One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
(J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings)
The 2030 Agenda has led to a proliferation of international and national development actors who are all eager to help developing countries adjust their development policies and projects to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This good intention comes at an increasingly high cost for countries, as they need to balance their own needs with the specific agendas and ways of working of their old and new partners. A frequently proposed solution is “more co-ordination” through dialogue, co-ordination meetings and other means; however, progress on co-operation will remain modest until we can find a “master ring” that can bind all development actors together.
Increased co-ordination challenges in data and statistics
Let’s look at the interesting example of data and statistics for development. More and better data are needed to measure, monitor and implement the SDGs at the country level. The availability of timely, high quality and ready to use data is often limited, and in some countries shockingly low – even basic data such as population size or the number of registered births is sometimes hard to come by. In this context, one might argue that the more actors the merrier, as each one can contribute to closing the data gap. An increased supply of any data, however, does not solve the problem of missing facts and figures. On the contrary, if the data is low quality, un-sharable and not in demand, we will end up with more data graveyards - not more evidence. Various co-ordination efforts between the different data providers are under way but due to lack of power, missing incentives and inability for enforcement, results have been limited. First and foremost, data production needs to inform national policy making. It should then only feed into the needs and interests of development partners as a secondary priority.
The challenges observed in data and statistics are the rule, not the exception. As documented in the latest Global Partnership for Effective Cooperation (GPEDC) monitoring report, donor progress against development co-operation effectiveness principles is slow. Co-ordination is continually criticised for being too bureaucratic with limited change in behaviour, especially when partner governments are not capable of steering donors towards joint action in support of national priorities. While increased scrutiny is placed on public expenditures, the focus on results and aid effectiveness has pushed donors to single out how “their” contribution has made a difference in comparison to their peers. In consequence, this leads to perverse incentives favouring “high visibility” and “easy to achieve and measure” projects that can be better “packaged” for the general public. In order to maximise development assistance, experience has shown that the largest “value for money” comes from – as Bill Gates recently reminded us – difficult environments such as lowest income countries or fragile states i.e. where success is much harder to achieve in the short term.
What should be done? How can co-ordination be improved in the era of the SDGs?
First, accept some co-ordination failures – “only talking co-ordination” without any real action is costly too
Everybody is for co-ordination, but nobody wants to be co-ordinated. With each additional actor and partner, the transaction costs for co-ordination increases exponentially, making it extremely costly and inefficient. In most cases, incentives for joint action are not aligned, and in particular, international organisations will do everything to ensure their “mandate” gets accomplished as they often have to “follow the money”; current discussions within the SDG world is telling as “topical” agencies and institutions try to secure their respective goals, targets or for that matter even indicators. There might be cases where it is more cost-effective to allow for some duplication versus setting up complex “co-ordination processes”.
Second, follow the subsidiarity principle
The central authority should only perform tasks that cannot be solved at the local level. Arguably, many “co-ordination problems” can be best addressed at the national or sub-national levels – here incentives and enforcement mechanisms can be more easily aligned and monitored to avoid situations where project support is “aligned” to the national development priorities on paper but in reality they serve the interests of the donor. To ensure effective co-ordination, we need to go far beyond discussing processes to sharing information, building inventories on “who is doing what”, undertaking gap analyses and then drawing up action plans that integrate foreseeable short- and medium-term challenges.
Third, build on and leverage national plans
Most developing countries have national development plans. These plans should be better used as entry points, in particular in the area of data and statistics. The National Strategies for the Development of Statistics (NSDS) are as much a process of engaging data users and producers as they are a plan for implementation. Aligning donors within these plans by improving donor co-ordination processes at the country level seems a promising way forward. The example of Rwanda shows how strong internal leadership can “bind together” different development partners to avoid the overburden of national systems and a never-ending list of “priorities”.
In a time of increased populism, anti-globalisation and fear of anything “international”, it is getting harder to make the case for “aid” and the value it brings, despite evidence showing its many benefits. Improving co-ordination between the various development actors is essential, but it needs to be done more efficiently and with realistic expectations. Strengthening national co-ordination mechanisms is a good starting point but despite good intentions, we need to be aware that progress on the global level will be limited.
To bind together the many actors would require the master ring; but as we know from the novel, it has already been destroyed. Comparing the quest for improved co-ordination in development to Frodo’s journey to Mordor would be a bit of a stretch but it is true to say that he would not have made it there without a co-ordinated effort of the entire Fellowship.