The world must do a better job of tracking investments and results: Both now and for the next global development goals

This piece was originally posted in TrustLaw

Later this week, a group of 26 people will meet in Liberia to discuss how the world should tackle global development challenges over the next decade or two. It’s essential they thrust transparency, accountability and better open data into the heart of the debate and act on it.  The so-called High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons (HLP) has an amazing opportunity to shape the fight against poverty and preventable disease; and a very heavy responsibility to accurately channel the desires and concerns of billions of people around the globe.  In May, this small collection of current and past politicians, technocrats, and businesspeople will deliver their recommendations for how to take this fight forward.  What comes out of this process, and the formal UN General Assembly deliberations this September, will frame the development landscape at least until 2030.  To state the obvious, this is a high stakes game where policy, politics and pragmatism must all intersect in a complex and challenging way.

While this task is daunting, we are not starting from scratch.  The current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted unanimously by 189 UN member states in 2000, provide some helpful signposts.  Arguably, the MDGs’ greatest strength is that they are meaningful, measurable, and message-able.  By rallying the world around a set of concrete goals, the MDGs have helped to deliver some of the most awe-inspiring progress in human history.  Since their adoption, roughly 600 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty; more than 6 million Africans have started receiving AIDS treatment; over 5 million lives have been saved because of vaccines; and nearly 51 million more African children are in school.

Despite the MDGs’ many strengths, they also have a number of shortcomings that must be addressed in the post-2015 framework.  First, the goals were developed by technical experts in donor capitals, the OECD, and the UN, with little input from ordinary citizens in developing countries.  This top-down process made it difficult to ensure that the goals properly responded to citizens’ most pressing concerns – even if they mobilized unprecedented global action.  Early signs suggest that the UN has learned from its past mistakes.  They are going to great lengths to solicit input from the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable – as well as politicians, development experts, and civil society organizations.  This is an excellent first step (see ONE’s report calling for this last fall).  Now the HLP, and the UN powers that be, need to digest the boiled down takeaways from the reams of ‘stakeholder’ input and use them as the starting point for the next set of goals.

Second, the lack of reliable, timely, and accessible data on MDG-related investments and outcomes has been a major challenge to both tracking progress and ensuring that interventions are effective.  After decades of effort, we still do not know enough about how much money is available (both domestically and externally), where it is going, and what results it is achieving.  This is one of the biggest scandals of the development field.  For example, over 40 developing countries lack enough data on extreme poverty levels – arguably the most important MDG – to actually track progress.  Let me say that again.  Insufficient data makes it impossible to know, for nearly a third of developing countries, whether their MDG poverty goal has been met.

Moreover, time lags for data on MDG-related outcomes remain unacceptably high (when they are even available).  On average, extreme poverty data is nearly five years old.  Data on hunger (e.g., malnutrition) is four years old; followed by data on gender equality, education, and HIV/AIDS, which is at least three years old, on average.  This must change.  Only with timely and accessible data on investments and outcomes, can we deliver real accountability for the trillions of Naira, Pounds, Pesos, Euros, Rupees, and Dollars being spent and to ensure that we are constantly learning and adjusting our actions as we go along.

Together with thirteen organizations from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the United States, the ONE Campaign has released a report today that outlines a series of recommendations to address these critical issues.  First, we are calling for an open and transparent design process, ensuring that input from citizens in developing countries forms the core of the new global development goals.  Second, we are calling on all developing and developed countries to provide consistent and timely reporting on investments and outcomes related to achieving the new goals.  Third, we are calling for new investments in statistical capacity and open data systems to give citizens and policymakers ways to use relevant information to hold governments and other stakeholders accountable.

The existing MDGs demonstrate the power of purpose.  By channeling the world’s attention and firepower, they have helped catalyze some of the most important development advancements in history.  Yet, we are only halfway home on this front.  More, much more, must be done over the next three years.  As we sprint to the finish line, and start to consider the next race, we must also seize the opportunity to fix the faults of the present.  By implementing these proposed enhancements, the world can further maximize the impact of scarce development resources and accelerate progress in the fight against extreme poverty and other pressing priorities in the future.