The Problem with Global Income Categories

With so many countries experiencing rapid rates of growth, with so much income disparity and with so many countries whose particular demographic/economic situations are of a complexity which belies the simplicity of mere income-based rankings, how come the World Bank’s famous global income categories, measured in Gross National Income per capita are still used with such authority?

Several possible reasons stand out: 1-because GNI per capita and global income categories are widely understood and used categories, useful for communicating and coordinating with a multitude of international actors; 2-because these categories can be indicative of countries’ capacities to produce goods and services; 3-because many developing countries have embraced the terminology derived from these categories, with attaining the middle income category being seen as a significant achievement.

The Middle Income Angle
Much of the debate within international financial institutions, development agencies and global fora is focused on identifying the position and role of middle income countries in global development assistance architecture. Key considerations include whether to continue to allocate resources to middle income countries, whether or not to prioritize certain middle income countries in global aid and lending strategies, identifying the role of middle income countries as emerging donors and sources of development experience and expertise, as well as specifying the type of engagement that the international development world needs to take in middle income countries.

The conventional view espoused by the main development and lending organizations as well as some OECD donor countries is that rapidly narrowing poverty gaps and growing GDP in middle income countries, along with increased capacity to formulate and actuate viable development solutions means that a higher priority should be given to lower income countries in development assistance, and at the least that support to MICs should not come at the expense of support to other categories of countries, such as LDCs.

Middle income countries have better access than their lower income counterparts to funds through their tax bases or their ability to enter sovereign bond markets, mobilize more competent bureaucracies and provide additional support for expanded social safety nets, and therefore less in need of development assistance.

The critique to the conventional view suggests that while specific country needs and responses by the international community may change with a ‘graduation’ to middle income status, this does not necessarily mean that serious problems do not exist within MICs, or that less priority should be placed on all middle income countries.

Recent studies have noted that with 74 per cent of the world’s poor (living on under 1.25$ per day) now living in middle income countries, the only way to make significant gains in the struggle against global poverty is for international development cooperation to give special attention to poor people, not just poor countries.

livingthemiddleincomedream

Living the middle income dream at $ 2.25 a day

Moreover the growth in GNI that can push countries across the imaginary line to another income category is not necessarily a reflection of commensurate increases in the wellbeing of all of their population. Many countries have persisting inequality and ‘pockets of poverty’, often in underserved regions or among marginalized populations, which national governments are often unable or unwilling to address. In short GNI growth by itself is misleading, and efforts must be made to better represent the relative quality of growth in global-level discussions.

While the conventional view generally acknowledges a broad diversity in countries which cuts across income categories, it still makes reference to and accepts these categories as approximate indications of the overall wellbeing of a country. However the link between income and other areas of development is not always very clear, and discussions on a variety of development-related topics, including food security, run the risk of becoming misleading if they take their cue from income categorizations.

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Memories of Busan: HLF-4 and the Private Sector

A new paper by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation and the think-tank the North South Institute, as well as an insightful Oxfam blog post have inspired this look back at what Busan got wrong with the private sector, and how to fix it.

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In November of 2011 I received the opportunity to volunteer at the Busan High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF-4)…’s Global Civil Society Forum. It was a 3-day Forum bringing together the voices of civil society in preparation for the actual High Level Forum. Speaking English, French, Spanish and Korean with the participants, sitting in on plenary sessions, helping to translate the final document, or interpreting for a Guatemalan participant during his presentation were definitely some of the highlights for me.

Many different agenda were brought together in the plethora of plenary and splinter sessions, but two main ideas kept coming up. The first was the need to shift the aid paradigm to a discussion on ‘development effectiveness’ and not ‘aid effectiveness’. The second was born out of concern that further involvement of the private sector in bilateral aid could be dangerous to sustainable development and democratic ownership of the development process.

These concerns reflected an apprehension that the agenda set for the HLF, along with the blueprints for a ‘global partnership’ for aid and development were all really just an excuse for donor countries to justify ‘privatizing ODA (Official Development Assistance)’ and partnering with the private sector to offset their declining aid allocations.

“Effective Use of Declining Aid Resources”

me at busan

Me (far right) translating for a Guatemalan delegate during a Busan Civil Society Forum session

The result, after several days of meetings, was the Busan Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, a mouthful of a name. But for all its good language, the actual High Level Forum’s final document did not take civil society’s concerns very seriously. There is certainly progress in the discourse and focus of the international aid community. Busan did make some positive steps:

  1.  It put forward the idea of a global partnership for development
  2.  It embraced a discourse of ‘development effectiveness’ and ‘democratic governance’
  3. It emphasized several core values and rights placing people closer to the center of development processes.

It really failed to impress on certain other counts, though:

  1. It failed to speak specifics about the nature of the partnership it was supposed to build
  2. It did not reach a clear conclusion on the nature of BRICS and NIC involvement in the new aid architecture
  3. It pushed for increased private sector participation in development aid without sufficiently defining the parameters and expectations, the dangers and safeguards that need to go along with it. (The non-binding, sidelined Joint Statement (pdf) was a good first step)

This last point struck me as the most important at the time; the private sector is the bulk of most economies, the driver of growth and creator of wealth, but is also a potentially harmful partner in a development context. Moreover the shift to the private sector seemed to be more about donor country funds shrinking with the onslaught of the financial crisis, and less to do with a sudden discovery of how awesome private sector actors were.

Evaluating the Private Sector in Development Since Busan

So this Canadian Council for International Co-operation report on bilateral donor approaches to development cooperation is certainly edifying in this respect. It discusses how top OECD donors have incorporated (‘partnered’ with) the private sector into their bilateral aid programs, and what this has come to mean for development effectiveness, especially in a post-Busan context.

The paper looks at the type of private-sector partnership and promotion aid, and notes that it focuses mostly on macro-level interventions (the famous business-enabling environment), on firm-level projects, including public-private partnerships. The conclusions it reaches speak to the fears that were present at the Busan Civil Society Forum, namely that partnering with private sector actors in development, in its current form:

  • Tends to favor economic shifts driven from outside the beneficiary country
  • Tends to forgo local capacity building and offers little incentive for funding mechanisms to favor the domestic private sector
  • Tends to confound private and public results
  • Does not lend itself well to evaluation due to a lack of data and to the various mechanisms though which private-sector aid takes place

A notable point that came out of the research: despite many references to rights, to sustainability and to gender, it is not clear at all that these issues were given special consideration on the aggregate.

IFC_Logo

Oxfam: “The World Bank’s private sector financing arm doesn’t know the environmental and social impacts of nearly half its portfolio”

Case in point: a recent audit released by the World Bank’s Compliance Advison/Ombudsman says that the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) is very poorly informed about the environmental and social impacts of its financial market lending portfolio. The logic of lending to financial markets is very clearly not coupled with principles of sustainable development, social or environmental impact.

Questions

Erinch Sahan at Oxfam asks an important question “can aid money be a meaningful driver of growth?” That is, can bilateral assistance, partnering with the private sector, become part of the solution?

On one hand I think that we have yet to see a country in which aid, in general, has become a meaningful and sustained driver of economic growth (never mind equitable distribution of wealth). What we do have are countries that have successfully used growth strategies to achieve (more or less) inclusive growth.

Partnering with the private sector certainly has its benefits. But one of the more serious side effects that it comports is to evacuate the donor country from the aid process (take a look at how European multilateral public-private partnership funding mechanisms like the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund are structured- it’s just layer after layer!). In so doing, this tends to also evacuate the recipient (‘partner’) state from the processes of its own development. This was the big argument brought against the World Bank’s PPIAF, that it put pressure on governments to do business with international firms, and then to concede to often disastrous changes in the provision of social goods, like water or electricity.

So, we know the dangers. We can see the evolution of the involvement of private sector actors in bilateral aid (more of them, with ever more diverse mechanisms of action, centered on macro and firm-level interventions).

postbusan seoul civsocfor

The 2nd Seoul Civil Society Forum, one of the many Post-Busan evaluation conferences

Busan’s HLF-4 was one step on the road to consolidate and legitimate what evidently turned out to be an ad-hoc appeal to new sources of money, or new ‘partnerships’ to use the pretty term. It reached out to Chinese and other emerging economies’ capital, just as it did to companies, in order to buttress lagging ODA numbers. In its haste to create the semblance of unity in the form of a partnership, it gave no more than lip-service, non-enforceable, if-you-don’t-mind-sir recommendations on how to properly integrate these new sources of funding. And even those didn’t make it into the final document.

Before the Private Sector Party Jumps Off…

Okay, but what are the responses? What specific private sector funding mechanisms have worked and in what context? How can governments preserve policy coherence all while harnessing the financial power and access to financial markets that private sector partners can provide?

Answers to questions like these are needed, like, yesterday. Because for one, the Post-Busan Partnership Framework is proving to be a slow, slow process. Another reason is that new and emerging donors like South Korea are more and more eager to jump on the private sector bandwagon, but not as conscious of its pitfalls.

A year and a bit after Busan, I can’t help but regret that the Civil Society Forum’s voice was given so little weight.

Dissonance in Development Discourse: ‘Africa Rising’

I recently wrote my frustration with the conception of risk and vulnerability in the African continent as dealt with by a Davos World Economic Forum debate. There is a similar line in the ‘Africa Rising ’ discourse, which as the Davos debate, centered almost exclusively on growth, investment and interest in the continent’s economic future. What is missing from these conversations is a serious consideration of how growth is benefiting the citizens of each country, and how international development efforts and international capital should approach this evolution.

Part of the problem is a dissonance between aid/development actors and business and investment actors when it comes to developing economies on the continent. The discourse of shared growth, welfare, investment in local economies and the like are pillars of the broader aid/development discourse, and are put into practice through different programs and policy advising.

The business and investment end does not have the same angle of attack. To be sure there are differences between foreign direct investment and financial speculation, bank driven investment and the like. The nature of the investment and the timeframe considered for the investment are such that in the latter case, there is a smaller incentive to care about second-degree causes of success, such as a country’s education level. There is a tendency across the board to look at indicators such as the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, ‘hard’ infrastructure such as roads, electricity, internet, but also the ‘soft’ infrastructure indicators that are laws, regulations, corruption indices and the like.

This is why debates like Davos can come up, and this is why McKinsey and Co. keeps coming out with reports (relevant and useful though they may be) on how Africa’s rise is being driven by privatization, low inflation rates and other ‘strong fundamentals’. So, that the question of ‘whose benefit’ has not been featured as prominently as it should be in a certain (nebulous) sector’s articulation of ‘Africa Rising’ is certainly one glaring obstacle.

Nairobi Marketplace

Nairobi Marketplace

African Consumption

There is another very interesting line, running parallel to the previous one, but with a more African-centered focus: it’s the way in which Africa’s rise is equated with the rise of an African middle class and of an African consumer. (This is a real leit motif of whoever is in charge of African markets research over at McKinsey, because they are all over this one- and here, and here). The actual numbers are very interesting. Consumer product industries slated to grow by 400 billion dollars by 2020. Private consumption on the continent rose by 568 billion dollars from 2000 to 2010. All very exciting stuff.

It’s exciting because an African consumer of enough significance could really change the way foreign capital looks at African countries, in addition to deepening markets for African businesses. In pointing this out, these reports, op-eds and books play an important role in getting the message out- that is, we are long past the days when ‘development’ in African countries meant simple aid money. Okay, all well and good.

Upon Further Inspection…

But this discourse and these studies are still very detached from that of shared growth and social welfare. The business community, the investors who have African countries, companies, and projects in their portfolios aren’t as eager to talk social protection, insurance and welfare.

And yet there is a real need to do so. Not simply because there is a large vulnerable population on the continent, but because sometimes the very growth that is touted in all these statistics comes at the expense of the more vulnerable population. So yes, there is a rising African consumer. But when you look closer, you learn that 81% of African private consumption is concentrated in 10 countries- only 5 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa (and they are all pretty much the usual suspects). One more step and you learn that a vast majority of labor on the continent is informalized. Another step and you see that while Diaspora communities returning ‘home’ can bring some economic advantages, it also perpetuates existing social inequalities.

You can be satisfied with the quotation here below for only so long…

In the 1990s African economies embraced the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) structural adjustment programmes, which advocated free market policies.“The introduction of liberalisation, which focused on private sector-led growth, is key to the growing middle class on the continent,” said Bategeka. “Countries introduced sound economic policies which controlled inflation, benefiting investments in their economies.” Source

…before you remember what structural adjustment also did to the African state’s ability to protect the most vulnerable in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the end…

There is nothing wrong with growth. But when you keep listening to Davos and to McKinsey and the others, it is easy to forget that growth and wealth in and of itself is not the end goal. Equatorial Guinea is classified by the World Bank as a High-Income country since 2007, even while 77% of the population lives on less than 2 dollars a day.

How can more of the population be involved in and see benefits from growth? How can growth serve to protect the most vulnerable from the risks of a globalizing domestic economy, from environmental changes, from health concerns? These are all questions of importance to the continent, and yes, to its overseas investors as well. This is the type of debate I would like to see grace center stage at forums like Davos.

Chris Blattman

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