SearchFrames for Adaptive Work (More Logical than Logframes)

written by Matt Andrews

Although the benefits of experimental iteration in a PDIA process seem very apparent to most people we work with, we often hear that many development organizations make it difficult for staff to pursue such approaches, given the rigidity of logframe and other linear planning methods. We often hear that funding organizations demand the structured, perceived certainty of a logframe-type device and will not allow projects to be too adaptive.

In response to this concern, we propose a new logframe-type mechanism that embeds experimental iteration into a structured approach to make policy or reform decisions in the face of complex challenges. Called the SearchFrame, it is shown in the Figure below (and discussed in the following working paper, which also offers ideas on using the tool).


The SearchFrame facilitates a transition from problem analysis (core to PDIA) into a structured process of finding and fitting solutions (read more about ‘Doing Problem Driven Work’). An aspirational goal is included as the end point of the intervention, where one would record details of ‘what the problem looks like solved’. Beyond this, key intervening focal points are also included, based on the deconstruction and sequencing analyses of the problem. These focal points reflect what the reform or policy intervention aims to achieve at different points along the path towards solving the overall problem. More detail will be provided for the early focal points, given that we know with some certainty what we need and how we expect to get there. These are the focal points driving the action steps in early iterations, and they need to be set in a defined and meaningful manner (as they shape accountability for action). The other focal points (2 and 3 in the figure) will reflect what we assume or expect or hope will follow. These will not be rigid, given that there are many more underlying assumptions, but they will provide a directionality in the policymaking and reform process that gives funders and authorizers a clear view of the intentional direction of the work.

The SearchFrame does not specify every action step that will be taken, as a typical logframe would. Instead, it schedules a prospective number of iterations between focal points (which one could also relate to a certain period of time). Funders and authorizers are thus informed that the work will involve a minimum number of iterations in a specific period. Only the first iteration is detailed, with specific action steps and a specific check-in date.

Funders and authorizers will be told to expect reports on all of these check-in dates, which will detail what was achieved and learned and what will be happening in the next iteration (given the SearchFrame reflections shown in the figure). Part of the learning will be about the problem analysis and assumptions underpinning the nature of each focal point and the timing of the initiative. These lessons will feed into proposals to adjust the SearchFrame, which will be provided to funders and authorizers after every iteration. This fosters joint learning about the realities of doing change, and constant adaptation of assumptions and expectations.

Readers should note that this reflection, learning and adaptation make the SearchFrame a dynamic tool. It is not something to use in the project proposal and then to revisit during the evaluation. It is a tool to use on the journey, as one makes the map from origin to destination. It allows structured reflections on that journey, and report-backs, where all involved get to grow their know-how as they progress, and turn the unknowns into knowns.

We believe this kind of tool fosters a structured iterative process that is both well suited to addressing complex problems and meeting the structural needs of formal project processes. As presented, it is extremely information and learning intensive, requiring constant feedback as well as mechanisms to digest feedback and foster adaptation on the basis of such. This is partly because we believe that active discourse and engagement are vital in a complex change processes, and must therefore be facilitated through the iterations.


Book Review of Serious Whitefella Stuff: When Solutions Became the Problem in Indigenous Affairs

written by Michael Woolcock

It is no secret that a long succession of Australian governments – federal and state, Liberal and Labour – have struggled to implement effective policies in Indigenous communities. Less well known, even among seasoned researchers, is exactly why this has been (and remains) the case. How is it that a public sector otherwise able to administer billion dollar pension funds, to regulate powerful companies, respond admirably to global financial crises, prevent devastating diseases spreading to people, crops and animals, and oversee the safe passage each day of thousands of people flying at high speed in metal tubes miles above the ground, can somehow be unable to provide even basic housing, education and health care to its original inhabitants? Certainly compared to most other countries, the problem is not the absence of well-intentioned policies or inadequate financial resources.

Why does a problem that is literally not rocket science or brain surgery routinely stump governments that by most other measures are ostensibly (or at least relatively) “world class”? Because of a fundamental mismatch between policy and practice – in this case, between the type of problem that engaging with Indigenous communities represents and the dominant way in which large political bureaucracies are predisposed to act. This mismatch is pervasive across the developing world, where an even larger cast of domestic and foreign bureaucracies – with their corresponding array of imperatives, incentives, interests, ideals and capabilities – interact, often in perilous conditions (think Afghanistan). But it is also a problem that hobbles rich countries, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently discovered when his $100m gift to a single disadvantaged school district in New Jersey yielded little more, several years later, than a minor increase in enrollments (or quantity of schooling, not quality). This unhappy tale is documented in Dale Russakoff’s excellent book, The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?

In Australia, perhaps the clearest, most persistent and deeply consequential instance of this policy-practice mismatch is to be found in Indigenous communities. In Serious Whitefella Stuff, Mark Moran and his two collaborators provide, in my view, the most insightful account yet given of how and why this mismatch is both so ubiquitous and so impervious to change. All three authors have spent multiple decades living and working in remote northern communities, as representatives of public agencies and charitable organizations, and their accounts are those that could only be provided by seasoned veterans of such searing experiences. There are no simple narratives here of vice trumping virtue, or trite “cultural explanations” of enduring social problems, but rather measured accounts of how good, decent people on both sides of the giving/receiving relationship have tried to make things work, sometimes because of and oftentimes despite what the prevailing ‘policy’ actually claims to be striving for.

Engaging with Indigenous communities, in Australia and elsewhere, is a quintessential example of what social scientists call a ‘wicked’ problem – by which is meant, of course, not ‘evil’ but deep, enduring complexity. More precisely, wicked problems are those that inherently involve lots of human interaction and considerable discretionary decision-making on the part of front-line implementers (social work is a good example); they often have no known solution up front (or a solution that can only be worked out each time, in each new situation and circumstance), and even when a solution is found it is likely to be resisted, if not actively opposed, by an influential group. Solutions to wicked problems are context specific and highly variable across time, groups and space, even when faithfully implemented and politically supported. So, to take just one instructive example from Serious Whitefella Stuff, broad agreement on a policy to grant ‘property rights’ to Indigenous communities turns out to great in theory but diabolically hard to implement, not least because property rights are desired and possible in some communities, are an utterly alien concept in others (e.g., in those committed to communal ownership of land), are desirable but unworkable in others (e.g., those where overt policies to dismantle communities and then, decades later, reassemble them has completely disrupted a coherent accounting, in both formal records and oral history, of which family lineage has legitimate claim to what land).

Because of these diverse contextual differences, the ‘same’ policy – whether it be in property rights, efforts to revive traditional ceremonies, to centralize or decentralize the layout of communities, to promote school attendance, to address concerns with alcohol  and domestic violence – will likely result in everything from tremendous success to outright failure. Yet the underlying reasons for this variation, and the possible learning opportunities it represents, are mostly lost, filtered instead through a single unifying bureaucratic lens back in capital cities, wherein senior political figures will ultimately decide that the policy was categorically good or bad. But because “something must be done”, each successive government engages in what Moran astutely calls a four-component process of purging, swinging, mimicry and contradiction: that is, of first declaring the previous policy a failure (no matter what it actually achieved), then layering a vacillating series of instruments and objectives upon one another, often by copying “best practices” from abroad, all of which introduces so many “policies” with so many constituent elements that, almost inevitably, irreconcilable contradictions emerge, thus making life permanently frustrating for providers and recipients alike.

The delightful indigenous term for this vexing policy concoction is ‘whitefella stuff’. Could things be otherwise? At one level, the six detailed case studies presented in this book seem frustratingly silent on this point; there is little finger pointing, few searing indictments of overt corruption or mismanagement, and no laundry lists of confident prescriptions for what should be done instead, by whom, now. A lesser book would seek desperately to fill this vacuum; wisely, Moran and his co-authors do not, letting the reader experience the vacuum for what it is, namely part of the problem. In the concluding chapter, Moran outlines the contours of an alternative approach, one slowly gaining traction in the international development community but that surely also has potential resonance in and for Australia.

Serious Whitefella Stuff is ultimately a book about the power of social relationships to engage with wicked problems in ways that are constructive and locally legitimate, even as such relationships themselves are sometimes part of the problem, and even as invoking them may yield priorities and strategies that are administratively alien in Whitefella world. Indeed, successfully brokering across the many “worlds” of Indigenous affairs policy is precisely what constitutes good practice. Respecting the moral integrity of community life, imperfect as it may often be, while simultaneously trying to change it – for example, by providing even minimally adequate housing, education, justice, roads and health care – is the mother of all wicked policy problems. There is no single “policy” solution to such problems; there are only negotiated solutions (plural), and each must be discovered over the course of a long jointly-undertaken voyage. Getting there, as Moran, his team and the Indigenous communities deftly remind us, requires not just “good policy” in the abstract but committed, respectful and creative people who are given the time, space, trust and resources to implement it.

As it happens, this lesson is remarkably similar to that from a rather different voyage, as conveyed in the recent movie ‘The Martian’. When astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) – initially regarded by his colleagues as rather flakey because he was merely an all-purpose “botanist” – is addressing a new intake of wide-eyed NASA recruits, he is asked how he survived for so long, all alone, on a cold, distant, barren planet. He modesty replies: “You solve one problem. Then you solve the next one. And if you keep solving problems, you get to come home.” Australian governments and everyday citizens alike would do well to bear that seemingly simple principle in mind as they embark upon yet another round of policy deliberations regarding “what should be done”, by whom, to enhance dignity, integrity and opportunity in Indigenous communities. Building implementation systems focused on solving problems, rather than selling solutions, is the frontier issue in public policy, whether in Australia, the United States, or Afghanistan. Or even, it seems, Mars.

Register now for our free PDIA online education program!

Would you like a how-to guide to make your organization more effective?

We recently experimented with online education as a modality to diffuse the essence of PDIA with the long term objective of creating a global community of practice that collaborates, learns, shares and grows together, ultimately leading to more successful development outcomes. Watch the promo video below.


One of the things we learned was that there are two potential audiences: those who are interested in the meta level understanding of PDIA (breadth), and those who are in the weeds of development and actually want to do PDIA (depth). To address this, we have iterated and adapted and are now offering two different programs tailored to these respective audiences.

If you are a development practitioner who is implementing programs and is struggling with a specific problem, then this is the training program for you. You will have the opportunity to work through your problem using our tools in real-time. Watch the preview video for more information (YouTube or Vimeo).

  • The Practice of PDIA: Building Capability by Delivering Results is a free 12-week experiential training program that will provide you with the necessary frameworks and tools that you need to do PDIA in your context. The training will be offered from April 3- June 26, 2016 and will include video lectures, required reading, assignments, reflection exercises, peer interaction as well as group work. We hope that you will get your colleagues to sign up so that you can all work and learn together as a team. We estimate that the weekly effort required will be between 3-5 hours. Certificates will be issued to those who complete the training program. Enrollment is limited. If you are interested, please register here.

If you are a development practitioner who is not involved in the direct implementation of programs but are interested in learning about PDIA, then this is the training program for you. Watch the preview video for more information (YouTube or Vimeo).

  • Principles of PDIA: Building Capability by Delivering Results. This is a free 8-week experiential training program that will provide you with the necessary frameworks and tools that you need to do PDIA in your context. The training will be offered from April 3- May 29, 2016 and will include video lectures, required reading, assignments, reflection exercises as well as peer interaction. We estimate that the weekly effort required will be between 3-5 hours. Certificates will be issued to those who complete the training program. Enrollment is limited. If you are interested, please register here.

Here are some testimonials from students who have completed a similar version of the Practice of PDIA: Building Capability by Delivering Results.

The PDIA program faculty was truly exceptional, not only because of their expertise and individual intellect and knowledge and research, but also because they understand how to engage participants in different ways. If you are concerned about why and how countries are poor or mired in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment; then this course is just want you need to help unravel the answers to your questions and arm up with the principles and know-how to tackle them.” Abdulrauf Aliyu, Head of Business Development and Strategy, Inteliworx Technologies, Nigeria

A couple of years ago I joined the development industry as a program officer for a bilateral aid agency in Tanzania. Three years down the line I was frustrated: our partners in the government were “always committed” but things were not really moving in the way and pace we hoped they would. In short, nothing much was changing. If anyone asked me at the time who is at fault, I would have hastened to say it was the government. Having done the PDIA course, however, I can appreciate better why things were happening the way they were, and our responsibility as staff members of funding agencies in the reform failures. So I am thrilled that it is possible to do development differently, the PDIA way. It does not promise that it will be easier doing development this way, and it might never get any easier; but I believe it offers a better chance of bringing real and lasting change even if it comes slowly.” Rose Aiko, Independent Consultant, Tanzania

The course was terrific from both a theoretical and practical standpoint. I was amazed about how accurately the issues addressed in the course related to my day-to-day experiences working in development. In fact, our work plan for our upcoming technical assistance program is largely based on PDIA!Team Leader, Asian Development Bank, Dili, Timor-Leste

“The PDIA course has been for me the learning highlight of this year. The course has given me the knowledge of a process and tools that I was looking since traditional approaches to projects with best practices from elsewhere, solution-based, blueprint-based, with fixed plan, aiming always at system change, etc. do not work in most cases. I have now a set of steps and, more importantly, questions that can guide me in the work with colleagues and partners to understand the context in which we try to introduce change, identify concrete problems that people want to solve, and try to solve them, one at a time.” Arnaldo Pellini, Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute

As a Project Manager and Solutions Consultant in Nigeria, taking “PDIA: Building Capability by Delivering Results” opened paths to new possibilities for finding and fitting solutions that are based on specific contexts and current realities, by working with clients, communities and policy drivers. At the heart of these possibilities is the realization that no matter what the problem is or how complex it seems, we can start acting immediately. Most importantly, the interactions with peers and access to a growing PDIA Community of Practice provide unlimited potentials for the future.Abubakar Abdullahi, Managing Principal, The Front Office NG, Nigeria

“Having worked in development for 35 years I recommend this course to all development practitioners. PDIA is a detailed process that will facilitate your design and implementation approach. PDIA has several steps. I believe the adoption of either all of these steps or just some selected steps will improve the design and implementation of your projects and programs, with improved benefits and results.”  John Whittle, Semi-retired and Consulting in Central Asia

“Through the modules of PDIA, I have had a mindset change on how development works and how it could work. It is an approach that has opened my eyes to many things that I had previously struggled to understand in my 15 years of development practice, where I have observed vicious cycles of problems like chronic poverty, corruption, and poor service delivery despite heavy investments by donors and recipient governments. I will continue to see my work with a PDIA lens and assess new projects in the same way. It is exciting to try and do things differently in an effort to get different results from the norm.” Cate Najjuma, Economist, Royal Danish Embassy, Kampala

“The PDIA course is perfectly designed for those who are currently trying to address real world issues. It has contributed to increase my value add on reform issues in Tunisia.  The course is very focused and practical, allowing it to fit into the busy schedule of professionals like me and to learn at an impressive pace.  I definitely recommend it to prospective applicants.” Gomez Agou, IMF Desk Economist, Washington DC

“The PDIA course showed how approaching and solving complex and challenging reform efforts are not pinned on rigid, structured frameworks but rather on a common sense approach bottled in a simple method all rooted on the fundamentals of understanding, clarifying, learning, experimenting and adapting.” Abubakar Sadiq Isa, Managing Director, Inteliworx Technologies, Nigeria

“The PDIA course represents an empirical reform prescription in building state capability by delivering results through theoretical and practical approaches geared toward sustained improvement and performance. Tom Tombekai, Liberia

“I enjoyed taking the course PDIA: Building Capacity by Delivering Results. I have been doing development work in Africa in the anti-corruption area. This course introduced me to some new concepts in terms of building acceptance for ideas and programs and especially understanding the environment in terms of what may be possible and how success should be measured. It has has changed how I will approach future development problems. I very much enjoyed the readings, lectures and interactions with other students from around the world.” Craig Hannaford, Independent Consultant, Canada

“I have also been taught that every problem has got a series of causes and sub-causes. You really have to be very critical in analyzing a problem in order to address it effectively. This is one of the products of PDIA. I find myself thinking outside the box when I have to solve a problem whether in the office, with vendors or even at home. It is in this course that I first heard “deconstruction of a problem”. Deconstruction and sequencing work has helped me to foster actions to solve a problem. Ultimately, through this course PDIA, I have learnt that in the development sector, before bringing solutions to the government, I have to understand the existing practice, positive deviance, latent practice and external best practice. Without this course, I would not be an improved reformer.” Doris Ahuchama, Finance and Administration Manager, Nigeria


What we’ve learned from our first free PDIA online course

written by Salimah Samji

The broad principles that underpin the PDIA approach to building state capability are gaining traction in development and policy circles. We recently experimented with an online course as a modality to diffuse the essence of PDIA with the long term objective of creating a global community of practice that collaborates, learns, shares and grows together, ultimately leading to more successful development outcomes.

We offered a free two-part online course entitled, PDIA: Building Capability by Delivering Results. The first part of the course ran for 6 weeks from November 8th to December 20th, 2015. It included video lectures, reading lists, assignments, reflection exercises as well as peer interaction. Here are some stats:

  • 510 development practitioners from around the world began the course on November 8th
  • 58% (295) submitted the assignments for the first week
  • 47% (241) completed the entire 6-week course, spending an average of 3-5 hours a week on assignments.


where they work

One of the course participants wrote the following in his blog, “The highlight of the year for me has been the online course on PDIA set up by the team of the Building State Capability at Harvard.  It was a great idea to set up this free online course to push a bit more the message about PDIA across the development sector trying to reach people like me who kind of felt instinctively that things have to be done a bit differently for projects and programs to succeed but we did not have an intellectual framework to organise the ideas and gut feelings.”

Here’s a summary of what we learned:

  • There is a demand for approaches to do development differently.
  • Development practitioners, who have busy schedules, are willing to work an average of 3-5 hours a week for a course they find useful. Some of them spent 10+ hours a week.
  • Simple, short videos can be a powerful means of instruction.
  • Reflection exercises allow students to internalize concepts and apply them to their work.
  • There is a spacing effect of learning in one’s own environment especially with active experiential learning. Learning concepts in your environment and over a period of time is transformative because some concepts require some time to really sink in.
  • Sustainable change requires teaching teams who work on the same/similar issue.
  • There are two potential audiences for future versions of our course: those who are interested in the meta level understanding of PDIA (breadth), and those who are in the weeds of development and actually want to do PDIA (depth).

The second part of the course is 8 weeks and will end on March 30th, 2016. We plan to offer another round of courses soon – stay tuned!

Doing Problem Driven Work, great new guide for governance reformers and activists

By Duncan Green

One of the criticisms of the big picture discussion on governance  that’s been going on in networks such as Doing Development Differently and Thinking and Working Politically is that it’s all very helicopter-ish. ‘What do I do differently on Monday morning?’, comes the frustrated cry of the practitioner. Now some really useful answers are starting to come onstream, and I’ll review a few of them.

First up is ‘Doing Problem Driven Work’, a paper by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock. It turns previous work on PDIA – ‘problem-driven iterative adaptation’ – into a toolkit, aimed primarily at those involved in reforming governance from the inside, whether government reformers, or big bilateral and World Bank donors with access to the corridors of power. However, there are clear parallels with and lessons for the work of more ‘outsider’ NGOs and campaigners.

It starts by noting that while many reform projects have failed in the past, those that succeeded often involved a ‘problem focus’. Problems ‘force policymakers and would-be reformers to ask questions about the incumbent ways of doing things’ and ‘provide a rallying point for coordinating distributed agents who might otherwise clash in the change process’. ‘Good’ problems are urgent and can be easily addressed by those in the room. They often spring from crises or other ‘critical junctures’.

The first step for a would-be reformer is ‘problem construction’, which ‘involves gathering key change agents to answer four questions: ‘What is the problem?’, ‘Why does it matter?’, ‘To whom does it matter?’, ‘Who needs to care more?’ and ‘How do we get them to give it more attention?’’ Defining the problem is key: it’s no good having a woffly ‘corruption is a problem’ type statement – you need ‘a real performance deficiency that cannot be ignored’, like ‘we can’t get education and health care to these communities, because the municipal officials keep nicking the money’.

Once you have a problem, you can get started, with your doughty band of reformers:

What is the problem? (and how would we measure it or tell stories about it?)

Why does it matter? (and how do we measure this or tell stories about it?) Ask this question until you are at the point where you can effectively answer the question below, with more names than just your own.

To whom does it matter? (In other words, ‘who cares? other than me?) Who needs to care more? How do we get them to give it more attention? What will the problem look like when it is solved? Can we think of what progress might look like in a year, or 6 months?

The authors stress the importance of ‘authority’. For insider reformers like them, the key is to get political backing for the reform, preferably from the president or similar, which opens doors and aligns incentives.

Authority forms part of a ‘triple A change space analysis’, together with ‘acceptance’ and ‘ability’:

We can do better.....

Authority to engage

Who has the authority to engage: Legal? Procedural? Informal? Which of the authorizer(s) might support engagement now? Which probably would not support engagement now? Overall, how much acceptance do you think you have to engage, and where are the gaps?


Which agents (person/organization) has interest in this work?

  • For each agent, on a scale of 1-10, think about how much they are likely to support engagement?
  • On a scale of 1-10, think about how much influence each agent has over potential engagement?
  • What proportion of ‘strong acceptance’ agents do you have (with above 5 on both estimates)?
  • What proportion of ‘low acceptance’ agents do you have (with below 5 on both estimates)?

Overall, how much acceptance do you think you have to engage, and where are the gaps?


What is your personnel ability?

  • Who are the key (smallest group of) agents you need to ‘work’ on any opening engagement?
  • How much time would you need from these agents? What is your resource ability?
  • How much money would you need to engage?
  • What other resources do you need to engage? Overall, how much ability do you think you have to engage, and where are the gaps?

The questions also highlight some of the weaknesses of PDIA – there’s no power analysis here, for example, whether some people who are currently not involved in decision-making could become so, and what might enable them to do so; who are the blockers, and do they operate through the exercise of visible or hidden power? A good power analysis would definitely lead to more refined tactics. There’s also a lack of a real systems approach, for example looking for positive deviants that are already working, or emergent hybrid institutions that combine new and traditional approaches. It all feels quite top down and traditional.

On the other hand, I like the bottom-up construction of problem and solution, and the authors have been out there, doing this kind of work for years, so the paper is full of practical examples.

I’d be interested in what people think.

This blog was posted on the oxfam blog.

Register for the first PDIA online course now!

Would you like a how-to guide to make your organization more effective?

We are delighted to announce PDIA: Building Capability by Delivering Results, a free two-part experiential online course that will provide you with the necessary frameworks and tools that you need to do PDIA (Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation) in your context. Watch the course preview video below.

The first part will be offered from November 8-December 20, 2015 and will include video lectures, reading lists, assignments, reflection exercises as well as peer interaction. We estimate that the effort required will be between 3-5 hours a week. While this course is online, we hope that people in countries and organizations will take this course together as a team. We will issue certificates to those who complete the course. Only those who complete Part I will be eligible to take Part II of the course which will be offered in early 2016. Enrollment is limited. If you are interested, please register here.


In many developing countries the capability of the state to implement its policies and programs is a key constraint to improving human development. Many reform initiatives fail to achieve sustained improvements in performance because organizations pretend to reform by changing what policies and organizational structures look like rather than what they actually do. Donor countries provide scripts for ‘best practice’ and the recipient countries ‘act’ to comply, putting on the appearance of change without changing. Too often, they are asked to perform tasks that are too complex and too burdensome, thus hindering the emergence of domestic, organically evolved, functional organizations. These countries end up stuck in a capability trap.

To escape this trap, we propose an alternative approach—Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)—as a way to build real state capability. The PDIA approach argues that we don’t need more “experts” selling “best practice” solutions in the name of efficiency and the adoption of global standards; what we need instead are organizations that generate, test and refine context-specific solutions in response to locally nominated and prioritized problems; we need systems that tolerate (even encourage) failure as the necessary price of success. PDIA is about building capability through the process of solving problems. PDIA emphasizes solving, not solutions.

The New Global Goals Spell the End of Kinky Development

written by Lant Pritchett

The UN’s post-2015 “Sustainable Development Goals” (or “Global Goals”) debuted to decidedly mixed reviews. Phyllis Pomerantz points out that with 169 targets “if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Bill Easterly refers to the SDG as “senseless, dreamy, garbled,” Lord Mark Malloch Brown’s called them “higgedly-piggedly,” Charles Kenny describes them as “a mess.” Duncan Green was in early (2012) with “bah humbug.” Homi Kharas, in contrast, expects “great things.”

I think the SDGs are both worthless and yet worth it. My perhaps perverse view is that the SDGs are terrific because they will have no impact. The choices for a post-2015 UN development agenda were: (a) a “more of the same” extension of the MDG approach, (b) nothing, and (c) something like the SDGs. While one can debate whether the SDGs are slightly better than nothing or slightly worse than nothing, my argument is that even if the SDGs are worth nothing they are still far better than the MDGs.

The feature that many like about the MDGs, their focus, made them worse than nothing because they were focused on an agenda that was too narrow, too biased, and too kinky to be a global development agenda and this focus distorted development action and assistance.

MDGs too narrow and biased

Table 1 comparing the MDGs with priorities named by developing-country citizens shows the MDG domains were too narrow (excluding entire high-priority domains like energy and transport infrastructure, social protection, or good governance), had too narrow agenda even within those domains it named (schooling without learning, just a few diseases), and were biased toward rich-country and global hyper-elite concerns.

Table 1: The MDGs were narrow and biased compared to the expressed priorities of developing countries in the UN’s own “My World” survey

In connection with the preparation of the SDGs, the UN ran “My World,” a global survey that allowed people online (and with some other outreach to cell and paper surveys) to choose 6 of 16 possible issues as “most important for you and your family.” The process was obviously not representative and was potentially biased in a number of ways, but, unlike the MDGs, it allowed over 5.7 million people from low- and medium-HDI (human development indicator) countries to participate. Moreover, as part of a UN process, one would think the biases would be pro-MDG.

A comparison of these survey rankings (again, such as they are) against the official MDG goals, targets, and indicators shows just how narrow and biased the MDGs were. “Good education” is the most commonly named priority. While there is an MDG for education it lists only primary school completion, doesn’t happen to mention that education be “good,” or include anything about secondary or tertiary education.

“Better healthcare” is number 1, and health gets three goals but they are focused on specific ages, diseases, and conditions and never mention either “healthcare” or “better” for most disease conditions (see below).

The survey lists neither “economic growth” or “poverty” as possible priorities but “better job opportunities” is the number 3 named priority but, strangely, is subsumed in the MDGs as a target under the goal “Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” without a numeric goal or target.

An honest and responsive government is the number 4 priority and merits only a vague mention in the MDGs.

Priorities 5, 6, 7, and 9 (among low-HDI country respondents) are infrastructure related — energy, transport, clean water and sanitation, and phone and internet access. Energy and transport are completely absent from the MDGs and water and sanitation are subsumed under “environmental sustainability” (as opposed to being important in their own right) and, more strangely still, phone and internet without a target bur have indicators under “global partnership for development.” As Leo (2013) shows representative survey results suggest that infrastructure is a large priority in Africa and Latin America.

The only target for goal 3 of promoting gender equality and empowering women was equalizing enrollments in primary and secondary school — nothing about sexual violence and domestic violence, nothing about property rights, nothing about discrimination.

The MDGs were too narrow a definition of development, with entire domains important to developing countries’ citizens like energy, transport, good governance and political freedoms, crime and violence, and social protection left out entirely. Even within the domains with an MDG like education, health and gender these were interpreted far too narrowly.

Too kinky

Kinky development is “defining development down” by setting a low bar for a goal and then claiming that reaching this arbitrary low bar is a priority. I call this “kinky” because a targeted project/program/intervention/policy that pushes everybody just up to a low bar level would produce a “kink” in the distribution of well-being at low bar level.

Table 2 shows the MDG targets were such low bar goals they were near being accomplished in the largest developing countries by the time MDGs started.

Table 2: The status of the MDGs before they started in most of the 20 largest developing countries—the targets were already mostly met because they were narrow and kinky

The top 20 most populous developing countries in Table 1 have 4.6 billion of the roughly 6 billion people in the developing world. Table 1 shows where these countries were on the MDGs roughly when (or just after) they started (as best data allows).

This table illustrates that the problem with the MDGs is not that they are not worthy goals but that the goals were too low to constitute a development agenda as they affected too few people.

Take access to an improved water source where the goal was to halve the proportion of people without access to safe water. In Pakistan in 2000, 88 percent of people were already using an improved source in 2000. This means improvements in water that benefitted only 6 percent of the people would be sufficient to meet the target. But only 28 percent of people in Pakistan in 2000 used water piped into their premise, which is a goal for nearly everyone and widely considered part of development but not included in the low-bar MDG. Too low bar.

Take gender. The target is just about equality of enrollment in primary and secondary school. In 10 of 17 countries with data this was already over 90 percent in 2000. But in Colombia where girls are more likely to be in primary and secondary school than boys, the DHS survey reports 44 percent of ever-married women have suffered from domestic violence by their spouse partner. The goal for “promoting gender equality and empowering women” is achieved without any mention of domestic violence? Too low bar.

Take education. All countries have many goals for education but the MDG had the narrow and low-bar goal just completing primary schooling — nothing about learning in primary school (or elsewhere), nothing about secondary, nothing about school to work transitions and training, nothing about higher education, nothing about research and knowledge creation — just completing primary school. As table 2 shows only 4 of these 20 countries had gross primary enrollment rates below 95 percent before the MDG started. Too low bar.

Take health. Besides the goal on infant mortality, the MDGs named HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria (Goal 6) and maternal health (Goal 5). These are obviously important and priority areas. But how narrow are these goals as a portion of (non-child) health? For this we only have data for 2005 but these diseases were less than 10 percent of all burden of disease in all but five countries and less than 5 percent in 11 countries. Three goals for health and nothing about access to health care? Too low bar.

What is the problem with development goals that are narrow, biased and kinky?

First, there is no line. A fundamental principle of Marshall’s Principles was that “nature doesn’t jump” and that is right: there is no non-linear jump in human well-being as these arbitrary low-bar thresholds are crossed. Nothing special happens to a child’s knowledge or capabilities at the end of primary school. Those more than 2 standard deviations below a norm of weight for age the WHO defines as “malnourished” but no one imagines that there is a dramatic difference between those at 2.1 and 1.9. There is no line at the poverty line — no one has ever held an “I am over $1.25 a day” party. Focusing on low-bar goals explicitly dismisses peoples’ legitimate aspirations for good education, better healthcare, higher incomes, better infrastructure as not “priority” without any rationale or justification for a cut off at a low bar.

The second problem is the MDG agenda is too narrow, biased, and kinky to be the development agenda of a democratically elected government. Democratic governments need the median voter and hence nearly all democracies have an agenda aimed at not just “the poor” but their broad middle class. This cannot be the MDGs. Take Indonesia, which made a democratic transition in 1999. The MDG on education could be part of, but not the main focus of its education agenda as primary completion was already at 95 percent. HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and maternal mortality could be part of its health agenda — but that covered only 6.4 percent of its burden of disease. Access to improved water could be part of its infrastructure agenda, but 78 percent were already there. Equalizing enrollment could be part of a gender agenda, but rates were nearly equal already. By 2000 “dollar a day” poverty was already down to 29.4 percent (after spiking during the crisis) so that could not be their economic agenda — even though 67.1 percent were under the “two dollar a day” standard. As seen in Table 2 only for the very poorest of African countries could the MDGs broadly appeal as an agenda for the median voter.

Third, there is a fundamental contradiction between narrow, biased, kinky MDGs and the Paris Declaration that aid should be based on partner-country priorities. You cannot dictate both process and outcome: “countries should set their own priorities and these priorities should be the MDGs.” In nearly all developing countries, governments were increasingly saying to representatives of development assistance agencies: “Do you want to talk about our national agenda or the MDGs?” If one wants to maintain support for development assistance it has to have the support of the developing countries.

If a “mess” of “senseless, dreamy, garbled” “higgledy-piggledy” SDGs with “no priorities” are the price to pay to get rid of the focused but narrow, biased, and kinky MDGs and onto explicit goals, widely shared among citizens of developing countries, for economic growth (8.1) and higher poverty lines (1.2), learning in education goals (4.1), addressing systemic service delivery issues in healthcare and financing, access to energy (7.1) and expressing high-bar ideals rather than defining development down to low-bar goals then I am all for it — even if I don’t expect great things.