Some of the "new ideas" in the development business these days make me wonder whether we should all be wearing polyester leisure suits and platform shoes. It's very 1970s. Take, for example, two new high-level statements about the importance of donors focusing like a laser on health, education, and water and sanitation, and putting global warming, poverty reduction, governance issues and other long-term challenges on the proverbial back burner. That's what we're hearing from "a group of UN ambassadors" organized by the Copenhagen Consensus and from Oxfam, in their new report In the Public Interest: Health, Education, and Water and Sanitation for All.To those old enough to remember, this is precisely the Basic Needs mantra of the mid-1970s, which brought with it large-scale investments in wells (now dry), health centers and primary schools (now dust), and many, many half-trained health workers, teachers and various other cadres of community development workers. The 1970s development projects were heavy on the infrastructure, light on the institutions to make it work and make it last.It's not that there is anything wrong with working hard to provide the most fundamental ingredients of human survival, and pushing governments around the world to fulfill their role in financing basic services. On the contrary. But let's make sure when we do that we're learning some of the lessons of an earlier generation, so we don't end up with lots of concrete but few concrete results.
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