Why the World Bank is wrong (so far) on large land deals

October 29, 2012

China’s African road; Euro-governance failures; patronage -> accountability; building fragile states; Blattman needs you; grey planet; toxic development; why people cheat: links I liked

October 29, 2012

How can a post-2015 agreement drive real change? Please read and comment on this draft paper

October 29, 2012
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The post-2015 discussion on what should succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is picking up steam, with barely a day going by without some new paper, consultation or high level meeting. So I, along with Stephen Hale and Matthew Lockwood, have decided to add to the growing slush-pile with a new discussion paper. We want you to read the draft (see right) and help us improve it. Contributions by 5 November please, either as comments on the blog, or emailed to research[at]oxfam.org.uk.

The paper argues that there’s an urgent need to bring power and politics into the centre of the post-2015 discussion. To have impact, any post-2015 arrangement has to take into account the lessons of over a decade of implementing the existing MDGs, and be shaped by the profound global change since the MDGs were debated over the course of the 1990s and early noughties.  We’re hoping that this will be at the centre of this week’s discussions in London linked to the High Level Panel and in Berlin at the Berlin Civil Society Center on Development post 2015.

The most significant shift is that the new arrangements have to be designed to influence governments, whereas the main impact of the MDGs was on the aid system. Why the shift? Because aid is becoming less important, both because it is likely to decline in volume over the next few years, and because governments’ dependence on aid as a percentage of revenues is falling even faster than aid itself. In any case, aid is a pretty ineffective way of influencing government behaviour, beyond the actual expenditure of donor dollars.

So if influencing governments is the goal, what can we learn from the experience of the MDGs? The first thing to note is a startling lack of research. Many reviews blur the distinction between ‘MDGs’ and ‘MDG policies’/’MDG planning’ (in effect, social welfare). Analysis of the data on improvements in health, education, and other key sectors largely ignores the vital question of how much of that improvement can be plausibly attributed to the MDGs, rather than to other factors such as national politics, economic growth, or technological innovation. Given the substantial political and financial investment in the MDGs, and the need to design an effective post-2015 framework, being unable to attribute – with any certainty – progress due to the MDGs is a truly lamentable gap in our knowledge.

mdg-iconsThere is even less research on (and less anecdotal or circumstantial evidence for) the impact of the MDGs on the policies and behaviours of rich countries, beyond changes in their aid budgets. There is scant evidence that MDG 8’s commitment to a ‘global partnership for development’ has had any impact on rich country behaviour. Understanding this failure is vital, given that many proposals for the post-2015 regime seek to place more obligations on rich countries in areas such as climate change and resource consumption.

What we know is that some governments have adopted the language of the MDGs and have customized them to fit national priorities, while civil society groups have increasingly used them as advocacy tools.

Beyond that, many post-2015 participants seem to think it is not possible to give a more complete answer to the traction question because of the missing counterfactual (how can we know what would have happened without the MDGs?). Not so. It is certainly possible to know much more than we do about attribution through more rigorous qualitative research. For example, in-depth interviews with policymakers could investigate the traction exerted by a range of external and domestic forces on their decisions (avoiding any leading questions on the MDGs). We have yet to locate such research.

So much for the MDGs, what about whatever comes next? International instruments can exert influence in three key ways:

  1. By changing national norms in areas such as women’s rights. However intangible, norms matter, leading to long-term changes in what society considers acceptable or deplorable, which then leads to changes to laws, policies and behaviours.
  2. By directly influencing government decision making, through any of a number of possible carrots (aid, contracts, acceptance, approval) or sticks (sanctions, disapproval).
  3. By giving civil society organisations and other domestic actors more tools with which to lobby, campaign, and secure action by their governments.

In most cases, the main drivers of change will be domestic – the result of national politics and culture. But international initiatives are second-order factors that can nudge things along. We identify six kinds of instrument at global and regional levels.

Big global norms: rallying cries intended to influence the underlying attitudes of decision makers and citizens, such as ‘zero poverty’ or ‘zero hunger’.

Global goals and targets: as encapsulated by the MDGs.

Regional goals and targets: the African Union has been particularly energetic in agreeing regional targets, setting out what its member governments should be aiming for on the Rights of Women (AU Protocol, 2003),or their allocation of spending to agriculture (Maputo Agreement 2003), health (Abuja Declaration 2001) and similar commitments on social protection, and water and sanitation.

Global league tables: the international community and/or civil society can simply collect and publish data allowing a comparison between different countries’ absolute situation and rate of progress, as in the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Anecdotal evidence (and long NGO experience) suggests that league tables can be effective both in attracting public and media interest, and in goading politicians into action – there is nothing a leader likes less than to be seen to lose out to a rival nation.

Data transparency: according to some architects of the MDGs, perhaps their greatest legacy will be the improved quality, collection and dissemination of social data. One option would be to make this the centrepiece of a post-2015 arrangement, and leave it to others (national or regional bodies, international institutions) to ‘mash up’ the data into different indices and use it to advocate for progressive policies.

International law: Most governments are already signatories to dozens, if not hundreds, of international conventions and the role and influence of international law appears to be on an inexorable upward curve, steadily encroaching on previously untouchable areas of state sovereignty.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of these options in influencing norms, decision making or civil society activism? Here we are basically into guesswork/gut feeling, captured in the table below. We’d be interested to hear your views, and very grateful for links to any relevant research.

Possible options for international instruments to drive change post-2015

Instrument Influence on national norms On decision making Civil society take-up
Big global norms Sometimes strong, but often disappear without trace Long-term influence (e.g. shaping future leaders’ world views) Strong, if resonate with national reality
Global goals and targets Partial Transmission via aid system, otherwise likely to be partial Yes, when resonate with national reality

Far stronger if accompanied by national goals, civil society commitment to these, and clear national accountability mechanisms

Regional goals and targets More influence where regional identity is stronger (e.g. African Union) Especially if governments have to ratify and legislate. Rivalry can also be effective Can provide a valuable advocacy tool, especially where regional identity is strong
Global league tables Weak Effective if builds on regional rivalries Can provide a valuable advocacy tool
Data transparency Weak Depends how data are picked up by national actors Depends on civil society capacity to use data for advocacy purposes, alliances with academics, etc.
International law Strong, but slow osmosis into national common sense (e.g. children have rights) Especially if governments have to ratify and legislate, or report publicly on their performance (as with the UNCRC or CEDAW) Depends on civil society capacity to use legal system (and responsiveness of legal system)

Over to you for comments, links etc


  1. Research on Zambia suggests that global targets and league tables are quite significant in fostering the effective promotion of maternal health care (MDG5).

    1. Glaring regional differences in maternal mortality rates were identified as revealing the avoidability of such deaths. This realisation gave some confidence in their ongoing efforts to promote safe motherhood.

    2. Exposure to neighbouring country data often invokes a sense of competition: ‘No, Zimbabwe can’t do better than us!’ (exclaimed one maternal and child health coordinator).

    In Zambia, looming failure to achieve MDG5 has led to increased emphasis upon maternal health indicators, from national to district level in the Ministry of Health. This appears partly due to international benchmarking and consequent awareness of comparatively poor national performance. Of particular significance is the desire to be “developing” (i.e. achieving shared socio-economic targets) on par with other countries, not lagging behind. The dawning prospect of failing to successfully partake in a global development agenda seems to have fostered greater support for maternal health.

    Link to working paper here:


  2. Thanks for the paper and the opportunity to comment – though see below!

    1. In terms of what has changed you make no mention of profound changes in the the communication and media environment, including the impact of mobile and other forms of connectivity, the use of participative media, the impact of those two on the media and political landscape. I think that is a big gap, particularly in relation to civil society and its role in monitoring, holding to account, campaigning, researching etc.

    2. It’s good to see Data transparency in the list (and of course tech plays a major role in that). Interesting developments that illustrate how the new landscape might develop come from http://www.opencorporates.org and opencontracting.org

    3. And sorry but isn’t this a rather traditional consultation for 2012: a paper, asking for comments? So 20th Century! What about all the crowd sourcing/commenting options out there? What about a dynamic document which adapts and flexes, in response to the emergent features of this complex landscape?

    1. Crowd sourcing has its strengths Pete (Ushahidi-style campaigning, wikinomics style map analysis), but I don’t think it makes the writing of more traditional papers completely redundant! In fact, I think there’s a risk that it can undermine creative thought by producing something akin to research by opinion poll. Need both in my view. But always open to persuasion – can you point me to a really ground-breaking piece of research on political economy conducted in this way?

  3. Well, the MDG´s brings the basics for helping the poor´s, but as in my economical view, there is a lack of an economic model to create the ability to organize theirs productive system, based on the statements of sustainable development. That is the only way to assure those poor´s countries, especially in Africa, to find a pathway in which they will be able to play a better role in the globalization process, avoiding the position of commodities suppliers only, as they gain productiveness by aggregating value in a process that evolves not only production itself, but using ICT´s for letting the good people of world to understand and enjoy our cultural diversity.

    Another issue is the economical prospection of their Social Desirable Value, as we work on their Comparatives Advantages to begging acting towards the economic recovery. That´s the mission of my institute, and hoping we can do it together with the Internationals’ Organizations.

    Thank you

  4. Any replacement for the MDGs must take into account the often overlooked reality of informal employment, which is estimated by the OECD to currently account for sixty percent of the global working population. Informal employment has also been increasing in South Asia and Latin America over the past two decades, despite national economic growth. While this informal employment provides jobs and training, it is also associated with poverty, job insecurity, unsafe working conditions, and lack of protection from illness and other health problems. Finally, the prevalence of the informal sector frequently reduces fiscal revenues and hinders efforts to establish social security systems.

  5. Interesting points you raise. To me it seems though as if the world you write about is still divided in two and all the attention of post MDG’s/ post 2015 is focused on the South. Since we live in one world I miss the role and responsibility of actors in this part of the world (global citizenship): be it citizens, civil society, companies and employees, science. (Western) governments are still a major actor too, but their role seems to become less important (at least when it comes to financing aid).

  6. Hi Duncan,
    Regarding (the lack of) research into the impact of the MDGs on policy at national level – have you looked at the findings of the Gender, Education and Global Poverty Reduction Initiatives project, led by Elaine Unterhalter at the Institute of Education? The project looked at how MDGs 1, 2 and 3 and other global policy frameworks relating to gender equality, education and poverty were being understood, negotiated and acted on in Kenya and South Africa. Case study research was conducted in a range of sites (national and provincial education departments, schools, local and national NGOs) in each country (and suggests there is only a partial connection between the formulations articulated in global policy aspirations for gender equity, poverty reduction and education expansion and various sites of enactment). You can find the research report and exec summary here http://www.ioe.ac.uk/research/26514.html .

  7. Dear Duncan

    Thanks for the draft. Intersting point about need to do qualitative research with policy people to ask them what they see is direct MDG related impact.

    Many of us are working at the other end, doing qualitiative participatory research with people in extreme poverty – ATD Fourth World is part of the IDS/Beyond 2015 “Participate” project. Of course we cannot evaluate the MDGs as such for the reasons you point out, but we can generate knowledge from people in poverty by asking them about impact of “social welfare” programmes. Building on what they tell us in terms of what works and doesn’t, we can generate proposals for post-2015 using participatory methodologies. Would be interesting to have some comment on scope for participatory research influencing content of post-2015.

    On International Law, it’s worth pointing out the recent adoption by the UN’s Human Rights Council of Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. Rather than including new law, the Guiding Principles are a tool for States, as well as non-state actors, to identify and address the barriers people in extreme poverty face in effectively claiming the rights that States have committed to realising. Certainly a tool for thinking what a post-2015 rights based framework shoudl include. For more info see OHCHR website http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12598&LangID=E

  8. I have an issue with global targets. They seem grand but they are so ethereal in their PR related to an issue that i find them useless in motivating anyone to do anything. As a community organizer i lean heavily towards a bottom-up model that doesn’t connect directly to the uber macro global level. ‘Global’ is so much about who has power in the global systems of power and money and not really about the people whose lives these dollars and policies impact. Who can connect with ‘zero hunger’ when the challenge looms so ridiculously large and complex. it sounds cool but that’s it. I do think that one of the key issues is that its the northern/westerner donor/programmer that is flitting about on planes and speaking at conferences instead of the southerner/easterner recipient telling their story around the world. We are also the ones writing about it when the little (or lot) that we know about it comes from being on the privileged side of the equation. Thus we can afford to be philosophical and political and set big goals when really its a lot of little actions that make the difference at the bottom.

  9. MDG has had some positive effects – on prospective beneficiaries where Governments have had to make commitments to improve outcomes, and on donor countries to demonstrate how they contribute to countries achieving the goal (or making substantial progress toward it). In education sector, MDG2, my assessment is that the indicator is too abstract and focuses attention on improving “measurement” rather than outcomes. Having all 6 year-olds enrolled (and attending)a school with qualified teachers would focus attention on more substantial activity – linked to Primary completion rates and progress to next level of education.

  10. It’s stating the obvious, I know, .. but, an important reminder.

    “Successful reform requires much more than a change of rules; it requires creating new systems of interrelated institutional elements that motivate, enable, and guide individuals to take particular actions. Reform must first empirically identify, rather than assume, the transactions that are important for improving welfare, as they depend on local conditions and institutions.

    Such considerations entail recognizing that institutions are not rules, that institutional development is a sequential process in which past institutional elements matter, that an institution’s implications depend on various conditions, and that different institutions are better in different circumstances.

    ..we have to recall that the very same cognitive, coordinative, normative, and informational factors that make institutions important determinants of behaviour forestall devicing institutional reforms. Given a particular context, it is difficult to know what institutions are beneficial or what the long-term implications are of introducing new institutional elements. (…) An institution that represents a better fit with existing ones may be easier to implement, but it may reinforce other institutions that are better undermined.”

    (Avner Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy Pp402-404

  11. Duncan, sorry I missed your reply and question about crowdsourcing and good to see ‘traditional’ papers get good responses here. And no, I can’t think of a ‘ground-breaking piece of political economy’ that was crowdsourced, but then I am not sure that is the right question for crowdsourcing.

    The think-write-consult(peer-review)-publish/deliver to management process reminds comes from within a more model of policy development and influence that rests on big-brains getting it right, with periodic small amounts of help from smaller brains. Managers and the mythical policy-makers make decisions on the best advice.

    But as you so rightly say, policy influence rests on networks and conversations. So maybe it’s time for Oxfam to move beyond the paper-blog-comment model: have a http://www.macrowikinomics.com like site ((wikipolinomics.oxfam.org !) that publishes and welcomes comments on a host of policy issues, engages brains of all sizes to engage and contribute including, crucially, the managers and policy-actors whom we’re trying to influence

  12. I should probably include my particular point with the long quote. My only comment to your paper is that I would perhaps emphasise that ‘bringing power and politics to centre stage’ isn’t done by adopting an orthodox economic approach to behaviour and incentives alone. I suspect, given the paper’s targeted audience, it’d be a point worth stressing.

    Otherwise, Bravo! Thanks for sharing it.

  13. I don’t have any comment to make about the draft (which I found thought provoking, and I have no doubt that everyone’s views will evolve as discussions of the post 2015 development agenda intensify). Today however I started thinking about how either of the US presidential candidates would approach the post-2015 aid and international development framework, given that either Obama or Romney would be president at around that time. I have to say, I’m not very hopeful, regardless of who wins, and I’m feeling particularly miffed with Bob Schieffer for not raising the question during the foreign policy debate.

  14. The Current MDGs were rather simple indicators driving a complex process. Especially the child-related indicators were aimed at measurable impact on the poor.

    On these indicators all kind of actions were build. So to diminish child mortality, you need a working community health system. To diminish maternal mortality, you need a working referral system.

    If the goals are picked up by the different actors, most of the other elements in the table should follow from your global goals.

    The current goals are not perfect, but they deal with very relevant issues for the poor.

    From most discussions on the new MDGs, I understand it will be a more complicated set, with more goals and more indicators.

    Makes me think of the Rio agenda, or the Kairo Agenda for Action. The most common use of the Rio agenda I have seen, was the use to raise the computer screen to diminish neck and back problems. The most extensive use of the Cairo Agenda was to kill simple and effective goal setting or initiatives.

  15. The Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) will put out a statement on Monday 28th January as part of the Thematic Consultation on water – a statement on People, Power and Politics.

    I argue that this is the heart of the issue, but what do other people think?

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