Today, I’m in New York to moderate the opening session of the UN Development Cooperation Forum, which focuses on the strategic role of development cooperation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and leaving no one behind. Preparing for this session has made me focus on what success, in its simplest terms, looks like.
For me, there is one test for Agenda 2030 – are the poorest people better off and are they included in progress? With 17 goals, 169 targets and around 230 indicators, Agenda 2030 sets an inspiring common framework for every country and institution but, if the poorest people are not seeing improvements in their lives, we will have failed.
The ‘Leave No One Behind’ commitment is about countries AND people – there are around 30 countries that are severely off track, in which almost the entire population is among the poorest 20% of the world – the ‘P20’. For those countries, official development assistance (ODA) is the most important external financial resource.
By 2030, extreme poverty will be increasingly concentrated in those countries. And those living in other countries will remain neglected if we continue to use the national average as our standard of progress and measure of eligibility.
Claiming middle-income status can be done while a country continues to have large numbers of people living in extreme poverty – based on average GNI. Most of the people in the P20 currently live in China, India and Nigeria. Should the governments of these countries prioritise the P20? Yes of course – and there has been considerable progress. But does ODA have a part to play? Yes, if it’s specifically and transparently targeted to benefit the poorest people.
But the direction of travel is different. In an effort to generate more finance for development, ODA is being used to incentivise private sector investment. Currently a high proportion of ODA that is invested to strengthen the enabling environment in developing countries goes to middle-income countries, and we know very little about how it is targeted and when (or in what form) benefits will be felt by the poorest parts of the population. Similarly, even less blended finance reaches low-income countries, and the estimated $400 million per year invested in aid to mobilise domestic resources follows the same pattern, so the poorest countries are losing out when ODA is used to leverage other resources.
It is quite right that the development cooperation community should be mobilising and incentivising investment in ending poverty from all sources – we need to harness the 92% of international flows that are not ODA and the 99.7% of national expenditure by donors that is not ODA. But aid is not just money – it’s politics. Our ministers of international development need to come off the back foot with a stronger, bolder outreach to the business community, to other government departments, to partner governments and to agencies to get people to step up to this agenda and harness their own resources.
The good news is that that’s what the public think aid is for – that’s what our ministers should be talking to the public about. Ending poverty is good for poor people AND it’s good for all of us if we want resilient and sustainable societies – business, government, all institutions need to play their part. That’s the message. And the measure is the P20 – are the poorest people being included or not?