Varun Gauri


Interview by Gilad Tanay


Varun Gauri is Senior Economist with the Development Research Group of the World Bank. His research draws on theories and methods form economics, political science, and philosophy to study how national and international governance systems affect human welfare in poor societies. Currently, he is leading research projects on the determinants of compliance with judicial rulings on human rights, grievance redress in basic service delivery, and the international regime for development assistance. He received a BA in philosophy and literature from the University of Chicago, a Masters and PhD in Public Policy from Princeton University.

How would you characterize the process that was used for the formulation, adoption, and implementation of the MDGs? In terms of how inclusive was it? In turn what were the main strengths and weaknesses in that process?

 Varun Gauri: As most people know, the Millennium Development Goals were developed mostly by international civil servants, at the OECD initially, and then at the United Nations. As a result, they have many strengths and weaknesses of that process. They did not involve wide consultation with low-income or middle-income country governments. I think that’s important for understanding what the MDGs were really about. They’re primarily a statement about development goals and a vision for donors.

If you think about the elements of the MDGs themselves—cutting world poverty significantly, child mortality, education—at the global scale, that is not something that a small, poor country has much control over. The framing as a global project suggested that those countries that saw themselves as actors on the world stage were the ones who were speaking. So, I think it was very much international civil servants, international organizations, and rich countries that did most of the formulation.

When it comes to the adoption though, even the rich country governments weren’t significantly consulted. There wasn’t a legislative endorsement from rich countries. There wasn’t broad discussion within rich countries either. So, if you look at some of the data about who knows about the MDGs—there was a world value survey question about this, I think it was in the 2005-2006 wave–five percent of respondents in the United States had even heard of the MDGs. It went up a bit more, maybe to the twenties, for Germany. Overall the country average was 20. So, it’s not something that the world as a whole knew a lot about. It sort of came upon us. And that was true even within some of the large organizations like the World Bank. Working there, [the MDGs] were given to us, and we didn’t know about them beforehand. And, then in terms of implementation, the MDGs, there’s a lot of variation, a lot of variety in implementation across countries, across sectors, even within an organization like the World Bank. The importance of them [the MDGs] really varied depending on the country, in which one was working. For some countries like Mongolia was an important part of domestic policy processes and others much less.

So, the strengths were really… I think it is really important to see that they [MDGs] were a response to the Washington Consensus. They were an attempt to really develop a conception element that was different than that encapsulated by those set of ideas. It was sort of more oriented on Amartya Sen capabilities approach, human development approach. And, I think it was really successful in that sense. It did go hand in hand with a variety of other changes on the global scene. I think the Gates Foundation, the Global Fund, the Doha Declairation, a variety of other movements that tried to push another understanding of developments. So, I think they were successful in that way but, they didn’t have the broad endorsement of a lot of the actors.

What were the benefits brought about by the MDG framework?

Varun Gauri: I think [one of the main benefits] was reframing development as an enterprise that’s focussed on human development and human development outcomes: education, literacy, health, mortality, and poverty. Rather than the older conception of development, which was about the operation of markets. I think the MDG framing wasn’t the only thing that shifted the world’s thinking in that direction but, it was part of contributing to a wave in that way.

Do you think that the MDGs led to resource mobilization or to better resource allocation to global poverty alleviation?

Varun Gauri: Well, there was an increase in ODA in OECD, over the first decade of the century, in the 2000’s. It’s hard to know again whether the MDGs were causal, or they reflected a larger change in the currents in the world. And there was a general interest [in development], for a lot of reasons that I mentioned a moment ago. So, the MDGs may well have played a role. But it’s hard to really know for sure. There was also a bit of a shift in the sectoral composition towards the social sector. So, the MDGs may have been important to that as well.

Were there ways in which the MDGs were detrimental to poverty alleviation? Did they cause any harm?

Varun Gauri: I think the main harm that they may have caused was an opportunity cost. I know that there’s a discussion out there that says that the MDGs really could have been much more ambitious, they accepted a certain kind of poverty and tolerated it. I understand that critique, but I think one really has to look at the political counter-factual. I don’t think that at the time there was anything else on the table that could have done much more than they did. Going forward, I think if one of those standards is accepted now, after broader discussion and after an understanding of what the MDGs did and didn’t do, then I think that one can say well, yeah, they really distracted from what we ought to be doing. But I think at the time they were mostly an opportunity cost. The opportunity cost itself is predicated on the political counter-factual and we don’t really know what that was.

Looking at the overall design and conception of the Millennium Development Goals, what would you identify as the main weaknesses that need to be taken into account in thinking about their successors? 

Varun Gauri: Well, I talked about consultation already that’s one. I think the second issue is really about the fact that they only spoke to part of the development process. So, when we encountered the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, the MDGs weren’t really a resource. And they really didn’t address issues like trade. More recently, what’s been on the agenda is land acquisition, land grabs, that kind of thing. In the Pacific and in Sub-Saharan Africa, the MDGs don’t necessarily speak to that problem. The governance agenda is not something that they take head on and [they do not address] financial regulation, again.

So, I think that they don’t really speak to the variety of factors that are directly affecting development. And so, as a result the other agendas just go merrily, you know, on their way. The trade agenda goes on. The issues in finance aren’t really affected by the MDGs. And there are a variety of other development actors and processes already active, and the MDGs didn’t really have much to say to them, and so those weren’t touched by the process.

So relative to the goals and targets, which were actually adopted, how would you assess the degree to which they have been successfully achieved?

Varun Gauri: Well, if you think about whether they eradicated poverty, and whether they developed a new partnership, those haven’t really been achieved per se. Now, some of the targets were achieved, but again there are real questions about the causal role of the MDGs in that area. I think the MDGs really are a statement about what the donor countries were trying to create. And, really, MDG 8 [“develop a global partnership for development”] is at the heart of that. To sort of motivate the rich countries and organize donors to create a new partnership, such that some of the other goals could have been achieved. And I don’t think one sees dramatic change in that area.

Should the MDG successors be an extension of the current goals, an expansion/revision of the current goals, or something different altogether?

Varun Gauri: I think that a new set of MDGs ought to be less uniform. I think that, although it may not have been an intention of the formulators of the MDGs to speak this way, the result as it played out was to create pressures for all the countries in the world who were partnering with donors to focus on certain kinds of development and to focus on these goals in the short term. That may not be the right thing to do for all the countries in the world. I mean, I think that it’s not obvious that what the MDGs ought to be doing is setting a framework for every single country. Rather, what they can do is to talk about the global system because, what the MDGs are, are an agreement among the various countries of the world. And most of the participants in this agreement don’t know what’s happening in, say, Mali, or in Bolivia, or in Laos. So, we shouldn’t be talking about what ought to be happening in those countries in formulating these goals, but rather thinking about the global system as a whole. I think that’s what would be really useful in the next round.

What features would you characterize as a, must have, for the next set of development goals?

Varun Gauri: I would say a focus on policy changes that the rich countries and donor countries can undertake which would facilitate development in the poorer countries of the world and for the poorest people in the world. I think that is really the low hanging fruit to development. There are a lot of questions about whether development assistance per se, really alleviates poverty directly. But, we do know the rules of the game, do shape choices that countries make and the opportunities available to people in those countries. That is something that we can focus on in the MDGs or the next round.

You mentioned the issues with the process for formulating and adopting the MDGs. What type of process would you recommend for formulating and adopting the successors? 

Varun Gauri: I don’t have any specific description there. I think the general description of transparency, participation, accountability. You know, you need to think about how those need to be taken on board in the process or taken on board for national organizations. I think those ought to be the guiding principles, so that it’s more participatory, so the processes and more transparent, so that the actors that sign on are more accountable for what happens.

Following on that line, how should the responsiblities for implementing a future set of development goals be allocated among the relevant agents in a way which is fair, realistic, and effective?

Varun Gauri: If the focus is, that I am suggesting on the international system, then I think that the parties that sign on should be international organizations, the UN, World Bank, IMF, WTO, organizations like that. Currently the discussions for the new round of the MDGs are focused largely still in the orbit of the UN and it’s various entities. The World Bank, IMF, WTO and others are not necessarily on board, at this time anyway. So, because, I think that all of these IOs are important, all of them should have a stake in what is happening and should sign on. I think that the people involved should push for real political buy in on all of the IOs. And if there isn’t that buy in, then they really shouldn’t be worth doing.

What would you say are the most important and salient areas concerning global poverty and its alleviation where there is already now a fairly broad consensus among informed people, along the descriptive, explanatory and normatively informed dimensions?

Varun Gauri: I would say that there seems to be consensus, that the outcome measures ought to be measures of human well-being at the individual level: literacy, low levels of mortality, low-levels of morbidity. They are the Sen capability framework whether it is expressed either directly or in human rights term, what we care about is the sense of well-being and the flourishing of individual lives: less GDP of some of these broader measures, I think there is agreement agreement on that. I think there is also agreement about a lot of the factors that drive growth are political, in nature. I should say that drive both, poverty reduction and that they are political in nature. We used to think that a lot of what determines poverty and growth in different countries is result of the location of a country or its geographic position, the structure of the economy. But, we are pretty clear that those are the results of endogenous policy choices and that politics and governments are crucial for determining which countries do well and which people do well and those which don’t. One of the most famous examples is that South Korea had the same GDP per capita as Ghana in 1955. Obviously, that is dramatically different now, so countries are not locked in by their weight but the politics of governments within the country determines what happens. That’s not to say that international factors are irrelevant, in fact they are crucial but global poverty is avoidable given the right constellation of political changes. So I think that those are the 2 areas of agreements.

Looking at the state of academic discourse and global poverty alleviation, what would you identify as key areas of disagreements which impede more cohesive policy recommendation from academia on global poverty alleviation? Where are the main areas of disagreements among well-informed people?

Varun Gauri: Ok, just two things jumping into of my head, I’m gonna write them down so I don’t forget them! I would say that the first one is…We don’t really know what the causes of the growth are! We don’t know what the causes of poverty reduction are either… the really approximate causes. On growth, there seems to be a variety of paths to growth. There is a path in which some countries have really emphasized free markets and have really not adopted robust industrialization policies and not a major state role in the economy and the countries have done very well; others in which the opposite has been true. And the same is true with poverty reduction. There are a variety of paths that get you towards poverty reduction. Those are the kind of stories that comes out of say Costa Rica, Chile, Kerela; with government interventions, with social safety nets which seems to be important in the declining poverty of those parts of the world. In other countries, China, Thailand, there hasn’t been a robust safety net but poverty has also dropped dramitically. There seem to be a variety of roots and we don’t really know for any given country which root is best. I guess this really goes back to the long standing debate, you the know supporters of state intervention and the more laissez-faire types when thinking about the way the economy ought to be structured. That’s a broad generalization but it remains the tension.

What if anything can academics do that might help resolve these disagreements?

Varun Gauri: Well, I think there are 2 things: one is to continue with current styles of research, which include everything from historical studies, to randomized experiments, to policy… other kinds of evaluation of new policies, I think that those are all very useful. We need to know more about when safety nets are effective, we need to more about whether, say, you know India’s new rule employment guarantee scheme is actually working and where it’s working and why? We need to know when the conditions under which positive HIV patients stick to their HIV viral regimen. We need to know really these little specific countries things and I think that academics can make up to a contribution like that.

At the broader level, I think that academics can help us understand why people support development, what motivates people, under what conditions… Not only at the personal level but the governmental level. The sort of political factors, psychological factors, I think those are also relevant and unknown really.

From the state of academic debate, let’s move to the public debate. What are some of the false or only partially true ideas concerning global poverty alleviation that are widely used in public and political debate to in order to justify doing less than should be done to alleviate global poverty? Another way to ask this question is where can shedding the light of truth that is already established in academia can help promote poverty alleviation?

Varun Gauri: Well 2 obvious points: the  first is the view that we are already spending enormous amount of money on this area. Most people think that their countries spend more on overseas than on the systems of the rich countries than they actually do, that’s point number one. I think that, that story, I’m not sure if academics are the ones that tell that story, maybe journalists or someone else, policy analysts?

The second story is that nothing works, that developing countries’ governments are kind of like a black hole,  that you can’t give the money as they never gonna give anything back, it disappears, it’s all useless. They are kind of fatalistic, let’s not do anything, that kind of thing. The problem with the fatalistic, not do to anything, kind of understanding of development, well there are many problems but, one of them is that you end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy if you believe that. You think that it doesn’t matter anyway so then you contribute less and you contribute to lower quality development assistance and things look worse. But, I think that a focus on understanding what works will not only help us choose interventions that are more effective but also validates the broader concern that what we are doing is never going to be effective to fight the fatalistic stance. So, those are the 2 main points that we know enough to be able to disapprove if we talk clearly or more loudly.

What features of the international institutional order, that are most important in your mind that are contributing to the persistence of severe poverty globally?

Varun Gauri: I don’t know which ones are most important but it is pretty easy to list the factors that contribute to the problem. The first involves the legacy of colonialism, which have left countries with arbitrary difficult borders, old rivalries with kind of extractive environments in their governments which aren’t conducive to growth and poverty alleviation and conducive to civil war so, that’s old story. Ongoing problems include things like the vulnerability of poor countries, less developed countries to external shocks, whether they be financial shocks, trade shocks, or climate related shocks. All of these things are more difficult to manage for poor countries. The global system is not very good at creating some sort of you know shock absorbers. When these occur in the poor countries, nor in getting the rich countries to begin to think a little bit encompassingly, more altruistically about the external effects of the their policies, even when they act just domestically.

How might these features contributing to the persistence of poverty be changed? Which of these changes do you think would be the best objects for advocacy?

Varun Gauri: Well, it’s hard to say something about the history of colonialism, because I don’t think there is a lot of progress in changing the past. But, I think there has been a lot of progress already in the past 10 or 20 years. The HIV AIDS movement has been amazing in mobilizing resources, in changing aspects of the international trade system, in raising awareness of poverty more generally. Today an AIDS activist was nominated as the head of the World Bank, so there is a very high-profile success in that story. So, I think that’s really in some ways are our current model. In the old days, at least in the United States the Civil Rights movement was the model for how to get organize and how to work and I think that now we have a more recent history with the HIV/ AIDS activists and how they managed to raise the issue both domestically and at the international stage. I think that’s really a model and that sort of model might be useful in other areas. But, it won’t be completely easy to transfer but, in things like trade and finance and civil conflict, maybe for those areas that story of activism and networking and advocacy might be useful.

Beyond international institutional factors, what other impediment to poverty eradication do you consider to be particularly serious?

Varun Gauri: Politics, politics, politics! I think at the domestic level, countries obviously are poorer and even with the best circumstances they will remain poorer next week, next year even in 5 years from now, many people in those countries would remain poor. But, beyond that it is possible in many places to change the relationship between the government and society, given the rights and political terms. But what those are, is extremely complicated and you will have to spend several days talking to really describe them and even then we wouldn’t really know. But it’s all about politics in developing countries.

Now a bit of a fun question, suppose tomorrow Varun Gauri is elected to be the dictator of the world and you have the power to implement 3 policy changes on a global level, what would those 3 policies be?

Varun Gauri: First it would be the creation of autonomous and technically effective organization to regulate short-term financial flows around the world. This may build on the Basel III framework, but generally speaking inter-country financial transfers are increasing, they are creating enormous shocks for poor countries of the world and rich countries of the world too as we are seeing. So, we have to find a way to deal with them. Number 2, I would create a global system for sort term migration so that people from the poor countries of the world could spend some time elsewhere and earn more money. I don’t know exactly how that would work, what sort-term means, but I think that is potentially enormously powerful for alleviating poverty in the poor countries.