Sustainable or 'sustaining' development goals? The role of international agencies

The open working group for SDGs spent two years to revise the MDG goals, presuming that once the goals are formulated, implementation will be a linear and mechanistic process. It failed to recognise the politics behind the implementation of these goals

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VS Saravanan | October 28, 2014




Post-2015, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which has been a driving force behind the development policy for many national and international agencies, will soon be replaced by Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Over the last two years, the open working group for SDGs established by the UN General Assembly has been discussing to complete the unfinished task of the MDGs and to take up new challenges ahead. The group has developed action-oriented, concise, easily communicable, limited and universally applicable goals. It has come up with 17 goals compared to eight by its predecessor, a two-fold increase highlighting the gravity of issues we are facing today. The SDGs still maintain standard development targets – poverty, drinking water, sanitation, HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and maternal and child health, in addition to a few new entrants, but undermines housing and secure land tenure, especially for the urban poor. These goals are to be attained by 2030.

The experience of implementing the MDGs in the last two decades has shown heterogeneity in coverage, slipping targets, lacking synergy, ownership and leadership, and raised equity concerns. Very often the implementing environment in the recipient countries is questioned, but very little attention is paid to the institutional environment surrounding international agencies. In spite of various global declarations to harmonise and align donor support, the progress has been minimal.

The open working group for SDGs spent two years to revise the goals. It presumes that once the goals are formulated, implementation will be a linear and mechanistic process, failing to recognise the politics behind the implementation of these goals. It is not a question of how specific the goals are or which goals are to be included, but rather it requires concrete steps or responsibilities to operationalise, as Pogge and Sengupta (2013) argue in their article, ‘New Millennium Development Goals: A new version, an old wish list’ in the Economic and Political Weekly (Vol 32, No 1). With the current institutional environment in international funding, we will soon be revisiting the same story in 2030, unless there is a fundamental rethinking in the approach.

The official development assistance (ODA) for implementing the MDGs has three modalities of funding: project-based, budget-support and basket-based funding. There are no standard definitions for these, but many international agencies follow these patterns. The project-based funding is for a specific and predefined set of development activities over a specific period of time. It has its own management structure, activities and expenditures, with either donor taking lead or merging with the government system. The second modality of ODA is through budget support, either through general budget or sector budget, which attempts to blend the funding with the existing government system. It brings donor agencies closer to the recipient country systems. The third modality, the basket-based funding, supported by the 2002 Monterrey consensus on financing for development, the 2005 Paris declaration followed by the Accra in 2009 and Busan in 2011 declarations, aims to harmonise and align donor support and accountability, with a set of commitments made by its signatories. In the basket-based funding, a donor or a group of donors pool their resources for a sector either managed by one participating donor or by the respective line ministries. This aims to reduce conditionalities, earmarking of funds and gives flexibility and ownership for the recipient country. 

Of the three modalities, ‘project-based’ funding has dominated the international aid environment. This is largely earmarked funding for specific diseases, services or interventions in the recipient country, and usually focuses on interventions that are considered cost-effective with measurable results. About 40 percent of the total ODA allocated for health between 2002 and 2010 was earmarked for HIV/AIDS and STDs, followed by basic health and medical care (14.8%), management/workforce (13.2%), family planning & reproductive health (11.0%) and malaria (8.7%) (Wexler et al., 2013: see http://goo.gl/sPDkfm). Most of these interventions are technocentric, which includes disbursement of drugs, distribution of insecticide nets, vaccinations and others. The situation for drinking water supply and sanitation (WSS) is not different. The organisation for economic cooperation and development (OECD)  reveals that in 2010-11 about 80% of the aid flows in the water sector was in the form of projects, only 6% were allocated through budget-support and just 2% for basket-funding (www.oecd.org/dac/stats/Brochure_water_2013.pdf). Most of these (about 80%) are dominated by short-term delivery of physical infrastructure. This includes combined WSS (about 41%), aid for water supply (19%) and aid for sanitation (18%). Support for long-term institutional reform and capacity building is limited.

Many international agencies direct their portfolios for those interventions that are most likely to achieve the MDGs. In the run-up to meet these goals, they strive for timely and quantitative results with minimum amount of investment (value for money), as it forms the basis of their performance indicators. Imperative for donors to demonstrate measurable results in a short timeframe fits with the ‘project-based’ funding. This is a donor-driven approach holding vested interest rather than that of the recipients’ needs.

Emulating results-based targets of the MDGs, international agencies have focused on on-site household-level interventions rather than an integrated system. For instance, WSS combines to represent an integrated system that involves capturing, transporting, treating, effectively supplying and disposing of water through an appropriate socio-institutional environment that is hygienic, equitable and sustainable. In contrast, many of the interventions of the MDGs were merely in on-site technologies and in-house treatment, or socially engineered public participation, training households in hand washing and awareness building measures. It is simple science that on providing drinking water, about 80 percent of it is disposed as waste and we need infrastructure to dispose or recycle it safely. An integrated system is understood locally, but remains elusive for national and international donors who believe in on-site disengaged interventions. Such interventions have exposed millions to poor water quality, and in places where one sees gleaming toilets, have drowned people in their own wastewater, making the environment filthy.

Things are not very different for health interventions. Use of anti-retroviral therapy (ART), distribution of insecticide nets, vaccines and drugs are common forms of interventions to address the three top-tier diseases. A larger allocation of project-based funding earmarked for diseases has resulted in healthcare providers being shifted from the general medical and surgical departments, increased workloads of health workers, and tested their morale in Africa. Many are becoming terminal care providers, not healers (Joint Learning Initiative, 2004).
Many international agencies take a simple high-school model of ‘cause-effect’ interventions, where they aim to provide single technocentric interventions (such as drugs, vaccines, improved water supply technologies, and on-site sanitation) to meet the MDGs. The cause-effect interventions are favoured models within the ‘project-based’ funding, as they apply ‘value-for-money’ tool for monitoring the effectiveness and efficiency of funding. First, these values are measured by donor agencies, rarely do the recipients or beneficiaries have a say. Second, not all values of the development impacts can be measured. In fact, some of the values are transformative and cannot be measured easily. In recent years, international agencies aim at ‘meeting two or more goals with one intervention’. For example, WSS is used as a ‘preventive medicine’ to address infectious diseases and also to address under-nutrition.

High-school models of interventions do not address or even understand the complex realities of development. They need to contextualize the SDGs for local adaptation. They need to find spaces where existing changes could be facilitated or levered to bring about change. This requires international donors to fundamentally rethink their approach towards systems interventions. Sometimes complex problems require complex solutions. ODA needs to give leverage and opportunities to recipient countries. No doubt this will be a great challenge for many low-income countries, excepting those countries where governance is almost absent due to ethnic conflicts, war and poverty, which requires different interventions altogether.

While the strategic priorities of international agencies are important, they have to be meaningfully aligned with humanitarian motives and communicate their interest in transparent and accountable manner without hampering the integrity, development and security of the recipient countries. This should come about through ‘mutual fellowship’ in the pursuit of ‘mutual advantage’ with compassion and self-interest, by a love for human dignity in all people, even when there is nothing to gain from co-operating (Nussbaum, 2003, ‘Beyond social contract: Capabilities and global justice’, Oxford Development Studies, Vol 32, No 1). Mechanisms are being devised through declarations (2005 Paris, 2009 Accra and 2011 Busan), but the progress has been slow in the last decade. It is important that these declarations are followed with regulations for a disciplined international funding so that the development goals are not ‘sustained’ forever, but addressed and enable recipient countries to ‘work together’ with international agencies.

Saravanan is with the Centre for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn, Germany.

This story appeared in the October 16-31, 2014 issue

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