New deal, old mess? Making the global goals work for the most fragile countries
The world’s least developed countries (LDCs), a cohort of 48 states the United Nations identifies as having severe structural impediments to sustainable development, are a sobering reminder that a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats.
When the idea for a distinct category for the most disadvantaged countries was debated at the UN in 1968, LDCs were identified using just three factors: per capita GDP, share of manufacturing in GDP, and adult literacy. Yet the roll call of LDCs today features nations with incredible natural wealth (South Sudan, Zambia) and those whose annual growth rates are the envy of the developed world (Ethiopia, Uganda). As a result, a more complex picture of the path to development begins to emerge, particularly now stability and security have been added to the equation.
The case for addressing conflict is clear if all countries are to meet the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Larry Attree and Anna Moller-Loswick of the NGO Saferworld wrote last year about the SDGs’ predecessors, the millennium development goals (MDGs): “There is a large and increasing gap in MDG performance between states affected by high levels of violence and other developing countries. Strikingly, all seven countries unlikely to meet a single MDG by the end of 2015 have been affected by high levels of violence in recent years.”
What is also striking is that the vast majority (45 of 48 countries) of LDCs have had the label for more than 20 years – 22 of them since the category was formally endorsed in 1971. So the question on everyone’s lips should be: do the SDGs – with their ambition to end poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030 – go far enough to acknowledge the complex set of challenges presented by LDCs, particularly those susceptible to violent conflict.
More targeted aid
“We cannot leave behind the one billion people living in LDCs,” the Belgian Development Agency wrote in a paper released to coincide with the launch of the SDGs. Explaining its decision to allocate 50% of official development assistance (ODA) to LDCs, the agency said: “Bold and necessary planning in LDCs ... deserves sufficient support from the donor’s side.”
Speaking to the Guardian, the Swedish minister for international development cooperation, Isabella Lövin, agreed that a more strategic use of ODA was vital to delivering change in LDCs and fragile states: “ODA plays a key role because it creates the environment where investments can be made,” she said.
Lövin also said that Sweden was adapting its own policies to make every development intervention “conflict-sensitive”. Explaining what that would mean in terms of decision-making, she added: “You need to know who is benefitting [and] what the consequences will be. Do your interventions only support one part of society?”
A new deal
Lövin and Sierra Leone’s minister of finance and economic development, Kaifala Marah, have been advocating for a New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, which would recognise that without targeted assistance and national ownership of development outcomes, 1.4 billion people who live in fragile states will be left behind.
During the SDG summit in New York last year Marah explained that despite investments in transport infrastructure, primary healthcare and the rural economy in Sierra Leone, the Ebola epidemic was proof that development gains can easily be lost.
“With Ebola I came to realise that fragility is self-reinforcing,” he said. “We felt we were really doing well and moving on to levels of recovery and resilience but Ebola came as a shock to all of us. What really interests us now is the question of how we are going to implement the SDGs. It is one thing to commit resources to ODA and quite another thing to deploy them.”
This new deal does appear to be the most comprehensive framework through which poor, conflict-affected and fragile states can achieve the SDGs. But as the preliminary findings of an independent review by New York University’s Center on International Cooperation points out, the new deal is influencing development debate but not sufficiently changing practice among governments and donors.
The report’s author, Sarah Hearn, wrote: “Despite progress in some contexts, many G7+ actors [the voluntary association of countries affected by conflict] expected more significant behaviour change from donors. Donors reported that the financial crisis and greater pressure for results and value for money made the business case harder.”
It is this pressure to achieve results quickly and cheaply – and the reluctance to allow beneficiary countries to decide how they spend the aid they receive – that hampers efforts to support fragile states in the long run. This is where the technocrats working on the SDGs indicators lose out to the politicians for whom aid (and international cooperation) remains a populist and polarising issue in the current economic climate. This may be why SDG16 on peace-building comes with many targets and very few “means of implementation”. In other words, there ismuch to do, but little clarity about how to do it.
The head of UNDP, Helen Clark, says that there can be no development without peace and no peace without development.” This might be true, but the world still waits to see how financing and power structures will change to reflect the new sustainable development consensus.
This article was originally published by the Guardian on February 29, 2016