Posts Tagged ‘MDGs’

Whose goal is it anyway?

The post-2015 world is supposed to see some kind of merging of the international development and environmental worlds in the Sustainable Development Goals. As the writer of a blog on the conservation-development nexus I am very much in favour of this direction of travel, but the sceptic in me does question a little the political viability of all this given the entrenched positions at climate change talks. Most countries appear to favour goals that primarily concern changes to be made by others rather than changes they themselves have to make.

I found an echo of this in Ben Ramalingam’s new book Aid on the Edge of Chaos (review coming soon): he says some EU evaluation report found ‘a sense of lack of ownership of the MDGs in developing countries … [which] are often seen as instruments for the developed countries’. No great surprise there: you can understand that most country officials would be rather more concerned about how development initiatives impact their own country over any contribution to a notional global goal.

Conversely there is an interesting counterpoint in that now some developing countries reportedly prefer MDGs v2.0 (i.e. continued focus on economic development issues over environmental ones) over the mooted SDGs. I suppose their reasoning goes that if we must have pesky goals and performance targets, better they relate to their primary concerns than how many trees have or have not been cut down. I suspect most, however, would just prefer to take the cash (which supposedly the MDGs helped rally support for) to spend on their own priorities.

Why I’m a Millennium Villages sceptic

Last week Jeffrey Sachs set out a robust defence of his brainchild, the Millennium Villages Project, although, as Tom Murphy pointed out, it was somewhat low on detail. I’ve never knowingly been near a Millennium Village, but my own experience causes me to doubt the lasting legacy of the MVP, at least in countries with similar problems to where I work.

First the good news, Sachs took on some of this detractors by saying that the MVP was as much about developing systems to improve service delivery (and hence attainment of the Millennium Development Goals) rather than just,  per se, achieving the MDGs in the targeted villages. I’m a big fan of systems approaches, so this gets the thumbs up from me. Systems are definitely more easily replicable and scaled up than individual projects that focus simply on the needs of its target area.

Now for the bad news, systems are not automatically and by definition scalable. A system that works well at one level may not work well a wider scales due to unanticipated problems and bottlenecks. Ben Ramalingam recently blogged on exactly some of the new challenges that occur as one scales up. This doesn’t mean that the original system was designed badly, but simply that good systems management takes an iterative approach, making tweaks and improvements as we go along (what I term the KISI approach).

But that is not the biggest problem that I see. Even the best designed systems need to interact with things outside their control, in particular people; indeed I suspect that the MVP has people playing integral roles at every step in the way (i.e. that mostly what we’re talking about here is systems for organising human work). A system’s output is constrained by the quality of these interactions. In short, as any good businessman knows, you need competent and motivated staff to deliver a high quality of service. And that is where so much service delivery in developing countries falls down, with last mile service delivery particularly badly managed. Unfortunately short-term, local solutions to this are not scalable.

The problems are legion, and not all a result of poor education amongst the workforce. I know some excellent and (when you consider what they are up against) surprisingly motivated local civil servants. But the overall system drags everyone down. Sure you can tinker at the margins with systems to improve paper flow (mostly in local government around here, we’re talking about paper flow), but the elephant in the room is an unmotivated and unsackable workforce.

Of course this problem will apply at the MVP sites, but there you also have a massive aid effort with lots of expat technical advisers and a high level of political interest. I’ve noticed around here, normally sloth-like civil servants who won’t even sit in a meeting without a generous per diem rush around like lauded socialist workers striving manly (or womanly) in the name of their country when a bigwig is due to visit, working into the night and through weekends, all without any per diems.

Thus I fear all the achievements of the MVP will wash up against the great brick wall that is a change resistant bureaucracy. Once the high level of funding, all the expat TAs, and the high level political interest have withdrawn we’ll be back to business as usual, and the MVP will be neither sustainable in the selected pilot villages nor scalable. Maybe this will not apply everywhere, but I would wager a decent sum that it will happen here. The community contributions which Sachs highlights may also be much harder to be elicit when it’s just government staff doing the asking.

The MVP has a laudable goal, and even as an experiment, the idea of resolving various systemic problems in service delivery is a worthy one that definitely deserves some experimentation; marginal changes can lead to marginal improvements, and, as a by product, perhaps a marginal improvement in government staff morale. But if Sachs wants to take a systems approach to achieving the MDGs maybe he should have looked at HR management reform in developing country civil services. It’s a Herculean task to be sure, that, around here at least, the World Bank has been striving at vainly for some time. But until you resolve that problem I fear these sorts of big push attempts to transform service delivery and hence quality of life in developing countries will always be at least one more big push away from succeeding.

My park is greener than your park (on paper)

A new paper in Oryx by Charlie  Gardner analyses the application of IUCN’s protected area categories to Madagascar’s parks and reserves system. Apparently they’re not a very good fit, but I find myself struggling to care.

In 2008 Boitani et al called for a protected area classification system based on conservation outcomes, which in an ideal world I guess everyone would go for, but the World Commission on Protected Areas understandably think that this is not very workable. Also there is something to be said for assessing effort (in opportunities for economic development foregone in establishing more strictly protected reserves), especially since desired conservation outcomes can take a long time to materialise. The counter-argument, of course, is that if you’re not intending to monitor your conservation outcomes what the hell do you think you’re doing setting up the park in the first place (?!?), although this somewhat ignores the reality in many developing countries in which monitoring is dependent upon unreliable donor funds.

With so many protected areas now established around the world it certainly makes sense to classify them in some way, and if that were the end of the matter then we could all be happy, but it’s not. I was once privy to (but not an active participant in) a conversation based around the ‘need’ to increase the area that country A has in reserves that fall within category X of  the IUCN system. I confess to being somewhat baffled. I sincerely hope the proponents of this idea were really concerned about eventual conservation outcome, but if so they did not say so; the IUCN category seemed to matter in itself.

One plausible explanation for this is that donor money might be distributed partly based on a reserve’s IUCN classification. I do not know for certain whether this is the case, but if so it is lazy thinking, and worrying. Indubitably I have come across many examples of literature bemoaning that country B has a low % of land within protected areas, and I would expect that countries that conserve more get more donor money to support that, so it is not too far a stretch to suppose that detailed decisions are taken based on IUCN protection category.

However, I think this is a misuse of the system. In this I am reminded of the debate over the Millennium Development Goals: the creators of the MDGs only ever intended that they serve as global targets, not as indicators of progress against which individual countries can be measured. We must always be careful in how we use a system designed to measure one aspect of a complex, messy reality (and although the MDGs are plural, sectorally they are singular), especially if we then seek to use that to drive funding decisions as such measures tend to be more substitutes to more thorough analysis.

Of course the biggest criticism of the IUCN system is that it rewards ‘paper parks’ over really functioning conservation: in effect it measures only regulation. In rich countries government bureaucracies generally work well enough such that appropriate resources are assigned to support such designations, and the bureaucrats may even resist unfunded additional designations. However, in developing countries resources are that much more limited and variable standards of governance means that decision making is not necessarily nearly so rational.

The result is a dysfunctional attempt to rule by unenforceable fiat. Local communities are unlikely to be compensated properly for their lost opportunities, thus alienating them, and hence they will seek to undermine the new park. The exclusion of Maasai pastoralists from Mkomazi Game Reserve (now a National Park) in Tanzania is a classic example of how things can go wrong; the conservation outcome was actually worse than under the previous, messier system.

In surveying the sorry state of these things I have come to the conclusion that the establishment or upgrading of a protected area can actually be an anti-conservation measure. All the rules and regulations that come with such designations constrain managers from reaching workable compromises with local communities under which everyone can benefit. Better instead to work with flexibility outside protected areas than with the dubious benefit of government regulation to support you.

Conservationists often talk about the need to protect ~10% of each different habitat, but this should be a rule of thumb. There are lots of ways to protect a landscape: a national park is often not the best solution.

Update: two recent pieces of evidence in support of my argument (15/09/11).

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