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The Development Progress Project: Learning from Implementing the MDGs

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22 January 2014

Development Progress is a four-year research project supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and executed by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI).  It aims to measure, understand and communicate where and how development progress has happened to better inform policy makers and practitioners. Interim findings were presented at a well-attended session during the European Development Days 2013.

Drawing on expertise across ODI, the Development Progress project features a series of case studies exploring how countries have advanced in specific areas such as health, education, environment, political voice, employment, material wellbeing, women’s empowerment and security. Further analysis takes this and other evidence to delve more deeply into questions around the measurement, political economy and financing of development.

Head of Project, Susan Nicolai said that the idea for the project originated during the mid-term review of the MDGs “where there was a lot of pessimism that the agreed targets were not being achieved.” The ODI team felt that while many MDG targets were indeed classed as ‘off-track’, this overlooked the fact that considerable progress has taken place in some countries. 

‘The Millennium Development Goals are too black and white,’ said Ms Nicolai. ‘They are not the whole story, so we went under the hood to explore more.’ 

One of the project’s specific objectives is to examine the kinds of incentives that were made available to achieve MDG targets and what this might mean looking ahead to the post-2015 goals. 

By the end of 2015, the project will have gathered and analysed over 50 country-level “stories of change” that illustrate different pathways to progress.

Learning from Nepal’s success in reducing the maternal mortality ratio

The Nepal country case study explores the lessons that can be drawn from a remarkable story of progress. It reveals that despite a 10-year insurgency, persistent political upheaval, and some of the world's most challenging terrain for the delivery of healthcare, Nepal has reduced its maternal mortality ratio by almost 50% - meaning it is one of the few countries on track to achieve MDG 5.

Jakob Engel, lead researcher for this country study, observed that while there was ‘no single magic bullet’, Nepal’s performance was driven by a number of interrelated factors including: synergies at policy level; improved health delivery;  a rise in household incomes driven by outward migration remittances; access to education for women; and infrastructural improvements.



What was it about Nepal’s health policy context that enabled such a significant change to occur? 


Mr Engel attributed this to the country’s ability to create an “institutional memory” by encouraging technocrats in the health ministry - many of whom had started their careers as medical doctors in rural areas and understood the problems that pregnant women face - to stay in their posts for a long time. 


He also noted the willingness of stakeholders to look beyond their sectoral silos and see maternal health as an integrated cross-governmental issue that also requires coordinated action  “through education, the infrastructural network [and] through economic policy.” 

Understanding the “Four Smarts” of development progress

Susan Nicolai explained that the second phase of the project will examine such supply- and demand-side changes in more depth. She said, however, that a preliminary analysis of more than 20 country studies carried out during the first phase of the project has enabled the research team to identify “four smarts” that drive development progress: Smart Leadership, Smart Institutions, Smart Policies and Smart Friends

Does this offer a ‘recipe’ for scaling up Nepal’s success to other sectors and countries?

While each context is unique, Mr Engel said that one of the keys to Nepal’s success is the focus on evidence-based policymaking through “collecting and going through data, seeing what kinds of policies and interventions might work in this context and carrying those through over not just one legislative cycle, but over 10, 15 years.” 

One of the “transferable” elements in this, he added, “is the extent that you really focus on policy coherence [and] don’t necessarily change mid-level technocrats every electoral cycle.” 

On the role of external support, Mr Engel noted that while donor funding played an important role in Nepal’s success, what was even more important was their willingness to engage over a long time period with officials at different levels, right down to local government, “to see that the interventions that worked were scaled up at a relatively functional level.”

Information about the EU Dev Days ‘Lab session’, ‘Understanding Development Progress’, including an audio recording of the session, is available here.  

For more on the Development Progress project, including some of the data gathered so far, please visit the website.

This collaborative piece was drafted by Wangu Mwangi with input from Susan Nicolai, and support from the Coordination Team


Photo: Nepal Health Sector Support Programme 

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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