New Winds of Change Blowing in the Developing World

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The developing world has long lent itself to political soundbites, often with a tone of despair. It wasn’t too long ago that Henry Kissinger called Bangladesh a “basket case” and Tony Blair cited Africa as a ’scar on the conscience of humanity’. Development in poor countries seemed an expensive exercise in futility. Times have changed. Recent years have seen unprecedented progress in the quality of life across the developing world. In the race towards the Millennium Development Goals, the rate of progress in reducing poverty and increasing access to basic education, health, water and other essential services is eye-opening.

Take progress in Ghana, for example, where agricultural growth averaged 5% per year during the last 25 years, ranking it among the five top performers in the world. Poverty fell from 52% of the population in 1991 to 28% in 2006 and child malnutrition has plummeted. Rwanda illustrates even more dramatically the ability to rise from the ashes. In 1994, after years of civil war and the genocide, the health care system was completely devastated. Life expectancy stood at 25 years. By 2008, it has more than doubled, and immunization of children had risen from 25% to over 90%. In Benin, only 38% of children went to school in 1990. Today it’s over 95%, and girls have shown dramatic advances. Malawi, traditionally a laggard, has enjoyed 7 years of uninterrupted growth, averaging 7 % per year.

These and many other impressive stories are documented in a major new report Mapping Progress: Evidence for a New Development Outlook, released by the Overseas Development Institute this week. It summarizes evidence on progress in 24 developing countries. The detailed case studies show that progress is taking place in many shapes and forms.

It is important not to laud progress but also learn from it. Four drivers of development were identified. They are smart leadership, smart policies, smart institutions and smart friends.

It is hard to envisage the progress at such scale in agriculture in Ghana, reconstruction of post conflict Rwanda and social security reform in Brazil without presidents Rawlings, Kagame and Lula. These may not always fit the traditional western model, but have combined vision with delivery. Smart leaders have shared power with traditional sources of authority (such as clan leaders and village chiefs) and enhanced progress by creating social cohesion. Somaliland’s transformation wouldn’t have happened without President Egal’s ability to form coalitions with senior business elites as well as local elders and clans to achieve development objectives. Effective leaders have also been willing to allow for experimentation and innovation with unconventional policies, even at the risks of countering established wisdoms.

At the heart of all progress stories lies a turnaround in government policies. Overall, progress has involved a changing role for government, from controlling (markets and prices) to facilitating and enabling (investment and production), and, in the best cases, empowering citizens. Abolition of school fees, scholarships and school feeding programmes have been essential complements to teacher training and school construction in driving progress in education in Benin, Ethiopia and Cambodia. Shrewd governments have also focused on the breadth of their population, avoiding the emergence of large disparities between groups.

In many countries, progress has been achieved through governance reforms that have decentralized and strengthened local institutions. Reforms have not only led to improved service delivery but also enabled more effective revenue collection and management of public finances. School management committees and parent teacher associations in Ethiopia, mothers’ associations in Benin and community health workers in Rwanda, Eritrea and Bangladesh have created a participatory role for citizens to deliver, monitor and improve service delivery which has been central to their improvement.

International support can’t create progress, but it can help enable it. The best partnerships go beyond aid, including the transfer of knowledge and technology, international trading relations and diplomatic interventions. Whether it is in support for clean water in Uganda or education in Cambodia, developing countries that exercise effective leadership over their strategies and relationships with the international community have benefitted the most.

Harold MacMillan’s image of the Wind of Change sweeping through Africa in 1960 spoke of political liberation from colonial powers. Today’s changes are just as dramatic, and speak of an economic and social liberation throughout the developing world that has lifted a billion people out of poverty since 1990. Not all are benefitting from such progress by any means, and another billion remain in poverty – but this decade may well mark the tipping point. The evidence now exists for a new outlook on development and its narrative can be based not on backward assumptions but on prospects and potential.

International  International news in general
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