Mark Lowcock: The future of international development

The Department for International Development's top civil servant looks at our shared potential to eradicate poverty within our lifetimes

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Mark Lowcock

Speech by DFID’s top civil servant at the British Council in New Dehli, India on our shared potential to eradicate poverty within our lifetimes.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: “the future depends on what you do today.”

So in looking at the future of international development, I want to start by looking at where we are today.

I turned 50 this year. My 16 year old son asked me which 50 years in human history I thought to be the best in terms of the quality of human lives. I said, why, the last 50 years of course.

Then I thought for a bit and said no, actually, it is the next 50 years that are going to be the best. Which made him feel a lot better but also led me to thinking about the pace of development in the last 5 decades, and how different our lives now are from those of earlier generations. There is no getting away from the fact that there has never been a luckier, healthier or more prosperous cohort than us.

Human beings have been on the planet for roughly 150,000 years. Until very recently, almost everyone’s human experience was concentrated solely in obtaining enough food, heat and light simply to sustain an existence.

100 years ago, there was only one country - it was Sweden actually - that had achieved an infant mortality rate below 10%. 175 countries have now brought their infant mortality rates below 10%, and 130 below 5%.

In the last 50 years, global life expectancy on average has risen from 47 years to 67 years.

The 3G smartphones on sale for less than 5000 rupees in Nairobi today enable a Kenyan to access more information than was in any library in the world 20 years ago - and to do so 24/7.

I enjoyed reading this summer a book by Mark Tully - (I believe one of the more successful UK exports to India!). It was called India: The Road Ahead or Non-Stop India, as it is called here. It brought home to me just how far India has travelled in my lifetime.

Mark Tully presents a range of compelling stories from all across this diverse country - not just illustrating the well-known economic miracle, but also the pace of change on social issues such as caste. The numbers speak for themselves.

  • India has progressed from a literacy rate of 28% in late 1961 to 74% in 2011
  • India’s share of global GDP has doubled - from 2.5% in 1980 to 5.5% in 2010
  • India has increased life expectancy from 26 to 72 years in 60 years: 1950 to 2010
  • India has raised the rate of growth from below 1% in the 1940s to around 3% in the early 70’s to over 6% in 2010’s.

And India has reduced poverty - from nearly 90% living in absolute poverty in 1940s to 51% in 1977-78 to just over 30% at present.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

And both here in India and across the rest of the world changes have been happening faster than seemed possible even 20 years ago. In the mid-1990s in the Overseas Development Administration, I was periodically tasked with writing briefing papers for John Vereker, then the Permanent Secretary, for meetings he attended with his counterparts in the OECD on the state of global development. These meetings ultimately led to the agreement of the International Development Targets. The IDTs then became one of the key building blocks for the Millennium Development Goals.

When they were first proposed in the 1990s, the MDGs were widely thought too ambitious and aspirational to be taken seriously. The pundits thought that halving the proportion of people living under a dollar a day, sending every child to school, reducing under-5 mortality by two thirds and maternal mortality by three quarters, all by 2015, was pie in the sky.

As we now know, the sceptics have been confounded. The halving poverty target was achieved 5 years early. And not just because of progress in China or other parts of Asia. Even in Africa, by 2008 most people in Africa, for the first time since measurement began, were judged to be living above the extreme poverty line. The clean water target was also met 5 years early. Access to basic education has improved dramatically. Infant mortality has plummeted.

So when my Prime Minister said in New York last month that the international community should aim to abolish extreme poverty within this generation, our generation, these were not just aspirational words. Abolishing extreme poverty within our lifetimes is absolutely within our grasp.

Future challenges

I’m not saying this will be easy. The figures speak for themselves:

Globally, we in the OECD at least, face the most difficult financial and economic outlook since the 1930s. We have lost momentum, sadly, in dealing with climate change and environmental challenges. We need to get that momentum back. We have seen major changes in many parts of Middle East and North Africa. We need to make sure those changes lead to real improvements in people’s lives. And we continue to face extensive challenges in preventing and dealing with the aftermath of conflicts.

Beyond 2015

So I am not saying that all the problems are solved. That is why I feel so passionately that the process that has now started in the United Nations to work out a new set of global development goals should have the same level of aspiration and ambition. The MDGs have provided a powerful focus for shared international action for the last 15 years. But after 2015 we will need a new framework, building on and taking forward the MDGs.

The UN has set up a very thorough consultative process to help shape this framework. The different UN agencies will lead consultations on different themes. There are country-based consultations in 50 countries with a leading role for civil society. And the Secretary General has established a High Level Panel co-chaired by the British Prime Minister, the Indonesian President and the Liberian President.

The panel has some of the top thinkers of our time - including Abhijit Banerjee - a very distinguished Indian economist who is very familiar to this audience. This panel had its first meeting in New York in September; its second meeting will be in London next month. And its task is to report back to the UN General Assembly next year.

Britain doesn’t yet have a fixed position on what these new goals should be. We want to hear what other countries have to say. We have listened to those who say that the formation of the Millennium Development Goals was driven too much by the Global North - with not enough input from the Global South.

But British Ministers have articulated some ideas as a contribution to the debate. At the end of the first panel meeting last month, David Cameron said five things:

  • The objective of the new framework should be the ending of global absolute poverty.
  • We should not get rid of the Millennium Development Goals. We should urge countries to complete and achieve the MDGs
  • We must look at the causes of poverty, not just the symptoms of poverty
  • We should consult the poorest in the world and ask what it is that they want
  • We must be bold and ambitious. If we write a complicated report we won’t be held to account for the conclusions that we reach. We want something simple and straight forward, with time-bound targets that everyone can understand, that can unite the world and that the politicians of the world and the leaders of the world can be held to account over.

The third of those points I’d like to dwell on - about looking at the causes not just the symptoms. Some people say that the current Millennium Development Goals framework - with its strong focus on access of poor people to basic services - has not focused enough on the underlying causes of poverty, the underlying enablers of progress.

For some people that means a need to pursue the human development agenda in greater depth - to look at education quality as well as access. For others it means focusing more on environmental sustainability, resource scarcity and climate issues. We agree with all that.

But when our own Government talks about the underlying enablers of development, they also increasingly talk about the importance of open economies and open societies, what David Cameron sometimes refers to as the “golden thread of development”.

The idea of open economies goes a lot wider than free trade. It includes the idea that citizens should be free to provide for their livelihoods; to access goods and services, as well as infrastructure connecting them to markets; to trade their skills and capital and pursue investment opportunities; and to contribute to a thriving private sector.

That economic governance should be transparent, credible, and stable - and include effective taxation as well as appropriate regulation.

That the costs of doing business should be reduced and the risks of investing minimised, including through legal protection of property rights and contract enforcement. There is strong evidence behind the idea that open economies support progress - not least the impact in India that Nandan Nilekani talked about of the economic liberalisation here in the 1990s. The idea that open societies are good for development is perhaps less frequently articulated - but it is easy to believe when visiting the capital of the world’s largest democracy.

The idea is about societies where all people have the same rights and responsibilities, regardless of their gender or their identity.

Where they are free to exercise choice, to express their voice, to challenge, and to secure change in how they are governed.

Where there is stability and absence of war, where people feel safe and have access to justice.

Where states have capable institutions, deliver responsive public services, are accountable to the public and tackle corruption and manage resources effectively.

And where the rule of law is respected, transparency promoted and an independent media protected.

While some of this may be controversial in some quarters, one thing which is very clear from the last decade is that the countries getting left behind in the pace of progress are those enmeshed in conflict or suffering from chronically poor governance. Organisations like my own see an increasing proportion of our resources and efforts spent in such countries. The new post-2015 framework has to reflect the reality of that in some way.

Ideas and visionaries

The history of human progress is built upon ideas. From the time that the first human (my guess is that it was a woman) had the idea of rubbing flints together to light a fire - development has been driven forward by ideas and innovation.

Nandan Nilekani of course is someone who personifies the big idea. As he says in his book - it is ideas that lead economic and social policy, rather than the other way round.

As one of the visionaries behind India’s IT revolution - he has of course demonstrated this in practice. One of the books I read this summer was a pacy page-turner called One Night in a Call Centre by Chetan Bhagat. Ah - I can see that many of you have read it too. As I was musing about the idea of young Indians just outside Delhi would be sorting out refrigerator problems for Americans in the Mid-West - it struck me that this was the stuff of science fiction when Nandan, Sam and I were all little boys!

Most of these magnificent ideas come from private individuals in the private sector. Another of the most inspirational books I have read this year (I must be giving the impression that all I do is read books - I don’t - or at least not as much as I’d like to!) was called Infinite Vision - about an idea that one man in South India had.

I am sure most of you are familiar with Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy, or Dr. V as he is called. He defied all business logic when he founded a small clinic with a big aim of curing blindness. Today the Aravind Hospital is the largest single provider of eye-care anywhere in the world. Every day it sees 1,200 patients and the doctors perform over 200 operations. It has grown into a network of eye hospitals that has seen 32 million patients over 36 years and performed more than 4 million eye surgeries, most of them ultra-subsidised or absolutely free. For about 50 Rupees (about one US Dollar), a patient can get three eye tests in three months. The business still defies logic - and yet it is going strong and amazingly self-reliant.

In my quarter century of work working on international development, I have come across other such inspirational stories - of big ideas that started small and have improved the lives of some of the poorest people in the world.

Mo Ibrahim - who has helped a whole generation of Africans leapfrog into the mobile age - joining them up and also expanding access to banking and finance in a way that the formal banking system never could.

Mohammad Yunus - who demonstrated that the poor are as credit-worthy as anybody else.

And India’s very own Verghese Kurien - who died a few weeks ago - who used the cooperatives model to engineer India’s White Revolution - taking India from being a milk-deficient nation to the largest milk producer in the world.

These people are the heroes - the architects of the new age of global development.

The new architecture of development

And that new global age brings with it a new global order. An order which no longer follows the tired old rules of the rich and the poor; the donor and the recipient; the first world and the third. It is a world in which countries like India, China and Brazil are reasserting their presence at the forefront of global progress.

One of the snippets I picked up from Nandan’s book was that at one time India and China accounted for over half the global GDP. As Jim O’Neill - who came up with the term BRICS - observed recently: “In 2011, China’s nominal $GDP rose by 1.3 trillion, equivalent to creating an economy the size of Greece every 11½ weeks and an economy the size of Spain in not much more than a year. The BRIC countries collectively contributed around $2.2 trillion, not too far off the equivalent of another Italy.”

To conclude then, I would like to offer a few reflections about what this changing world means for development organisations like mine:

First we need to clarify that business we are in.

I see three major business lines:

  • First, a focus on faster progress on the MDGs in those Low-Income fragile and conflict-affected states in which none of the MDGs have yet been met. There is a few dozen countries for which this is true.
  • Second, tackling global public bads: finally eradicating polio, tackling pandemics, and dealing with problems created by ungoverned spaces - terrorism, organised crime and the like. All countries in the world suffer the effects of these “bads” and official development assistance and organisations like DFID can help deal with them.
  • And third, more tentatively, there is the issue of what we can do as development agencies to help tackle poverty in Middle Income Countries.

Second, we need to do in agencies like mine is to change our offer.

And improve it. 20 years ago, aid was a key element in the external financing and public expenditure plans of many countries. Thankfully, that is less and less so now. Trade flows, remittances, and foreign direct investment have all over the last decade grown much faster than aid. So have domestic tax revenues in virtually every country. The role of donors now is not so much to fill financing gaps across the developing world:

  • We need to focus on the toughest problems (like the continuing challenge of child nutrition).
  • We need to concentrate on promoting science, technology, innovation and ideas and building the evidence on whether they work.
  • We need to help build the skills, capabilities, and institutions which help countries succeed.

Third, in improving our offer, we need to keep our eyes firmly on the big development challenges.

Just to pick two - we must retain our focus on girls & women - and increase our focus on climate change.

I am sure you know that last week (October 11th) was the first International Day of the Girl. DFID has staked a lot (reputation, money, and also hope) in the belief that the benefits of investing in girls and women are transformational - for their own lives and for their families, communities, societies and countries. India also has a vision - as seen in the raft of new and innovative investments to get girls into secondary school, and the impressive development impacts now becoming apparent from India’s reservations for women in local government.

Climate change. I know that there is a suspicion that the UK and Europe want countries like India to constrain their growth to tackle climate change.

That is entirely wrong. Yes, tackling climate change is important, but so is India’s growth and development.

Not only will India’s growth continue to underpin impressive reductions in poverty, it is also a driver of global prosperity.

The issue is not constraining growth but how we accelerate growth, in a greener and cleaner way.

Fourth, we need to sustain and increase aid volumes.

Official aid globally has increased from $60 billion a year a decade ago to $120 billion now. Which is part of the reason, incidentally, why development progress has accelerated over the last 10 years. But aid budgets in some countries are under pressure. In Britain, the Coalition Government has decided that despite the global downturn we will press ahead with plans to spend 0.7% of our national income on development. And next year we will reach this longstanding UN target, the first G8 country to do so.

**Fifth, we need to focus more rigorously on the results we are delivering **and the costs we are incurring in doing so - to make sure that we are spending aid to maximum effect. When I talk about results, I mean not just the longer term policy and system changes we aim to promote, but the hard facts of what immediate outputs we are buying through our aid programmes. We in DFID published our annual report last month, which set out the contribution we made in 2011/12:

  • We distributed 12 million bed nets to protect people against malaria
  • Gave 12 million people access to financial services so they can work their way out of poverty
  • Vaccinated over 12 million children against preventable diseases
  • Supported 5.3 million children to go to primary school - more than the total number of children in the UK primary school system
  • Reached 6 million people with emergency food assistance
  • Improved hygiene conditions for 7 million people.

It’s absolutely right that we should tell our taxpayers in this specific way what their aid is buying.

And sixth, we need to become more transparent and accountable

to our stakeholders - both the taxpayers who pay our bills, and the clients for whose benefit we work. Publishing our results is a key part of this.

But so is using all the resources of modern technology to ensure that people can check what we plan to do, whether it offers value for money, whether we achieve it, and whether what we are doing to put things back on course when they go wrong. It is the right thing to do.

“Publish What You Fund”- an international NGO - has just published its annual international aid transparency rankings - and I am happy to report that DFID is at the top of the 72 organisations covered in rankings.

My theme this evening has been the future of international development. I started by quoting Mahatma Gandhi saying how we build the future by what we do today. Let me end by quoting another great Indian - Mother Teresa - with a similar insight: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

Updates to this page

Published 16 October 2012