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Can new global goals transform the world’s poorest countries?

by Zoe Tabary | zoetabary | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 14 June 2016 12:50 GMT

Girls at a sewing workshop in Yako, Burkina Faso, March 31, 2016. TRF/Zoe Tabary

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Governments should seize the opportunity to come up with a fresh approach to development, experts say

The world’s poorest countries should seize the opportunity offered by a new set of global goals to come up with a fresh approach to development, as a basis for real change, experts told a debate in London this week.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed at the United Nations in September, comprise 17 goals and 169 targets aimed at resolving social, economic and environmental problems by 2030.

The world’s 48 least developed countries (LDCs), ranging from South Sudan to Bangladesh, have already taken some steps to make their economies greener, including ambitious renewable energy plans, said Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow and director at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

But governments typically work to short time horizons, he added, making radical transformation hard to achieve. By contrast, “the SDGs give LDCs the space to envision where they want to be by 2030”, he told the event.

Farah Kabir, director of ActionAid Bangladesh, argued that “poorest countries need to - and can - come up with alternatives, not come with the same wine in a new bottle.”


Farhana Yamin, an associate fellow at think tank Chatham House, said the SDGs and the recent Paris climate change deal had given the poorest nations more visibility. But “even when LDCs have a voice at the table, they are often ignored”, she said.

Tom Bigg, IIED’s head of partnerships, pointed out that LDCs may not always agree with each other. “Multiple voices means bringing out choices and dilemmas, and the fact that there are winners and losers,” he said.

To give LDCs a more prominent role on the global stage, other countries need to encourage a culture of honesty, the experts said.

Many governments are unsure whether failure to meet the SDGs will be punished, for example, leaving them reluctant to disclose, and learn from, mistakes.

“Failure is easier to talk about if you’re the hero that turned it around,” observed Jane Clark, head of climate change learning at Britain’s Department for International Development.

Participants cited co-operation between developing countries in the global South, like the Climate Vulnerable Forum, as a powerful tool to share information on good governance or equitable growth.


Key to the LDCs’ development path will be good use of data, said Debapriya Bhattacharya, an economist and public policy analyst from Bangladesh. “If you’re not measured, you’re not accounted for,” he added.

Growing volumes of data, also known as “big data” - together with the explosion of mobile devices and social media - are a boon for LDCs looking to map their progress, noted Bhattacharya. “They should not shy away from partnering with businesses,” he said.

But data brings its own challenges, such as respecting citizens’ privacy and ensuring samples are representative enough. Aid experts lamented, for example, how demographic health surveys are often too small to disaggregate data, limiting their value for local government.

Ultimately, IIED’s Huq said changes to political systems cannot be imposed from outside. “The countries themselves must address these issues,” he said.

The international dialogue event was convened by the Least Developed Countries Independent Expert Group (IEG), the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the ESRC’s STEPS Centre.

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