Interview with Olav Kjørven, Assistant Secretary-General, UNDP

Olav Kjørven is Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Bureau for Development Policy at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

In this interview, Mr. Kjørven discussed the current and possible future role of the Millennium Development Goals, their relevance for development programming in fragile states, as well as the increasingly prominent role of nontraditional donors like Brazil, India, and China in development.

Mr. Kjørven called the MDGs a “success”  due to the fact that “they profoundly influenced how governments prioritize resources.” He said, “if we hadn’t had them, the world would have looked very different.” Looking ahead, Mr. Kjørven underlined the importance of trying to achieve a similar common framework again: “You cannot overestimate the importance of having shared goals for development.”

The interview was conducted by Vanessa Wyeth, Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript:

Vanessa Wyeth (VW): Today the Global Observatory is meeting with Olav Kjørven, Assistant Secretary General and Director of the Bureau for Development Policy at the UN Development Program, UNDP. Mr. Kjørven, thanks for being with us.

Progress on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals has been limited and uneven. Looking back at the first eleven years of MDG-guided development work, what are some of the successes we’ve seen? And where has progress been most lacking?

Olav Kjørven (OK):I think we can safely say that amazing progress has been achieved for many of the MDGs in scores of countries around the world. For instance, if you look at universal primary education; improvements in access to education for girls; if you look at HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria; if you look at access to water. We’ve seen amazing progress, and also on aspects of the other goals.

Where we have generally been less successful as a global community to make sufficient progress has to do with issues that pertain the most directly to–unfortunately–women and girls. I think that speaks to a problem around the world that women and girls are too often marginalized socially, economically, politically, and it has taken us a bit too long to realize the kinds of impediments that women and girls face in making the kind of progress we’d like to see.

That’s why at the MDG summit in the year 2000 we put a strong focus on this, and now there is a whole coalition to really address the gaps where they matter the most and where we are most behind in terms of achieving the MDGs which precisely have to do with maternal health, with child health–at least for girls–and in still too many countries, girls’ access to education.

More broadly speaking, I would say that even if we don’t achieve all MDGs in all countries by 2015–I still think there’s time to actually achieve them–but even if we don’t, we can say that they’ve been a success because they have profoundly influenced how governments prioritize resources, the amounts of money they put into budgets for social purposes to reach people. So if we hadn’t had them, the world would have looked different. It’s because we had these MDGs, we’ve been able to come together as a global community and make a difference in these 10-11 years, and we still have time towards 2015. But we could and should have been further along now than we are. So it’s a mixed bag, but, by and large, I think it’s very important to recognize the profound impact the MDGs have had.

VW: What, in your view, needs to happen to make more progress on reaching them in 2015?

OK: The most important thing is to, in each and every country, zoom into the specific gaps, identify the actual bottlenecks for progress. For example, maternal health–to really understand what stands in the way of women having access to appropriate healthcare at times of birth. Sometimes it’s about fixing things in the health sector. Other times, it’s about ensuring there is transport infrastructure in place so women can get quickly to healthcare when they need it. Other times it has to do with capacity in the local administration or insufficient knowledge or understanding of the importance of investing resources in maternal health. Sometimes it’s about legislation and cultural impediments that need to be addressed. In each and every country, whatever the gap is, whatever the bottleneck is, to bring the government together with partners, be they donors or NGOs, others, around the same table and zoom in on the specific challenges. If you do that in country after country, we can make amazing progress over the last 3-4 years.

VW: Turning to a slightly different subject–as the 2011 World Development Report highlighted, no low-income fragile or conflict-affected country has yet achieved a single MDG. In your view, how can we reverse this trend? And speaking more broadly, are the MDGs an appropriate framework for development in countries affected by conflict and fragility?

OK: Let me start with where you ended that question. I think the MDGs can and should be a very important part of the strategy for countries that are in conflict, or are emerging from conflict, or in a kind of a post-conflict state. I think too often, we have not, as a matter fact, been able to bring sufficient focus on the MDG agenda in these kinds of countries because we have been so preoccupied with security and other kinds of issues that have to do with very important things like building institutions for governance to get the states to function.

But the point here is that the if we are not able, as a country is emerging from years of warfare, to show that there’s a peace dividend, to show that people can experience, unlike before, they are able to put their kids into school, they are able to go to a clinic and get the help they need, unlike before–it’s very difficult to sustain the peace process. People need to see that that there is something concrete and positive that happens and that requires focus on these kinds of social, fundamentally human dignity, issues. It’s not enough. You need to do a lot of other things to sustain peace, and so you can’t say that the MDGs will do everything in the DRC or in Somalia or in Afghanistan. But too often, they’ve been marginalized as part of the overall international effort in these countries.

VW: Recent studies have pointed out that the majority of the world’s so-called bottom billion, poorest people actually now live in middle-income countries with rising inequality in the developing world. This is a change from what we have previously seen. Can development policies that were originally tailored for poor countries be adapted to meet the needs of poor people regardless of what kind of country they live in? And what would need to change?

OK: I think yes and no. Extreme poverty has been a reality in middle-income countries for a very long time. It is nothing new. It’s just that because of general population growth and growing inequality in some–not all–middle-income countries, we are seeing, as you say, that there are big and bigger pockets of poverty relative to the total population in some of the middle-income countries than before. And that it’s true that the approach you would take in a low-income country where GDP per capita generally is very very low is different from what you would do in the in a country like, say Indonesia or Mexico or India or Brazil, simply because the economy is different and you have in many ways, many more levers to play with to be able to address the poverty problem. It’s a distributional issue, it’s an equity issue, so you have to look at the whole spectrum of interventions in governance in terms of social policies, access to land for people, access to property rights for the poor (not just for the elites). The kinds of things that can help deal or create more space for the poor to participate.

You also have to look very carefully at the issues of minorities; ethnic minorities, indigenous people–they very often are the most excluded in middle-income countries. But very interestingly over the last few years we’ve seen a lot of amazing policy-innovation in many of these countries. I would say that we have almost more to learn from countries like Argentina and Brazil today that have done a lot of very interesting policy-innovation, than they have to learn from Northern countries–that is a very new development. For us at the UNDP, we need to really be a broker for the kinds of solutions that work across countries in the South because we work in developing countries. But I think going towards the future, there’s going to be a demand also for policies that work to be disseminated from the South to the North–that’s another very interesting change we’re seeing.

VW: Non-traditional donors, countries like Brazil and India and China, while also dealing with issues of poverty at home, are starting to play an ever-more prominent role in development. These are not OECD countries; they don’t necessarily play by the OECD rule book. How is the emergence of these so-called BRICs changing the donor landscape? What is UNDP’s experience in engaging the emerging economies as development actors on development issues?

OK: Well, that’s a great question and it’s very important to understand that the world has fundamentally and profoundly changed over the last few years. A few years ago, the development discourse was kind of a North-South discourse and although it was never fully admitted, in retrospect, it was almost as if the North had all the answers and the moral authority to tell poor countries how to run their affairs. ‘You are not good enough on governance, you have to do this. You are not good enough on economic policy, you have to do this.’

After the financial and economic crisis, that’s impossible. It was caused by the North; it was caused by governance breakdowns in the North and there’s no such moral authority anymore. Then add to that the emergence of China or India or Brazil and other countries of the South as bigger global economic players. They are still developing countries, they still have huge pockets of poverty, still big problems, but nevertheless, they are big global players. They have ambition also when it comes to providing support to other countries, and, lo and behold, they are increasingly investing money in different ways, in purely commercial terms as well as more in an aid kind of way to spur investment, to spur growth in other developing countries. But they are also very careful for this not to be lumped in with traditional North-South development assistance.

It’s very interesting now to see the kinds of debates that take place in international fora around, ‘Okay, how can we work together to ensure that whatever money is put on the table has the best development results, that can lead to the most poverty reduction for poor people in poor countries.’ In here, there is a bit of unease on all sides because Northern donors would very much like to bring, if you wish, the Southern donors into the same fold because it would increase the overall resource envelope that can be put to use in developing countries but developing countries like China, India, and Brazil typically see their own contributions as something different. They find South-South cooperation as something that is distinct and different from the North-South development paradigm.

There’s a big meeting in Busan, Korea coming up in November, where these issues will be really at the fore and what everyone agrees is important, is to find a modus operandi where the different kinds of development cooperation can be, in a sense, viewed as relevant to each other, even though they are defined as, and understood as different ways of working for the same objectives. It’d be interesting to see how far governments will be able to take this agenda. It’s very important, but we are very much in a state of change at this point in time, and it’s not so easy to see where it will all end up.  What’s very welcome though is that these countries are in fact investing in development more and more across the world.

VW: Building back on the first few things we discussed–what do you see as the future of the MDGs after 2015? Do you think they should be carried forward? Do you think a new framework should take their place, and, if so, what kind of framework?

OK: That is an excellent question, and we at the UN, we are now gearing up for a very ambitious process of trying to orchestrate a process that will lead to agreement on what sort of world we want to build for the future beyond 2015. The MDGs came out of a very long process with many international meetings with big declarations–like the Millennium Declaration in the year 2000–but essentially they were presented by the then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the year 2000, and somehow miraculously accepted by everybody, and became the shared development goals of the whole world. That was almost a miracle. It will take quite a lot, I would say, to be able to move this conversation forward in such a way that member states will agree again in 2015, but it is extremely important to try to achieve that, because the value of having a shared framework, shared goals is—you can’t overestimate the importance of having a shared framework for development.

So we will do our utmost to help shape that process, and we will do this by reaching out very broadly to global publics. We want to use whatever collectivity–social media, other tools we can use–to engage as many people as possible all over the world in this conversation under the heading of ‘what kind of world do you want.’ Because that’s really what this is about: what sort of world do we want to build over the coming decades recognizing that the MDGs have allowed us to do many extremely important things and we should continue to do them to make further progress on education for all, on really eliminating unnecessary maternal deaths, on rolling out safe water supply and sanitation for all. This is still very important, but we can’t ignore the climate crisis, we can’t ignore the inequality crisis, and that has to be reflected somehow as well in this framework.

We shouldn’t be too prescriptive about this, we shouldn’t tell the world ‘these are great goals and why don’t you agree to them.’ We should first listen. So, that’s the first step, and we’ll see what happens in 2015. Hopefully, member states will manage to agree on a new set of goals.

VW: Mr. Kjørven, thank you so much.