Is the era of flagship publications (HDR, WDR) coming to an end?

October 15, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Had an interesting chat with some UNDP types last week in the Brixton cafe that is fast becoming my second office. In the same week as UNDP was named top donor on transparency (ahead of the UK and US), they were evaluating the UNDP’s flagship publication, the Human Development Report (HDR). Over the long term, I am a huge fan of the HDR, which is now approaching its 25th birthday. But some of the recent ones have been a bit disappointing (see these flaship sinking_3lukewarm/critical HDR reviews from 2009, 2013 and 2014).

Rather than moaning about any particular report, we rapidly got onto a bigger question – is the era of big annual flagships ending?

When I started shifting from writing on Latin America to wider development issues, in the late 90s, the flagships were a big deal – especially the HDR and its World Bank equivalent, the World Development Report. In those darker days the HDR (though seldom the WDR), provided much needed alternative views to the koolaid of market fundamentalism.

Now they seem a bit tired, clunky, ponderous – like old-school encyclopaedias overtaken (and swamped) by the instant social media churn of data and information. That means they no longer serve as a useful repository of information – the data is all out there long before the editors and printers have done their work.

This highlights an area of confusion – who is their intended audience? Researchers want instant raw data, while decision makers don’t read 300 page tomes (even I usually only read the overview, and then summarize it for my even more time-famished colleagues). The World Bank has it easier, in that they generate new data (unlike the HDR) and the WDR is also an important agenda setter within the World Bank, which has a much bigger footprint than the report itself. In the UNDP, if anything, the HDR is bigger than the organization, so internal influencing hardly justifies the effort.

So what, in such a world, is the role for a global flagship? There seem to be a couple of candidates:

Agenda Setting: Even if few people read all of it, a flagship can make a big splash around a new or at least breaking issue, provided it is willing to take risks (after all, the main feature of a breaking issue is that we don’t have all the information yet). A well researched flagship can give comfort to activists that the evidence is on their side, strengthening their confidence and credibility. The 2007/8 HDR on Climate Change, which the evaluators have found to be one of its most influential, shows what can be achieved.

Next Generation: Maybe my experience is typical, and people who are starting out in development are looking for an overall steer (though they’re just as likely to get this from a book than an annual report).

race to the topRegional Races to the Top: According to the evaluators, one of the main impacts of HDRs is usually to provoke a tetchy political row with governments, who immediately look at where they are on whichever index it produces, relative to their neighbours (think India v Pakistan). This can be difficult for those in charge, and places a premium on confident leadership, but at least it suggests impact – why not make regional league tables a more prominent feature of the work? In fact, maybe the shift should be from global flagships to more targeted regional and national HDRs, with a clearer audience and advocacy strategy.

A related point – although the HDR (unlike the WDR) doesn’t require actual sign off from the government reps on the UNDP board, it can suffer from fear of antagonising them. That can lead to bland reports that disappear without trace. Maybe an alliance with other, potentially less intimidatable, research outfits (universities? Thinktanks? NGOs?) would help ensure more of an edge, and might sharpen up the communications side (UNDP is still struggling on the social media side, especially blogging).

But overall, I suspect that a several hundred page flagship is a pretty inefficient and time consuming way to generate the desired impact with the target audience (even if the UNDP is clear on who they are). Time to go back to the drawing board?

Oh, and feel free to give the evaluators a hand and add your opinions below on the HDR and how it could be improved.

October 15, 2014
Duncan Green