Upgrading world development cooperation

Alicia Bárcena Ibarra
Stefano Manservisi
Mario Pezzini
Commonly used income-related gauges are too narrow to capture the complexities of a country's development status, and that is why new approaches and methodologies are needed.
Alicia Bárcena Ibarra
Stefano Manservisi
Mario Pezzini

These are hard times for international cooperation. With rising protectionism, burgeoning trade disputes, and a troubling lack of concern for shared interests like climate change, the world seems to be turning its back on multilateralism.

And yet cooperation remains one of our best hopes for addressing humanity’s most complex development-related challenges. Just as the Marshall Plan rebuilt a war-ravaged Europe and the Millennium Development Goals lifted some 471 million people out of extreme poverty, the international development agenda can still deliver results thanks to the combined potential of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, and the Paris climate agreement.

But this agenda cannot continue using traditional thinking and tools to account for countries that are no longer defined as “developing” or “most in need” because they passed a certain threshold in terms of average per-capita income.

This challenge is particularly acute in Latin America and the Caribbean, where many countries have achieved greater GDP per capita, but still face significant vulnerabilities and structural obstacles to long-term prosperity.

How can the international community help countries like these convert income gains into sustainable development gains? How can these countries’ experiences and lessons learned be shared with countries in similar situations? The answer, we believe, is to adopt a new and better set of tools to assess challenges and implement solutions ­— an approach we call “development in transition.” Under this framework, four key areas call for immediate and sustained attention.

No one-size-fits-all approach

First, stakeholders must change how they evaluate progress. Commonly used income-related gauges, like per capita GDP, are too narrow to capture the complexities of a country’s development status, and that is why new approaches and methodologies are needed. Measures of wellbeing and structural gaps, for example, paint a better picture of socioeconomic health, which must include the environment.

Second, because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to human development, countries must develop strategies that are tailored to their needs. Moreover, effective development planning requires participatory processes that capture inputs from regional and local actors and are sensitive to the collective global good. The best plans combine national ambitions with recognition of local economic realities and include priorities and trade-offs that allow governments at all levels to be flexible with implementation.

Third, countries must solve the funding quandary that occurs as development progresses. When economies achieve higher income levels, they often must confront decreasing flows of official development assistance and other sources of capital. But, because many countries have relatively low tax-to-GDP ratios, mobilizing domestic resources for development spending can be difficult and may require international cooperation to design and implement fiscal reforms to maintain macroeconomic stability while improving socioeconomic health.

Finally, the world needs new forms of cooperation. Countries should deepen existing partnerships and strive to create new ones. Options for enhanced engagement include South-South and triangular cooperation, knowledge sharing, technology transfers, and peer-to-peer policy dialogues. For the first time, the 2030 Agenda provides a universally accepted measurement set so all countries can communicate within the same parameters.

In the spirit of reform, our organizations have joined forces to establish the Regional Facility for Development in Transition for Latin America and the Caribbean, an initiative designed to help the region’s countries meet their development goals as they move toward higher income levels. The facility, which was created to assist countries as they identify, design and implement solutions in pursuit of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, may be an important step on the road to next year’s Second High-level United Nations Conference on South-South Cooperation (BAPA+40) in Buenos Aires.

But to succeed in improving development outcomes, countries must be motivated by more than self-interest. In an era when the benefits of multilateralism are being questioned precisely as we draw closer to the planet’s ecological limits, income inequality is growing, and innovation and technology are transforming how people learn and work, the world needs a more equitable and cooperative approach to globalization. And one of the best ways to deliver it is with a sustainable development model that leaves no one behind.

Alicia Bárcena Ibarra is Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Stefano Manservisi is Director-General of International Cooperation and Development at the European Commission. Mario Pezzini is Director of the Development Center at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and a special adviser to the OECD Secretary-General on Development.


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