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More than good intentions – there has been progress in development

Alison Evans's picture
Alison Evans
July 2012

Over the years, hundreds of declarations have been issued as part of global summits seeking to eliminate the scourge of extreme poverty. In the latest round, delegates at Rio+20 in Brazil proclaimed:  ‘Eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.’ Elsewhere in the Americas, leaders gathered in Cabos, Mexico for the G20 stated: ‘Our policy actions will improve living conditions across the globe and protect the most vulnerable.’

Intentions such as these are certainly welcome, and play a vitally important role as renewed commitment to action. Yet, it is hardly surprising that public cynicism is on the rise after years of pledges juxtaposed against a deepening economic crisis, threat of climate change and escalating violence and insecurity around the world. 

A report just released by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and ODI, ‘Understanding public attitudes to development’, confirms that scepticism. Perhaps counter-intuitively, however, it also finds that there is considerable appetite amongst the public for a better understanding of how aid works, when it does and when it doesn’t, and what progress in development looks like. And there has indeed been progress. 

  • Globally, poverty rates have fallen over the past 20 years, from 46 per cent of the population globally living in extreme poverty (under US$1.25 per day) in 1990 to only 22 per cent from the latest figures we have, in 2008.
  • The number of low-income countries fell from 60 in 2003 to just 39 in 2009.
  • Numbers of children of primary-school age not in school fell dramatically between 1999 and 2009, from 106 million to 67 million.
  • For children under five, the mortality rate has been reduced by a third, from 89 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 60 in 2009.
  • Since 1990 over 2 billion more people in the world have received access to drinking water.

ODI is rising to the challenge of explaining these and other gains with Development Progress, a research programme designed to understand better, measure and communicate what works in development and why. Building on a first phase of work and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the project will, over the next several years, delve into specific cases of progress, exploring their complexity and finding common factors that help explain progress.

Our starting point is that development progress is not just about economic growth. This is not a unique view, with the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission last year setting out a broad approach, advocating for use of measures of societal wellbeing, as well as those of economic, environmental, and social sustainability. A whole range of indices use this approach: notably the Human Development Index, Multidimensional Poverty Index, Your Better Life Index, and now, from Rio+20, a proposed Human Sustainability Index. Here at ODI, we’re not planning to create yet another index, but rather to analyse available indicators and piece them together in different ways in order to look more carefully at which countries have made progress, at times outperforming expectations.

We’ll then take some of those top-performing countries and look more closely at the factors leading to progress. The previous set of case studies showed that progress comes in many shapes and forms, finding that a number of interrelated factors have driven progress in different contexts, broadly categorised as smart leadership, smart policies, smart institutions and smart friends.  Some of the stories we told explored the following:

  • how Rwanda made major progress in health, increasing life expectancy from 28 years in 1995 to 50 years in 2008
  • education reform in Benin that raised net enrolment rates from 41 per cent in 1990 to 89 per cent in 2008
  • and how agricultural progress helped rural poverty in Thailand fall from more than 60 per cent in the early 1960s to barely more than 10 per cent by 2000.

In this phase, we will research an additional set of 28 case studies, looking at various dimensions of wellbeing, including health, education, material wellbeing, work, environment, political voice, social cohesion and security. We will also give particular attention to how progress was financed – whether from domestic or external sources.

In addition, there are several elements to the research programme that are more innovative. We are experimenting with new subjective measurement techniques that could be used to prioritise aid efforts.  We are also analysing policy coherence challenges such as that with the Common Agricultural Policy and emerging aid models such as Aid for Trade.

We have no illusions that the picture is all rosy – far from it.  Despite evidence of strong aggregate gains, not all regions, countries or populations enjoy the same kind of advancement. Declines of poverty in China and India account for the majority of the global drop in poverty. Progress is happening at a slower rate across most of sub-Saharan Africa. Success in combating child under-nutrition in south Asia is, on closer inspection, failing to reach the poorest. The majority of workers within developing countries are in what is classed as ‘vulnerable’ employment, with informal working relationships, low pay and difficult conditions. And for many indicators, progress for women lags behind that of men and rural populations lag behind that of those living in urban areas.

Our hope is that Development Progress will form an evidence base, accessible to policymakers and the general public alike, that explains what has worked, as well as the complexities of development in specific cases. While declarations and proclamations may not always lead to direct results, on the ground, where it matters, progress is happening and we need to be better at explaining and communicating it.