Bending the arc of history – Canadian Government Executive

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December 20, 2012

Bending the arc of history

Shakespeare’s “dark comedy,” Measure for Measure, deals with the issues of mercy, justice and truth. Four hundred years later, society is still preoccupied with these moral dilemmas and with improving the human condition. Wicked problems like poverty, illiteracy, gender inequity, child and maternal mortality, disease, climate change and corruption thwart the efforts of governments everywhere.

The role and impact of international development in these matters is rife with conjecture. Do developing and transition countries seek to “measure up,” or are they “made to measure”? Does new World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim’s vision of a “solutions bank” with a “science of delivery” hold the key to eradicating poverty in a lifetime?

In the 1981 BBC Yes Minister episode “The Compassionate Society,” Minister Jim Hacker visits a hospital that reports the highest efficiency ratings in the United Kingdom. The trouble is that the newly opened facility has 500 administrators, but no patients. Sadly, there really were six such empty hospitals in the U.K. at the end of the 1970s.

And people do go wanting for proper health care in many parts of the world. Hospitals with long waiting lists are filled to the brim with patients. They are short on just about every category of qualified medical, nursing and technical capacity needed to run a modern hospital. Progress depends upon placing the people most affected at the centre of decision making and service delivery.

The challenge is also to choose the right measures for the right reasons – asking whose standards and what outcomes matter most and understanding that what gets measured gets managed. Raising standards means eschewing those things that can be measured easily or where performance is known to be strong. Good governance and accountable institutions are crucial for development effectiveness.

The imperative of achieving the Millennium Development Goals is the never-ending story of making a difference and changing people’s lives, filled with “open silences.” British Prime Minister David Cameron recently hosted the United Nations Secretary General’s High Level Panel to consider what should replace the MDGs when they expire in 2015. Consultations transcended sectors and boundaries to engage leading international experts on poverty reduction and in reshaping the development agenda.

Working together to accelerate the fight to end global poverty calls for extreme measures. The Panel might look to Matthew 7:2 for inspiration: For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Executive in Residence, Public Management with the Schulich School of Business at York University (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca or johnkwilkins@gmail.com).

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