Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Power of Numbers

This blog by Charlotte Demuijnck, provides an overview of the presentation by Mrs. Sakiko Fukuda-Parr on the Power of Numbers Project at the OECD June 2013. This post is part of the Wikiprogress Post-2015 Series.

“Before defining a new development agenda, we should fully understand and assess the MDGs’ intended and unintended impact on international development,” explained Mrs. Sakiko Fukuda-Parr[1]. The professor’s intervention at the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate (DCD) centered on the Power of Numbers Project, which focuses on broad lessons from pre-2015 global goal-setting and its positive, but also perverse, consequences. The project  looks at 11 of the current MDG targets to explore the effects they had on policy and development thinking (the 11 case studies and the full synthesis paper are available online here.

Introducing the conceptual base of her argument, Mrs. Fukuda-Parr shows that “numbers have power”, due to their scientific concreteness,  Indeed, quantified targets impact governance and knowledge; they give incentives for policy makers to focus and move in a specific direction and self-regulate according to numbers and rankings. What’s more is that “quantified goals shape ideas.” They simplify and reduce complex and contextually-specific concepts, such as poverty and gender inequality, to abstract and universally applicable measurements. 

She described her research project as an “empirical study of consequences of MDG targets on policy and idea change.” More specifically, the 11 case studies look at the indicators’ normative effects on discourses, narratives and policy choices, as well as the alternative indicators that could have been used.  Her research findings include the intended and unintended consequences of MDGs and the global quest for quantified results.

The intended effect was to mobilise political support; however, not all goals brought about this result. Unintended consequences concern both policy and knowledge in international development. MDGs had the reductionist effect of “selling human development as a package of basic needs away from the fundamental objectives of transformative social change and empowerment.” 

The confusion around the purpose of these goals (campaign slogans versus global development strategies) is a crucial issue that needs to be addressed in the post-2015 debate, because it implies conceptual differences between the goals. In particular, the “SMART” goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound) of the High Level Panel report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda are not sufficient if future goals are aimed at “development programming.” Different criteria should apply to different goals, depending on the objective itself. As such, goals should not only be quantitative and outcomes-driven, but should also be qualitative and tackle institutional arrangements. 

Related to the perceived need for “measurable” targets, other challenges mentioned for future objectives were the bias of defining goals based on data availability. The professor argued that “statistical availability should be driven by policy, and not the other way around.” In this respect, she welcomes both the HLP’s call for a “data revolution” and PARIS21’s efforts to build national statistical capacity. 

Concluding her oral presentation, she stressed the necessity of fairness in measuring the achievements of countries. The future goals need to be global as well as local. The oversimplified “off-track/on-track” distinction between countries prevents the international community to see the strong progress sub-Saharan countries have made towards the realisation of the MDGs. 

All in all, her work closely links to that of the OECD. Since October 2012, the Organisation began openly communicating ways that it could become involved in the post-2015 debate (which can be followed here). Dr. Hildegard Lingnau, the OECD’s representative for post-2015 welcomes a two-level approach and stresses the need to take national poverty lines into account in the Post-2015 framework. The OECD’s contribution to the global debate on the future goals is being published in a series of papers. An Overview paper has already been published and can be read here

For more information on the Power of Numbers project, click here

[1] Mrs. Sakiko Fukuda-Parr is a professor of International Affairs (GPIA) at the New School University, New York. From 1995 to 2004, Mrs Fukuda-Parr  was the author and director of the UNDP Human Development Reports.  Previously, she worked at the World Bank and UNDP on agriculture, aid coordination in Africa and capacity development.

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