Targets intended to shape development for the next 15 years are bloated. All the same, they show how aid is changing for the better
THE “largest gathering ever of world leaders”; a “step-change” in aid; a “massive step forward for humanity”: the UN meeting to be held on September 25th has had politicians, donors and aid workers reaching for superlatives (as well as jargon). Prime ministers, presidents and the pope will gather in New York to unveil the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) that are supposed to shape aid and development for the next 15 years. Is the hoopla justified?
Most of the SDGs’ predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), have been met, largely because of progress in China and India. But there were just eight of them, focused on cutting extreme poverty and improving health care and education, all clearly defined. By contrast there are 17 SDGs and a whopping 169 “associated targets”, covering world peace, the environment, gender equality and much, much more. Many are impossible to measure. They are “higgledy-piggledy”, agrees Lord (Mark) Malloch-Brown, who helped write their predecessors. A tighter focus and more precise definitions might have been wise. Even so, the SDGs are part of an important shift in thinking about development that is making it both more ambitious and more realistic.
David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, talks of a “golden thread” in which governments, private enterprise and civil society work together to create open societies and open economies, end conflict and corruption, and enshrine the rule of law, free speech and property rights. Building infrastructure and persuading Western banks to finance it are strands of the thread. Even the SDGs’ sprawl has its bright side. The main reason there are so many is that they were set by consensus rather than written by a few specialists, mostly from rich countries. This lessens the feeling that rich men from “the north” are telling “the south” how to do better.
Capitalism v poverty
Poor-country governments and rich-world aid lobbies have become less hostile in recent years to the idea that free markets and big business can help cut poverty. Multinationals were wary when the MDGs were unveiled, says Lord Malloch-Brown; now many are on board. And some rich-as-Croesus philanthropists, together with a bevy of market-friendly think-tanks, have started to monitor and measure the results of aid spending, and to search for ways to make it more effective. “The MDGs got everyone to face the same direction,” says Andrew Mitchell, who ran Britain’s aid-giving department from 2010 to 2012.
Pre-eminent among the big spenders is Bill Gates, the Microsoft magnate, whose foundation has dished out more than $31 billion since 2000. George Soros, a Hungarian-born American financier, and his Open Society Foundations argue for transparency in aid, budgets and contracts. The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, started by Lord (David) Sainsbury, a British retailer, advises African governments and business on improving supply chains. Another Briton, Sir Christopher Hohn, a financier, has spent more than $1.5 billion since 2006 via his Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) on spreading the crucial message that improving young children’s health leads to big benefits later in life.
For the past 15 years Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born British telecoms magnate, has drawn up an Index of African Governance. “Peer pressure does work,” says Bjorn Lomborg, a Dane who runs the Post-2015 Consensus, an attempt to identify which SDGs should be given priority. Standards of governance in Africa have clearly improved in the past generation, despite backsliding here and there.
Mr Gates stresses that his foundation is a catalyst, not an implementer. Other bodies, including governments, can do the heavy lifting. Convinced, in the words of one of his aides, that “technology can fix everything”, he searches for innovative ways to lift up the poor, for instance by drawing them into a banking system and working out how to insure poor pastoralists’ livestock.
The Gates Foundation has played a big part in virtually eradicating polio, and in greatly reducing malaria and other diseases, including river blindness. It has also contributed to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the biggest public-private partnership of its kind, created in 2002, which spends $4 billion a year. More recently the foundation has concentrated on basic nutrition.
Mr Soros has sought to make governments and firms open about their dealings. In 2002 his foundation helped set up Publish What You Pay, now a global coalition of 800-plus independent watchdogs, and in 2013 it launched a Transparency Champions Challenge. Another monitor with clout is the Open Budget Index, launched in 2006 by the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think-tank. The Berlin-based scrutineer, Transparency International, founded in 1993 by Peter Eigen, a former World Banker disgusted by the corruption he saw in east Africa, has become a strong force for uncovering corruption, including in the aid world.
Leading the fight against graft in mining, oil and gas is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Under Clare Short, a former British minister for aid, it has steadily gained momentum, with 48 governments (22 in Africa) and 90-odd big companies promising to expose payments and revenue to public scrutiny. The British and American governments have signed up, hoping that France and Germany will follow, though Brazil, China, India and Russia seem unlikely to do so any time soon. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s president, is a fan. Even governments in Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo, both bywords for corruption, have had to become a bit more accountable (admittedly from very modest beginnings). “They just can’t steal with same impunity as before,” says one of the initiative’s activists.
Another feature of the post-MDG consensus that goes beyond aid is a looming campaign against tax avoidance by multinationals and firms that conceal their “beneficial ownership”, thereby depriving poor countries of the revenue they need to better their people’s lot. At a UN conference on financing development in Ethiopia in July, it was decided to set up a body called “Tax Inspectors Without Borders” in Paris in co-operation with the OECD, a club of 34 mostly well-off countries.
Voters in the West, often suspicious that their taxes are being frittered away on dubious projects in Africa and elsewhere, increasingly expect transparency and oversight here, too. In 2011, for example, the British government set up an Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which led to a number of projects, including a large one in southern Africa, being scrapped.
As the SDGs proliferate, donors are putting greater emphasis on measuring results and collecting data. They need data to be more disaggregated and to know where the poor are concentrated, as well as their ages, how they live and what sort of work they do. Advances in technology make this easier. Satellites can more precisely determine where forests are thinning, for example, or where crops are thriving or wilting. Among the SDG targets is one that calls for all births to be registered so that all children have legal identities, and their progress can be tracked. What matters most is “measuring need and measuring impact,” says Michael Anderson, who runs CIFF and was previously Mr Cameron’s special envoy for the UN’s development goals. Yet, he adds, of the 193 countries which have signed up to the SDGs’ nutrition targets only 74 have enough data to assess whether they’re on track to meet them.
“We know so much better now what works and what doesn’t work,” says Mr Anderson. “Aid is an ever-declining part of the story.” That, perhaps, is the SDGs’ real message. Unwieldy as they are, they are not just a call for more handouts. The MDGs were meant to create a social safety net; the SDGs to be fit for an age in which the standard of living in a big chunk of the developing world is creeping towards the levels of rich countries. The SDGs’ boosters, though admitting they will be harder to measure than the MDGs, let alone meet, hail them for going “beyond aid”.