Can the Least Developed Countries reimagine development? A meeting in London looked at the key issues.
2016 has been a big year for international agreements on development. New Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets were agreed. The Paris Agreement, the strongest statement for some time on climate change action, was signed.
But if the aspirations in them are to be fulfilled, hard work is needed. This hard work should benefit the poorest people in the world as well as those better off.
At a debate last week on the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and the SDGs, organised by IIED, the ESRC's STEPS Centre and the Least Developed Countries Independent Experts Group, we discussed how this might happen. Here are five challenges which reflect some of the debate.
1. Getting SDGs on the agenda
In development and policy circles, the SDGs have been hotly debated. But it is a mistake to think they are on everyone's radar. This may be as true for ordinary citizens in rich countries as it is in poorer parts of the world. At the same time, those who are responsible for implementing the goals can be overwhelmed by targets and lose sight of the spirit of the SDGs.
The irony is this: much progress can be made towards development goals without reference to them. But successes are now being supported more strategically – a massive project providing solar power to four million households in Bangladesh, for example, was supported by the public and private sector working together.
A major challenge is not just how to get attention to the SDGs – but to use them as a framework for supporting innovative projects which harness the ideas and experience of local people as well as outside interests.
2. Supporting the right things
One of the main aims of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement is to mobilise financial support around an agreed framework. The question is: who will benefit from this support, and what kind of development does it encourage?
So what kind of models are we seeking to emulate? Trillions are promised for renewable energy, for example. But there is a danger that they land in favour of urban elites rather than the off-grid poor. For many reasons, large scale, grid-connected projects are seen as more profitable and attractive.
This is where the state can come in. Entrepreneurial states can take risks that many businesses can't, and set research priorities to benefit disadvantaged groups. They also have taxes and subsidies in their toolbox. This means orienting funding towards social justice and long-term thinking – not just to reduce emissions, but to give poorer communities the energy they need to learn, communicate and build their own business and markets.
For Least Developed Countries, lack of finance makes this difficult to achieve alone, so outside help is needed – but with priorities set from within. For example, as the Technology Facilitation Mechanism convenes discussions around science, technology and innovation in the SDGs, can it challenge the mindset of 'tech transfer' and talk about other ways to support innovation within countries?
3. Mobilisation for change
Socially just, inclusive development needs political spaces to debate the best ways forward. But such political spaces are shrinking in many LDCs. Human rights violations are common. And the initial excitement around the SDGs and COP21 will die down, if it hasn't already.
This means champions of sustainable development within LDCs have a mountain to climb. One way they can do this is to point to existing successes in their own countries – and also share stories between LDCs. This process points to change coming from within – rather than saying 'we are the poor, please help us' but 'we can do this, others can help us'.
Another crucial area for action is to link up like-minded groups at grassroots level, who can learn from each other and support each other behind the scenes, even when public speech and activism is restricted. But the fact remains that it will be difficult to have properly inclusive debates in some countries about how to achieve the SDGs and climate targets.
At an international level, LDCs are an important political grouping, recognised and supported by various United Nations programmes. At the same time, the LDC category will change over time, as Asian countries 'graduate' from the group, and African countries become a higher proportion of the LDCs.
4. Data that works
Data and evaluation may be dry subjects for many people, but they are crucial in showing whether countries are achieving their aspirations. But capacities in national statistical agencies in the LDCs are weak.
So how do you really make the invisible visible? There are important pitfalls in data collection that are difficult to see, undermining the accuracy of reports.
Energy providers have a strong incentive to claim success, but might skew the data by counting meters rather than surveying how householders get their energy. Other collection methods might specifically let down marginalised people: for example, when refugees aren't included in data; or informal and hard-to-reach settlements are left out because they are more difficult to survey.
Big data might offer one way out of this, collecting ever larger data sets through automated, electronic means. But with private sector interest in big data, there are ethical questions over what kind of data is collected and what it's used for – market research, for example.
Other forms of learning are needed – such as tacit knowledge, storytelling and qualitative evaluations. Sharing visions, experiences and examples across countries is also crucial for enabling learning.
5. Telling the story
Do LDCs need a unified narrative to describe the changes they want to achieve? At the debate and discussion afterwards, this came up as a real dilemma.
A multiplicity of voices is more authentic, reflecting the diversity of countries' needs – but it may have less immediate impact at a high level, where even if less powerful voices are brought to the table, they are often ignored.
One way to address this might be to focus on some key aspirations that all countries share – without being so general that the impact is lost.
Particular stories and messages can be mobilised around coalitions and alliances. For example, at COP21 last year, the 'High Ambition Coalition' convened by the Marshall Islands started as a small and informal group, but went on to play an instrumental role in campaigning for a 1.5° C target.
Although there are great differences between, say, Ethiopia and Haiti, there are also common interests between LDCs. So even if these countries don't speak with one voice, they need to make the most of important forums, alliances and groupings.
LDCs connect with international institutions for example, in New York and Geneva, raising awareness of their needs. But they could also share learning between each other and collaborate more – sharing stories within the LDC group as well as telling them to the wider community. Research partnerships, strong communications and committed journalists would play an important role in this.
The way forward
There is much hard work ahead and the debate last week is only one moment in a wider series of conversations. But many people at the event felt that the SDGs and the Paris Agreement – despite all the pitfalls outlined above – could help to provide a framework for LDCs to reimagine development.
What happens next will depend on fostering learning, ideas and long-term alliances that are driven from within these countries.
In this process, rich countries, corporations and donors will also need to look hard at these experiences, and change their vision of what development means and how to support it.