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There is progress, but what does it look like?

Liesbet Steer

Liesbet Steer

Liesbet Steer is a Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, where she works on education in developing countries with a focus on education finance and the scaling up of education delivery.

More by Liesbet Steer
20 June 2012


Author Bio

Liesbet Steer is a Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, where she works on education in developing countries with a focus on education finance and the scaling up of education delivery.

Among the 65,000 down in Brazil this week for the Rio+20 Summit, those not yet numbed by the countless preparatory meetings will surely be struck by two surprising attitudes that frame the negotiations. First, the overall sense that the two decades since the Rio Earth Summit have been marked mainly by failure. Second, the uncooperative spirit in the lead-up to this year’s meeting in seeking to find solutions to what are obviously very urgent issues. Even the most patient UN observers have been appalled at the lack of progress in the negotiating sessions prior to this event.

What explains these attitudes? One important reason is a lack of clarity as to what constitutes progress, where it’s happening, why, and how it could be scaled up. This leads to a high ratio of opinion to fact, and encourages politically charged zero-sum attitudes towards negotiations.

In reality, of course, the scorecard since 1992 has been mixed. We have enjoyed historically unparalleled gains  – with 660 million lifted out of poverty, average real incomes in developing countries doubled, four years added to average life expectancy, large gains in female education etc – all in just two decades. And yet, at the same time income inequality has risen in much of the world, we have lost forest area the size of Argentina, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels increased by 1.5 times and so on.

These aggregate numbers – some up, some down – can create an excessive focus on trade-offs. Most dramatic in the Rio context is the notion of ‘green growth’, which has led to suspicion on the part of some developing countries. Because of the largely evidence-free manner in which it has been handled, it has allowed the notion that ‘’the North wants green and the South needs growth‘, which in turn has led to fruitless discussions. In reality, the idea of green growth is that it is possible to have both.  Some countries, and some regions within countries – including in Brazil itself – have shown that it is possible to expand agriculture and reduce deforestation; to improve energy efficiency and competitiveness; to grow fast and improve income distribution.  If international dialogue could be informed by a better understanding of where and how there has been such ‘multidimensional‘ progress, we would have a better chance of useful outcomes.

Development Progress, a major ODI research programme financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is trying to shed light on these issues. It seeks to measure, understand and communicate where and how development progress has happened. Phase one, which documented 24 cases of progress, is now complete.  A four-year second phase is underway.

Measuring progress. In line with the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative and other recent thinking on wellbeing and development, progress is defined as an ‘improvement in multiple dimensions of human wellbeing that is equitable and sustainable’. The project examines eight dimensions of progress in wellbeing, ranging from material wellbeing, health and education to work, environment, political voice, security and social cohesion. 

Understanding progress. Improving wellbeing around the world is a task of formidable complexity. There is no one solution that fits all, but there are some key ingredients that come together in different ways. The cases in the Development Progress project unpack the role of several key drivers of progress including leadership, evidence-based policies, effective institutions and innovative delivery mechanisms, partnerships between public and private sectors, and technological advances. Approaches are shaped by historical and socio-cultural contexts and unique political realities and processes. Building on other ODI research into the political dimensions of development, the project’s case studies (and the methodology) recognise that development solutions are more effectively built on ‘best fit‘ rather than ‘best practice’.

Special attention is also paid to finance. Progress is happening in a rapidly changing financial landscape. The global economic and financial crisis is impacting the volume and direction of aid, capital and trade flows. The range of sources of finance is evolving fast and new techniques to manage development finance spending have emerged. Case studies will untangle how progress is financed by analysing the macroeconomic context of financing, sources of finance (domestic and international), delivery mechanisms and systems of accountability.

Communicating progress – more important than we realise. New research by ODI and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) (forthcoming) shows that citizens would like to understand better the process of development and how it happens, and this could help build more substantive public support. However, the development community has done a poor job at communicating development results. This is partly because data are weak and sometimes confusing, but also because the language we use is hard to understand. The Development Progress project tries to reach a broad audience by presenting progress stories in a clear and lively manner, albeit based upon solid technical research.

With over 100 heads of government coming to Rio, the odds are that some positive commitments will emerge. We hope these will include an agreed pathway towards a set of Sustainable Development Goals for the post-2015 period. These need to be informed by better – and more effectively communicated – evidence of progress, offering hope that multiple development goals can be achieved.