International development in 2023: the time to act is now

Localization, biodiversity and climate change, data innovation... What will be the big themes of international development in 2023 and what meaningful role can practitioners play?


As we start a new year it’s easy to look back at the last few with a growing sense of despair: despite two high-profile climate conferences in as many years, world leaders have still not managed to commit to limiting a global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius;  frosty negotiations and disgruntled delegates at the recent Biodiversity COP in Montreal have led many to believe that voluntary targets to reverse biodiversity loss will once again fail to translate into meaningful actions; and all the while the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to undermine economies, health systems and livelihoods, and amplify yawning disparities along lines of gender and race.  

The idea of ‘too little, too late’ seems to sum up the global policy response to the many challenges of the last year or so. It’s easy to use this inaction as an excuse to throw in the towel and lose momentum on addressing the thorny issues that greet us as we enter a new year. But perhaps now is a good time to recall the wisdom of an ancient Chinese Proverb:

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’

There really is no time like the present. As we embark on 2023, rather than reflecting on past failures, let’s regroup ourselves and look ahead to what might be possible. A lot has changed in the development sector, new, overdue themes and focuses are emerging – below I look at just some of these and outline how we, as development practitioners, can harness and embrace these to bring about lasting, positive change.  

A different type of problem…

There’s no denying that the challenges facing a fairer, more prosperous world are huge and manifold. Wherever in the world you saw in the new year, the unseasonable weather patterns you probably experienced are an ominous warning of the impact of uncontrolled global warming. A changing climate is already affecting the world we live in in complex, negative ways with 2022 becoming the eighth successive year in which temperatures have exceeded 1oC above pre-industrial levels. The frequency and magnitude of climate-related shocks continues to increase - with the recent widespread flooding in Pakistan a devastating example.

As well as direct loss of life from climate-related disasters, the economic consequences of a changing climate can undermine livelihoods and severely increase vulnerability. Through our own DEEP (Data and Evidence to End Extreme Poverty) programme, we have found evidence that temperature variability can be a driver of poverty in low- and middle-income countries. This result holds across a variety of different estimations and robustness checks with a one unit increase in the degree of temperature variability associated, on average, with an 0.187 unit reduction in relative household wealth.

What’s more, it’s often the poorest and most vulnerable who are the worst affected when it comes to a changing climate – be this at the national, regional, or local level. The recent COP27 in Egypt was notable mainly for being the first international meeting to seriously attempt to redress inequalities in the climate system – the proposal for a new ‘Loss and Damage fund’ for those countries most impacted by a changing climate being a long overdue milestone for climate justice.    

Inequality was also a major source of tension at the recent UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Canada. According to the World Bank, just a partial collapse of ecosystems and the biodiversity they support could result in a 10% loss to GDP for most of the world’s lower-income countries by 2030. The recently released State of Finance for Nature report highlights the need for finance flows of around US $480 billion per year to help protect and restore the world’s ecosystems. Despite the approval of a deal at COP15 to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, questions around where this finance will come from, and who will foot the bill, remain largely unanswered.

Many argue that the global crises of climate change and biodiversity have been overlooked by the need to address the impacts of another global shock – the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid hasn’t gone away; its effects continue to reverberate around the world. It has exposed struggling health systems the world over and highlighted the urgent need for international cooperation to address global health challenges – after all, in the words of the Global Fund: ‘the global health system is only as strong as the world’s weakest heath system’.

A different type of response…

It's clear that the scale – and therefore the nature – of crises has changed dramatically over the last few decades. While not new in themselves, the challenges we now face must be recognised as fully global and interlinked.  Indeed, funders like the World Bank are realigning themselves away from project- and country-specific lending towards global operating models to better respond to these challenges which simply don’t respect national boundaries. Where does this leave us? As development practitioners trying to support public policy reforms, there’s a lot to do – how best to do it?

Global issues through a local lens

Perhaps counterintuitively, we need to start local to address global problems. Localization – the shifting of power within the aid system from international donors, implementers, and aid agencies to local actors and communities is a key step towards a safer, more prosperous, and more equitable world.

While something of a buzzword at the moment, localization is certainly not a new concept – locally-led development has been part of the international development conversation for many years but has not, until very recently, received the prominence it deserves. Brought to the fore in the last few years by a number of factors including both the long overdue Black Lives Matter movement –  which questioned the grossly unequal distribution of power throughout the world –  and the Covid pandemic, which forced development actors to explore new avenues to continue to deliver vital aid.

Localization makes a lot of sense on paper – but how to actually do it in practice? Especially while, as development actors, we may feel restricted by funder requirements – timebound projects with specific milestones don’t necessarily leave much room for ensuring impacts are designed, implemented, and sustained by local actors working within local contexts. I would argue, however, that, as practitioners, we have a responsibility to ensure that this is exactly what happens and to work with clients and funders to help them see the impacts of this type of approach.

There are plenty of examples to back this up. In Mozambique, for example, the MUVA programme was an FCDO-funded initiative which ran for seven years up until last year to support the economic empowerment of adolescent girls and young women in urban centres across the country. Recognising persistent barriers that limit access to decent work, MUVA piloted and evaluated innovative projects to build the skills, self-confidence, and vision that young women need to work, and to create new job opportunities that match their aspirations and abilities. The success of MUVA’s methodology and approaches – positively impacting the lives of over 100,000 people to date - has led to donor interest in continuing to finance its work and as a result, MUVA has now become a national Mozambican NGO, continuing the impactful work first begun under the programme.  

Putting it in context

A key pillar of localization is a deep, context-specific understanding of the relationships between people, processes and institutions within a country. This sort of diagnostic approach is critical to identifying areas for reform – or, in other words: what will work, where and when – and can only come from building genuine partnerships with national experts.

Again, as development practitioners we have a key role to play here, facilitating and fostering these partnerships – in essence, doing the opposite to what aid workers have often (rightly) been criticised for: swooping into a country, imposing ideas and ‘sticking plaster’ solutions which have no discernible impact beyond the life of the project. 

This ‘people-process-institution nexus’ can be seen in action in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab Provinces of Pakistan through inclusive, locally grounded policy support for public services under the Sub-National Governance Programme. Recent pilots run under the progamme include those looking at improving solid waste management and have focused on the involvement of citizens and local officials in needs assessment, solution design, and crowd sourcing of feedback to help evaluate services. As a result, in KP, the solid waste management services model has grown rapidly and organically to include over 1000 households (from an initial 100), with the local government now intending to take it to 4000 households.

Technology as an enabler

Another key theme for 2023 is the use of data innovation to support development outcomes – this is something we can, and must, embrace. While big data techniques have been around for some time, applying data innovation to research and policy analysis in development is relatively new – and the potential is huge. This is not to say that more traditional data methods should be discarded but rather that by combining existing approaches with modern data science techniques and deep local knowledge, we can begin to gather, measure, analyse and disseminate evidence at a scale and precision that simply hasn’t been possible before now.

We’re seeing the policy implications of this in our own work in a number of different areas: for example, we’ve used Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques to assess responses to Covid in a number of countries, harnessing this powerful technique to draw meaningful insights from large volumes of data which would otherwise take too long to analyse. These insights in turn, have meant that rapid adjustments could be made to Covid response programmes in real time, improving outcomes for those most affected when they mattered the most.

As mentioned above, we also combined high-resolution poverty estimates derived from geospatial machine learning predictions with high resolution temperature data to estimate the relationship between poverty and temperature variability. The policy implications of the type of evidence this analysis has generated are huge: such high resolution analysis means policymakers can focus efforts and resources where they are needed most without spreading themselves too thinly. Working in partnership with the most affected communities will be key to understanding and addressing the impact of climatic shocks on livelihoods.

New Year Resolutions

Despite the huge, global challenges we face, there’s hope for a brighter 2023.  Armed with a fresh appreciation of the power of thinking and acting locally; a deeper and wider understanding of where and how reforms can drive lasting change; and the role of innovative technology in supporting us, we in the development community have a role to play in addressing these challenges in a meaningful way. Yes, it’s true that we would have the greatest impact by investing in each of these areas twenty years ago, but we have the opportunity now to plant the trees that will bear fruit in the future.

Linda Muruganandan is the Director of Consulting here at Oxford Policy Management.

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