Communicating with the public on aid and development spending: we need a better story

The comprehensive Data report released today by the One campaign reveals that the flow of aid from Europe to developing countries fell by €700 million in 2011, the first such drop in almost a decade. The crisis in the Eurozone and the squeeze created by austerity measures are taking the blame for this, with Greece and Spain having – understandably – made the largest cuts in their development budgets.

So far, much of the commentary has concentrated on what this means for the EU in terms of its pledge to contribute 0.7% of national income towards achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.  Although the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands are on track to meet this target, many other European countries will have to stump up billions more in order to do so.  This is a tall order at a time when cuts in public spending are being made across the board.

However, new research from IPPR and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), also published today, suggests that this debate is missing the point somewhat.  Instead of focusing on ‘getting to 0.7%’, more attention needs to be paid to addressing declining levels of popular support for aid.

In February and March of this year, IPPR and ODI held a series of deliberative workshops around the UK: in London, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Evesham.  These sessions gave us a chance to have in-depth conversations with diverse groups of UK voters, both to hear their views on various aspects of the aid and development debate and to better understand the values and attitudes that underpin them.  The messages we took from these were mixed.

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Don’t blame the economists

What is it about economists that make people so cross? Some of my best friends are economists and they are perfectly nice, reasonable people – some of them even have a sense of humour and everything. But apparently I am being sadly misled. They are fundamentalists. In the more hysterical versions of the argument they are even the devil, offering us Faustian bargains that are bound to turn out badly.

Well I’m sorry but this is absolutely ridiculous. There is a good defence of economists here, and an excellent, considered, piece on the state of economic thinking – and how far it is from this caricature – here. I’m not going to rehash those arguments – read the blogs. But what I find really strange about this argument is how economists – academics, on the whole, who have little real power though some of them have a great deal of influence – are blamed for the actions of politicians.

Paul Vallely asks ‘how are we to decide what is apt for the market to determine and what must be decided by other values’? Actually, it’s no mystery – it’s called politics. He asks if it’s ok to outsource torture, for example.  An economist might have a view on that (I struggle to imagine what it would be), but as we saw from the big arguments about rendition, it’s actually a political decision. To blame economists for foreign policy choices made on the basis of Middle East politics and the global balance of power seems pretty extraordinary to me. Which areas of life we commercialise and which we don’t are political decisions – look at the very different decisions taken by governments about the role of markets in health care.

Economists can tell the people who actually make the policy what they think the consequences of different choices might be, or what might be a good way to achieve a particular objective. And as even economists’ harshest critics point out, they will often disagree quite strongly with each other over their analysis of both those questions. Then it’s politicians who decide – on the basis of ideology, political expediency and sometimes even common sense, which pieces of this sometimes conflicting advice they will take.

Sometimes, as with the financial crisis, those political choices – about how to regulate the financial sector, for example – turn out to be pretty disastrous. And yes, economists, some of them with their own financial interests in mind, were pushing governments to make these bad choices.  But others were warning loud and clear that it was all going to end in tears.  In the end, governments made the bad choices and we are all living with the consequences.

But I am mystified as to why these bad political choices are used as evidence to condemn a whole academic discipline. We don’t look at the atom bomb – the development of which was a product of political choices about defence spending – and blame ‘physics’ for evermore.  Reading a bad book doesn’t make people write articles condemning the whole of literature.  Yes, some economists are prone to arrogance and to making vastly overstated claims about the certainty of the conclusions. And in the world of policy influence economists hold a special place which is quite annoying to other disciplines who feel they have something useful to say. And some of them misuse that power. But don’t forget who makes the actual decisions here, and who should be ultimately responsible if they are decisions that you don’t like.

Do We Understand the Difference Between Fragile States and Transition Countries?

Fragile States Transition Countries Differences

The term “fragile states” is much abused.

Policymakers, development researchers, politicians, and the media seem to think that every country experiencing a period of instability or bothered by certain governance problems is “fragile.” As a result, they group a wide range of countries experiencing vastly different types of problems together—creating a mass of confusion in the process.

Such thinking means that the term as currently used has very little value as an analytical tool. Instead it has become a catchall phrase to explain any situation that seems “fragile” even if the fragility is likely to be ephemeral. It also means that states that are structurally fragile but that have none of the most obvious symptoms of fragility (such as Syria before 2011) do not get considered as one. Continue reading

Sustainable Development Goals: what just happened?

An interesting paragraph in the draft outcome document from Rio (which is now more or less the final draft, if media reports are to be believed):

248. We resolve to establish an inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process on SDGs [i.e. Sustainable Development Goals] that is open to all stakeholders with a view to developing global sustainable development goals to be agreed by the United Nations General Assembly. An open working group shall be constituted no later than the opening of the 67th session of the UNGA and shall comprise of thirty representatives, nominated by Member States through the five UN regional groups with the aim of achieving fair, equitable and balanced geographic representation. At the outset, this open working group will decide on its method of work, including developing modalities, to ensure the full involvement of relevant stakeholders and expertise from civil society, the scientific community and the UN system in its work in order to provide a diversity of perspectives and experience. It will submit a report to the 68th session of the UNGA containing a proposal for sustainable development goals for consideration and appropriate action.

Question: if the General Assembly sets up its own working group on SDGs this September, to report back to its 2013 session, then where exactly does that leave the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on the post-2015 agenda (see this earlier GD post), covering exactly the same agenda and working over exactly the same timescale?

If I’m reading this right, then it looks a lot like the G77 reasserting its place in the driving seat on post-2015 and signalling its dissatisfaction over the Panel (the G77 is deeply suspicious of High Level Panels set up by the SG at the best of times, seeing them as an illegitimate means of circumventing the General Assembly’s decision-making role).

If so, then it doesn’t make the political context for the post-2015 agenda look terribly auspicious. G77 / developed country relations are in terrible shape to start with on numerous fronts, especially where sustainable development is concerned. If we now have two rival processes attempting to frame the post-2015 agenda, then the chances of a major dust-up over flashpoint issues like “sustainable production and consumption” or “common but differentiated responsibilities” just went up several notches. The MDGs’ clarity of focus on poverty reduction could be a very early casualty of such a dust-up.

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