International Development has Evolved

International development conjures up images of poor brown or black babies with protuberant bellies and flies crawling over their faces. Seemingly endless TV spots tell us we could save a child for less than your daily coffee run.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Wealth and poverty cheek to jowl. But even the shack has a dish, and the glass doors of the shop indicate wealth. 2016. Photo credit: Susan Robertson

The truth is that standards of living have improved significantly in the last twenty years in most places. The vast majority of people are doing a lot better than they used to. The UN Report on the Millennium Development Goals that were set in 2000 with goals for the year 2015 reports that major strides were made in the past 20 years in achieving major results. Extreme poverty has gone down from 1.9 billion people to 836 million. Global literacy rates are at 91 percent up from 83 percent in 1990. In Southern Asia there are now 103 girls in school for every 100 boys. The under-five years old mortality rate globally has dropped by over half, from 90 deaths per 1000 live births in 1990 to 43 in 2015. These are some of the highlights, but the good news does not stop there. There has literally never been a better time to be born into this world. The opportunities for decent education, health care, nutrition, and government are greater now than ever in human history, no matter where you were born.

There are two processes at work here. One of these is humanitarian aid for immediate relief. The other is development programming delivered by governments, non-government organizations, and individuals through donations.

In terms of humanitarian aide, starvation is a risk for some populations. These days hunger is more likely due to government mismanagement or “civil unrest,” bureaucratic language for war. We see this in major refugee populations moving across borders out of Syria, for example. Despite the discomfort with large populations of “foreign” types moving into their countries, 84 percent of refugees are found in lower income countries. Half these refugees — about 32 million people — come from three places: Syria, South Sudan, and Afghanistan. These are countries with high levels of internal conflict.

Syria’s civil war has lasted since 2011 and shows little sign of abatement with Russia supporting the former dictator Assad’s regime and the west supporting the rebels. Now there are multiple rebel groups who do not agree with one another, and the Islamic State is still active in the country after attempting to fill a void in power and largely failing.

South Sudan has an on-again, off-again civil war that has lasted since independence in 2011. South Sudan split from Sudan due to significant differences in culture between the Islamic north and the more African south, but the South ended up with the oil and control the source of the Nile.

A entrepreneur glass maker in the City of the Dead, Cairo. 2015. Photo Credit: Susan Robertson

Afghanistan has a long history of internal conflict, with Taliban extremists active in large portions of the country. Disruptions to the rule of law are common. Unemployment in Afghanistan jumped from 25 percent to 40 percent in 2016, following a major withdrawal of foreign (American) troops in 2014 and 2015.

But in the broader picture of development programming, what we don’t know is why things changed. There is a lack of analysis about what policies made a difference. The World Bank moved away from its policy of requiring governments to adhere to strict fiscal practices by the 2000s, so having more flexibility in the types of loans and the kinds of national policies that they could set may have made a significant difference. There is a major influx of private sector investment into low income countries from wealthier ones, some of which is in the form of remittances to family members and some of which is in the form of investment in business opportunities. Africa is one of the fastest growing economies and with a roughly one billion people and room for increases in consumption of every possible type of good from food to cars to clothing to manufactured items, it continues to be a recipient of significant foreign investment. Africa remains the home of the largest number of the world’s poor but if investment keeps pace, there will continue to major improvements there in the coming decades. It also has the highest population growth so economic growth will need to keep pace with the increased numbers of people living there.

Dambisa Moya writes “The notion that aid can alleviate systemic poverty … is a myth.” She argues that aid undermines local economic initiatives and is fundamentally in opposition to long-term economic growth. Once upon a time humanitarians took their own grain and delivered it to the poor and starving. We know now that this practice was a way for some governments to dump excess production in foreign markets and keep prices higher at home. It also destroyed local producers because who can compete with free? Now, aid programs buy their supplies locally and distribute them locally. This is better for the local economy. To have development initiatives driven by local interests has been an intention of major donors for at least two decades if not more. How closely that intention matches reality is hard to say. International experts, even those from the target countries, may feel that local people don’t know what’s best for them and over-rule their voices. Certainly there are no lack of stories about failed programs and projects amongst development professionals. Less so in the publicity materials produced by the agencies involved.

In fact, it’s tough to know what is making a difference and what isn’t. Proving “additionality,” or that your program did more than would have happened without it, is next to impossible. Moving from small scale projects to large scale projects is not possible for most development programs because the funding required to move out to scale is too large. Partnership with the private sector is a major way forward but how can governments prove that their funding drove “additional” outcomes to those that would have come from the private sector alone? There is no obvious answer to that question.

Photos of kids with flies on their faces are emotional and evocative. But they do not represent the majority of lived experiences in impoverished places.We don’t know exactly why things are better than they were before. We just know that they are. It’s time that the image of the “developing world” is updated to one of a vibrant, growing, dynamic environment in which governments, businesses, and individuals are investing. The private sector is already involved anyway in many cases, and they will not engage in projects that do not serve their own interests. International development is at a crossroads and is in many ways flying blindly towards partnerships that may or may not justify the spending of public funds.

Egyptian handicrafts. 2017. Photo credit: Susan Robertson

Let me not underplay the needs of the extremely impoverished because they are still out there. They are still mostly in Africa. Let us not ignore that women are disproportionately poor in every part of the world. If we want to help them, we need to focus on stable governments, improved infrastructure, and we need to focus on making sure that the next generation — both boys and girls — has the education to take advantage of the opportunities that are arising to participate in a local, national, and international economy.

The Sustainable Development Goals, launched in 2016, focus on many of these aspects. They include climate change adaptation, improved natural resources management, and eradication of extreme poverty. These are goals for every country and not just the relatively poor ones. There is no road map as to how to achieve these lofty goals. Time will tell if the activities and resources that are being committed to these goals will create significant change. Without a better sense of what worked in the past, these efforts will largely be made up of throwing things at the wall and hoping some of it sticks. As a global community, we can perhaps do better than this.

Susan is an economist who worked in international development. Interested in food, board games, dogs, and development. Writing about whatever I feel like.