The thing about middle-income countries

So for the first time ever I get to work in a middle income country (MIC) on programming, and it is very interesting indeed to get my head around the differences to less developed countries. What I realised pretty much immediately is that the generally accepted MIC classification is pretty one-dimensional (it is based on GNI/capita) – it does not say anything at all about what the wealth distribution in the country is. And then, of course, there are also differences in what I would call the beneficence of the government. Where I am now, they are pretty generous, and get the money down to the people – there is very visible investment in schools, clinics, social protection programmes; and government staff get their salaries and all that. So very different from a lot of countries that classify as MIC but have less benevolent governments and do not invest as much in public services. So the numbers don’t tell the story. What I also find interesting is that with the rise in (monetary) status comes a withdrawal of international assistance. Donors and the UN reduce their budgets, and have to seriously think about their role in such countries (especially in those where the government is actually concerned about their citizens’ wellbeing). And with different roles also comes different capacity – you can’t have big offices when there is no big budget, and you will have to work very differently by much more subtly influencing government to further improve its social investment. Different skill set altogether, while having hardly any funds to actually pay for staff to work in these offices. This is really the point about aid systems, how do development partners work differently in MICs, and how do they work much more together than in those large programme countries where the burn rate dictates the work, and coherence and convergence are not really thought about? There is a very interesting article on this by Andy Sumner who has very much turned the concept of the “bottom billion” around to point out that increasingly the poor live in middle income countries and are the ones that are left behind by GDP growth. To reach these (or rather to help benevolent governments to reach these), as he argues, is an altogether different challenge that, under the circumstances of reduced resources for development partners in such countries requires a very different way of working. This certainly rings very true here, and it will be interesting to see if it is possible to have very different programmes in such circumstances that actually reflect this reality.

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