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September 11, 2015

Responding To: SFS Dean Inaugurates Georgetown's Discussion of Global Governance

Development Challenges and Global Governance: The Long View

Joel Hellman

Of all the challenges we face in building a better global governance framework to foster growth and poverty reduction, perhaps the most important is time. We need to radically rethink the time frames that govern our development interventions, especially in the most difficult environments of fragile and conflict-affected states.

To illustrate, let’s play a game of “how long will it take?” first proposed by Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett (both of the Harvard Kennedy School) and Michael Woolcock (of the World Bank).  Let’s start now in the year 2015 with Haiti, an archetypal fragile state.  And let’s ask:  how long would it take Haiti to achieve the quality of institutions of a typically poor, less developed (but not conflict-affected) country like Bangladesh. Not Denmark, not Sweden, not the United States, not a typical state or city government like Indianapolis, but Bangladesh. We have good annual measurements of the quality of institutions in every country over the past 25 years, and we can measure progress and change in institutional reform over time. Now we can ask: if Haiti continues to reform its institutions at the same pace it has over the last 25 years, how long will it take to reach the current level of Bangladesh? The answer: 102 years.

Of course, this assumes that Haiti does not undertake concerted reforms to improve its institutions.  So let’s ask another question: What if Haiti introduced an institutional reform program that would see a pace of change equivalent to the fastest institutional reformers we have in our cross-country database?  Now, we are talking about countries like Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, who have made tremendous strides in building effective institutions.  If Haiti were able to reform its institutions at the pace of the fastest 20 reformers in our database, how long would it take to get from where they are now to the quality of institutions in Bangladesh?  The answer:  26 years.

What does that say? Maybe it’s depressing. Certainly it is daunting to see these long time frames. But given the low base of the institutional quality in fragile states, given the amount of progress they have to traverse in order to reach even basic levels of institutional quality, we need to rethink our time frames. Most development projects are not built around a recognition of these time frames.  They have results indicators that promise to transform places like Haiti to institutional standards of places like Sweden, Denmark or well run U.S. states all in a three to five-year time frame. But if we are realistic about the time it takes to build institutions in fragile and conflict-affected states, we need to radically rethink our development interventions and the global architecture that governs them. What does a development project look like that tried to bring Haiti’s institutions to the quality of Bangladesh’s institutions? How do you plan results frameworks that ensure accountability, but are realistic about what can be achieved in the short and medium term?  How do you measure results when progress is likely to be so slow, incremental, and always at risk of reversal?  How do you transform reforms that should be measured in decades, but by necessity need to be encapsulated into projects and budgets implemented in the course of three, five, or at most seven years? I think this requires us to fundamentally rethink what we do, how we do it, and what this means for the global governance of development assistance.

So what can we do? Jeffrey Sachs often says that we know the answers to many of the most pressing development problems, even in these most difficult cases, but the issue is that we just don’t fund them sufficiently. But what I’m trying to suggest here is something quite different. In fragile and conflict affected states, with their levels of insecurity, institutional quality, and human capacity, the problem is not only insufficient funds, but more fundamentally that we don’t have answers to how to address the severe implementation challenges and long time frames that characterize these types of countries.  Money is important, of course, but without more work on how to solve these challenges, we are unlikely to break out of the morass we have seen in some of the most high profile aid efforts in conflict affected states.

What can we do here at Georgetown and in the Walsh School of Foreign Service? We need to fundamentally rethink the global governance architecture to address the security, time frame, capacity and institutional challenges of fragile and conflict affected states, which in less than a generation, will be the main source of the world’s extreme poor. The solutions will only be found at the intersection of traditional disciplines and professional practices.  Big ideas about the evolution of institutions currently being debated among economists and political scientists need to be confronted with the realities of practitioners trying to develop and implement institutional reform programs.  The security and development communities need to come together to think through how to deliver long-term development assistance in highly insecure environments. Regional specialists who understand the history and context of institutional change in different parts of the world need to provide reality checks on solutions derived from “best practice” examples that promise to transform all developing countries into Denmark.

Georgetown and SFS have the range and depth of skills in all of these areas. We have the tradition of marrying theory and practice to come up with innovative solutions.  And we are motivated by our founding values to apply these skills to addressing the world’s problems, reaching out to the furthest peripheries. 

We also have one other advantage that we should think very seriously about: the Jesuit organizational network. If we look at a map of fragile states and superimpose the Jesuit organizational network, including the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and the vast array of Jesuit educational institutions, we see a network that reaches out to the peripheries like few others in the world. How can we further engage this network to create opportunities for our students, faculty, researchers, and practitioners to seek innovative solutions to these pressing challenges?  And how can we rely on this network to identify the best, brightest, and most hopeful prospects to engage with our community to benefit from their experience and perspectives? This is a tremendous resource that I want to explore as the new Dean of SFS. More broadly, as the School of Foreign Service nears its centennial celebration in 2019, what better goal to motivate us in the next century than reaching out to the peripheries to seek solutions to the institutional and governance challenges that will shape our fight to eliminate extreme poverty and promote peace and stability in the years to come.

Joel S. Hellman is the dean of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

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