Anyone fancy a post-2015 wonkwar? Me v Claire Melamed on the biggest development circus in town

April 30, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been good friends with Claire Melamed for ages, but recently we’ve found ourselves on opposite sides of the post-2015 debate. As ODI’s growth andpost-2015 inequality supremo, Claire is deeply immersed in the ever-proliferating discussions, whereas I decided early on that I had massive reservations about the whole process. So for your amusement (and who knows, perhaps enlightenment), we’ve decided to air our differences in public. I’ll kick off,

Claire responds, and we hope that will produce a load of comments and a life and death struggle for the last word (which I shall of course win, because it’s my blog).

What’s my beef? The post-2015 discussion typifies the kind of ‘magical thinking’ that abounds in aid circles, in which well-intentioned developmentistas debate how the world should be improved. These discussions and the mountains of policy papers, blogs etc that accompany them, are often based on what I call ‘If I ruled the World’ (IRW) thinking. IRW, then I would do X, Y, Z – Rights for (disenfranchised group of your choice)! More Infrastructure! Better Data! Jobs!

The high/low point of this for me came last year, when I had to MC an interaction between 250 civil society lobbyists and the High Level Panel on post-2015 – we managed to squeeze about 80 interventions into the allotted hour of consultation, which produced a Christmas Tree (Claire’s term, much copied) of issues that had no chance of making it onto the final post-2015 agenda.

But in any case, so what if they do? Because what is missing from this is any consideration of power and politics. What, after all, is the point of the post-2015 process, beyond creating (another) international forum for debating development? The MDGs were primarily about improving the quantity and quality of aid, and arguably they were quite successful in this. What is much less certain is the extent to which they influenced government policy (as in, persuaded governments to do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise). Rich country governments have systematically ignored MDG8 (the one on global partnership), while the evidence of ‘traction’ on developing country governments is really rather flimsy (more on that here).

Who exactly is 'we'? And what if 'we' don't agree?

Who exactly is 'we'? And what if 'we' don't agree?

In particular, I was astonished to find that there is no rigorous research comparing the traction exerted on national decision-making by the various different kinds of international instrument (laws, conventions, regional league tables, norms, academic exchanges). So the post-2015 circus is busily debating what ‘should’ happen without first establishing whether/how its conclusions will affect national decision-making. And this blind spot is massive – you can go entire days in the bubble of post-2015 discussions without ever hearing anyone mention any other international instrument on development or rights.

When I raised this at a recent OECD post-2015 conference, Claire wearily replied ‘There isn’t an answer – there is no single thing that we can say ‘if you do it like that, it will have traction’. It is very hard to predict beforehand which mechanisms for any given agreement will get traction.’ So that’s a relief then, can we just ignore these annoying questions about actual impact and get back to decorating the Christmas Tree?

That really isn’t good enough. It is certainly possible to know much more than we do about attribution through more rigorous qualitative research. For example, in-depth interviews with policymakers could investigate the traction exerted by a range of external and domestic forces on their decisions. I have yet to locate such research. (And rocking up and asking developing country ministers leading questions like ‘how have the MDGs affected your decision-making?’ most definitely does not constitute rigorous research.)

So if it can’t generate national traction, what could the post-2015 process achieve?

–       Aid still matters, albeit to a diminishing group of countries, and post-2015 could bolster the case for aid (under siege from the Austerians), and continue to improve its quality

–       Intellectual hegemony matters, so general debates on development are always good (hey, they’re my bread and butter)

–       It may help break the logjam on collective action on everything from climate change to migration (but don’t hold your breath)

But by ignoring the primacy of national politics and avoiding serious political economy questions on traction, it feels like the post-2015 process haspost 2015 consultaperhaps inadvertently relegated itself to the sidelines – a bit player in a drama that is increasingly national and beyond the reach of the aid industry.

Over to you Claire (and for the sake of my peace of mind, and a natural urge to run away and joint the post-2015 circus, this is one argument I would really like to lose).

April 30, 2013
Duncan Green