Guest blog written by Arpita Tiwari, Diana Ly, Emma Catalfamo, Hina Musa, Katherina Hruskovec Gonzalez, Morgan Benson
The first PDIA meeting for the KEYS to Success team focused on one goal: getting to know each other. Our team members came from different backgrounds, different programs within HKS, even different countries, and each of us was curious about what the team dynamic would look like. We built our team Constitution – a critical trust-building exercise for the PDIA process – which guaranteed enough psychological safety for each of us to freely participate and contribute. Over the next six weeks, each team member grew in our ability to think critically about our problem, propose creative solutions, and ensure that these ideas were most useful for our authorizer and ultimately for Barbados.
Everybody is working hard around the world looking for increasing their wellbeing, which in turn affects the improvement of the quality of life of others. Everybody plays a determinant role to make lives better, even more, when people share the public policies sphere due to it is the core of the society’s balance. In this regard IPP journey has turned into the most significant experience which gives all the participants extraordinary tools to be better practitioners, better people and better leaders around the world.
My entire working experience has been with public sector in different countries where I have noticed such similar situations: unsolved problems, a lot of effort with unsatisfactory results from some practitioners, lack of ownership from some staff and so on, as a result, the social, economic, and environmental dimensions are increasingly unbalanced. In this context, I decided to course the IPP journey hoping to get meaningful technical tools to add value to my professional skills to make the difference when facing the less desirable public policy arena conditions. No matter how high my expectations were, definitely this course has exceeded them. Not only gave me valuable technical information regarding a better understand of the current situation and how to deal with to be more effective, but also taught me the importance of the human aspects, how to be aware of myself as a person facing complex problems and how to build teams, encourage and support its members as people as well as a practitioners.
By ensuring that all girls are receiving inclusive, effective instruction in well-functioning education systems, we can grow closer to achieving SDG 4’s promise of universal literacy and numeracy and lifelong learning.
Today is International Women’s Day. Among the unprecedented challenges that COVID-19 presents, there are many, many, many issues in women’s lives that deserve urgent attention. Amid all of those pressing challenges, we should not lose sight of how COVID-19 is affecting today’s girls, who will become tomorrow’s women.
COVID-19 and girls’ schooling
COVID-19 has closed schools. According to UNESCO, nearly 1.5 billion children in more than 180 countries were affected by the closures. For girls with access to the internet, this means time spent in front of screens, where too little is known about how the abrupt transition to online learning will affect their progress. But for girls in disadvantaged countries and communities who lack access to the technology that enables remote schooling, school closures have severely curtailed or even completely paused their learning.
Those are the immediate steps systems can take to help children catch up from this crisis, but the reopening of schools is also the right time to ask: what kind of school systems are girls returning to?
Even before the pandemic, far too many girls had their future potential stymied by ineffective education systems
The World Bank’s Learning Poverty measure paints a stark picture of the poor quality of the education most children in low- and middle-income countries receive. 53 percent of boys and girls in low- and middle- income countries reach the age of 10 without mastering basic reading skills. In the world’s poorest countries, the figures are even more grim, as Figure 1 shows.
The pandemic threatens to erase years of progress made by developing and emerging economies towards sustainable development. The World Bank estimates that between 71 and 100 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty in 2020, increasing the global extreme poverty rate for the first time in more than 40 years.
This realization convinced me to apply to the “Leading Economic Growth” course at Harvard Kennedy School. My objective was to explore and learn practical strategies that countries can adopt in the current context, particularly with limited resources and tight fiscal spaces, in order to protect their population without forgetting the important investments necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
The 10-week online course allowed me to take the key concepts from the lectures and readings and apply them to a specific country, developing a plan for the recovery. It truly felt like a journey, and more specifically like a climbing expedition: professors Hausmann and Andrews were the expert guides, leading the way and setting the trail for us; the video lectures and readings were the manuals we read before starting to climb; the weekly assignments – deep-dives to help us develop our own country strategy – represented key milestones, or the most difficult trails where we had to reflect on the learnings and apply them to our strategy; the feedback of the teaching assistants was our anchor and rope, setting us on the right path to success.
This course opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about economic growth and particularly to innovative approaches that can support governments in identifying game-changing policies. These are the four key takeaways that have forever changed my view on development and economics, and that have the potential to help countries build back better from COVID-19 towards a more resilient future.
Focusing on problems rather than solutions
The dominant theory of change in development is that great governments emerge when a savvy leader takes the opportunity of a crisis to implement the right policies and holds power long enough to drive implementation. In reality, the story is far from simple: it is not about one solution applicable for all, forced down the system by a powerful individual. Development is a complex matter, where many social and economic factors are correlated and interact with each other, causing at times unexpected consequences, and requiring multiple iterations to achieve true impact.
This is why “problem-driven iterative adaptation” (PDIA) is a more hopeful concept than “solution- and leader-driven change” (SLDC): countries do not have to wait for a brilliant leader to change their faith, but can adopt a new approach by engaging distributed groups of agents in a gradual and iterative search for the best policy to drive economic growth. PDIA materializes when governmental agents interact and exchange information in new ways, yielding locally determined responses to economic challenges by constructing and deconstructing bottlenecks preventing growth. This enables governments to transform tangled and complex problems into manageable issues, by revealing the root causes and addressing them step by step, identifying quick wins.
From left to right: Jose Arocha, Matt Andrews, Marco Midence and Jorge Jimenez.
Over the past 10 weeks, Matt Andrews has been working with a team of three mid-career students from Latin America on a project applying the problem analysis in PDIA to the challenge of growth in Honduras. We had shared their fishbone diagram in a previous post. The team used growth diagnostics, product space analysis, and PDIA to find practical entry points for moving forward. We are proud of them and wish them the best on their PDIA adventure!
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.
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.