The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 8, 2013

The World We Want? Promoting the Notion That All Development Is Local

April 8, 2013

In 2000 all 193 UN member states agreed to eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for improving social and economic conditions in the world’s poorest countries. The target to reach these MDGs was set for 2015. While progress over the past 15 years is notable, much remains to be done to alleviate the plight of the poor around the world.

Discussions to establish a post-2015 global development agenda are well advanced, even if there is no clear consensus on how to reshape the global development goals and to achieve “the world we want.” Many thematic areas being discussed are already addressed by the current MDGs, including food security, access to basic education, basic health services, and clean drinking water. Some new thematic areas emerging in the post-2015 discussions include the need to improve governance, reduce inequality, and address conflict and fragility.

To a large extent, the discussions have been a debate between international development organizations based in New York, Washington, D.C., and the capitals of Europe and central government officials in the developing nations that are the most direct beneficiaries of development assistance. The debate so far has failed to look at global development from the bottom up and ask a fundamental question: how much (or how little) of the world’s official development assistance actually reaches the men, women, and children whose poverty is supposed to be reduced? Today the short answer to this question is too little.  A more complete answer is that development experts pay too much attention to central governments and not enough to whether (and how) these efforts trickle down locally, to the people who should ultimately receive development assistance—and regular government services.

If the global development community is serious about achieving real, sustainable, and inclusive social and economic transformation over the next 15 years, it needs to have a much more serious debate about the nature of development and the public sector’s role in it. Four observations may help spark this discussion:

1. All development is local. Most development—and most pro-poor public services that people rely on day to day—takes place at the local level, whether it is schools for children, health care for mothers and children, seeds and fertilizer for farmers, or access to clean water and sanitation.

2. As such, subnational governance and the local public sector are critical to sustainable development. While good governance, equality, and inclusiveness are important development objectives in their own right, these themes are central to achieving development goals across the full range of proposed post -2015 targets. For instance, whether ensuring education for all or achieving universal access to clean drinking water, succeeding sustainably requires achieving good local governance, securing a strong role for the local public sector, and considering the notions of equity and inclusiveness. Without an effective local public sector, sustainable development will remain a pipe dream.

Achieving equitable and inclusive development requires us to think carefully about the (1) the structure of the public sector and (2) the importance of achieving a degree of equity in delivering public services across the national territory.

3. In order to be inclusive, the public sector has to be close to the people. One measure of inclusiveness is the efficiency of public expenditures—how much is spent on actual services people use. However, the public sector is “closer to the people” in some countries than other countries. For instance, in South Africa over half of public-sector spending takes place below the national level (the blue shaded areas in the graph below). This includes spending by provincial and local governments, as well as national government spending on services that are delivered locally. In contrast, in Bangladesh less than a fifth of public resources reach the front line for service delivery. Indeed, initial evidence suggests that the “vertical allocation” of public-sector resources varies considerably across countries. As such, an important target for the post-2015 development agenda should be to increase the share of resources used for frontline services, and to ensure that public resources are governed and managed close to the people.

4. In order to be equitable, the public sector has to distribute resources fairly across the national territory. Donors also need to target the territorial allocation of services. Government resources and development assistance should be spent where needs are greatest. The graph below illustrates a common situation in many countries: some local jurisdictions receive much greater allocations per person or per capita than other places—often up to 5–10 times more. While an equitable allocation of resources would mean the local jurisdictions with greater needs would receive more resources, the opposite is often true: often the politically well-connected places receive the greater per person allocations, while poor, rural communities are left to fend for themselves.

To the degree that development is about empowering people over their own lives, the discussions surrounding “the world we want” need to question the top-down development approach that has guided the implementation of the MDGs. People in the villages and towns and cities in Bangladesh and Tanzania, in Nepal and Peru don’t care about donor programs that mostly benefit those who run them, nor about abstract development indicators discussed in New York or Washington, D.C. They care that they have a school in their village to send their kids to; they care that the streets in their town are free from trash; they care that the water they drink won’t make them sick; and they care that they don’t have to bribe the doctor at the local health clinic in order to receive basic health services when they are sick or pregnant. In order to achieve real, transformative and sustainable development in a way that realizes the ambitions of the global development community, we cannot ignore the inclusiveness of the public sector, we cannot ignore good local governance, and we cannot ignore the equity with which government resources are distributed across each country’s national territory.

Photo by FIRDIA LISNAWATI/ AP

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