busan will look back at what the Paris Declaration, and other agreements, have and have not achieved. But, as Steve points out, it will also look forward. “In Busan, there is the opportunity to build a fresh — and flexible — global development partnership that will include today’s diversity of actors and approaches,” he writes. “In these times of economic uncertainty, the world simply cannot afford anything less than effective aid and Busan is a critical milestone on the path to more effective development.”

Useful links

OECD work on aid effectiveness

Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action

Development co-operation at the OECD

Does peacebuilding bring peace?

How much do you think it would cost to achieve the Millennium Development Goals? Among other things, that would mean cutting extreme poverty by half in 2015 compared with 1990, achieving universal primary education, and cutting the under-5 mortality rate by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters.

In 2002, the World Bank came up with a figure of an extra $40-$60 billion a year in foreign aid. Let’s assume that prices have doubled since then, and it would now cost $120 billion.

That’s a gigantic sum of money, but it’s peanuts compared to a figure in the 2011 Yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI): military expenditure in 2010 increased by 1.3% in real terms to reach $1630 billion. The top three arms dealers each had sales of around $33 billion.

SIPRI gives some encouraging figures, noting that two peace operations closed in 2010, making it the second consecutive year in which the total number of operations fell.

However, that still leaves 52 multilateral peace operations and the total number of personnel deployed increased by 20% between 2009 and 2010, to reach 262 842, mainly due to the increase in NATO troops in Afghanistan from 84,146 in 2009 to 131,730 in 2010.

That too is expensive. A report by the US Congressional Research Service states that between 2009 and 2010, average Department of Defense spending for Afghanistan alone grew from $4.4 billion to $6.7 billion a month (Afghanistan’s GDP in 2010 was $15.6 billion at the official exchange rate).

Is all this multilateral peacekeeping money well spent? SIRPI seems to have some doubts, arguing that operations are “increasingly contested by host countries and challenged in their efficacy by a combination of overstretch and weak political support”.

Next week, the second global meeting of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding being held in Monrovia, Liberia will discuss these issues and take a hard look at the role of governments, aid donors and civil society in building sustainable peace and developing capable and accountable states.

We’ll be covering the meeting for Insights blog, and hoping to get answers to three questions:

Have the populations of fragile states and countries affected by conflict benefited from the money, effort and time devoted to peacebuilding and statebuilding these past years?

Are they any nearer to achieving the Millennium Development Goals?

What lessons can these states and the international community as a whole learn from recent experiences, both positive and negative?

Useful links

OECD work on conflict and fragility