Backflipping Development Cooperation: Why the New Economic Research Center in Maldives is a Game Changer

Photo by Ashwa Faheem, UNDP Maldives

By: Enrico Gaveglia, UNDP Resident Representative in the Maldives

Just over a year ago, I started my tour of introductions with the United Nations Development Programme cabinet counterparts, and I was sincerely overwhelmed by the many manifestations of appreciation towards the work my predecessors had dedicated their mandate to in the Maldives. As a new kid on the block, I was and I am still today, very humbled by the guidance received in unpacking the real essence of UNDP partnerships with state institutions. Maldives is a key member state to the United Nations and a leading reference for us at UN Development. What we do here receives the attention of the entire Small Island Development States’ universe, and it is an invaluable asset to emerging insights, conversations and joint commitments put into development practice. What UNDP does today is therefore guided by a navigation map designed with our stakeholders.

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One of my first conversation was with Honorable Minister Fayyaz, of the Economic Ministry. I keep a notebook of key exchanges and while at times they may appear in a tweet with a rather undignified “exploring avenues of renewed cooperation” – most of the time they end up in actual programming way beyond the pleasantries. I was listening carefully and searching for a spark of imagination and resonance of mind. And when discussions are led by the heart, mine vibrates too. With the Ministry of Economic Development (MED), we developed a pentagram of care with 5 initiatives unfolding simultaneously in this first year of our new Country Programme strategy and commitment to the Maldives. One of the manifestations of this genesis of trust and cooperation was the unveiling of a brand-new institution, the Economic Research Center – the first of its kind in the Maldives.

The opportunity to see live, the exercise of data governance and implanting the genomes of refined policy making, was an irresistible call for action I would challenge anybody to retract from. Some did to my surprise. True, we at UNDP have done this elsewhere: policy labs are features we often build or strengthen in other countries. In the Philippines it was the Pintig Lab, in Indonesia, the Jakarta Pulse Lab. The Economic Research Center has in the Maldives the distinct value of exercising authority and control over the management of data. It aims at implementing a corporate-like wide data agenda, maximizing the value of data assets in an institution that has recognized the need for it, ultimately to produce evidence-based and evidence-informed social and economic policies.

While data governance used to be a nice thing to have in the past, today it is taking on a higher level of importance in enterprise and government settings. This is due to some key trends. The amount of data created annually in the Maldives is expected to grow. The growing data volumes from diverse sources cause data inconsistencies that need to be identified and addressed before decisions are made based on incorrect or obsolete and costly data collection. Governments around the world introduce more self-service reporting and analytics, which create the need for new capabilities in the public sector. 

For some of the Maldives’s international partners, this is a motivation call to evolve development assistance. We all ought to refrain from a multitude of downstream projects, too often uncoordinated and non-integrated in value addition. This will minimize unbearable opportunity costs to public officials, and in some cases even seeds of future liabilities to a way too stringent fiscal space we all, with good intention, try to still treat with Panadol like on-granting.

We cannot continue to consider an Upper Middle-Income Country (UMIC) like the Maldives as a mere receiver of aid. In fact, in UMIC’s context and in the current global finance architecture, grants are an obsolete proposition to keep artificially alive a North to South transfer of cash, with ties attached and profit margins built too often well outside the shores of Maldives. 

And when the Minister of Economic Development shared the challenge of making the best use of its data assets, what I heard was a top-notch leading institution willing to play au pair with countries that want to break free from a middle-income deficiency trap.  This was the call for us to develop a joint undertaking pooling resources between UNDP and Government for a next generation type of cooperation. 

UNDP it is not a donor to the Maldives. Our role is to explore Maldivian socio-economic systems in search of levers of transformational change: where to integrate and exercise the full weight of our partners and development intent. The technical assistance support given for the creation of the MED Economic Research Centre (ERC) is without a doubt one of the strongest levers of change for a dynamic transition towards what in other countries is already experienced as the essence of anticipatory governance. 

Good development professionals used to refine their practice by meeting people, experiencing live conversations, and reaching those in the dark of public service. Today, an emerging side of the sector goes a step further, deciding to spare shrinking global resources from self-defeating manual data collection and rather put in display, strategic data ingestion from footprints of real-life experiences – wherever data sources can be located or created. 
UNDP support to the MED ERC establishment has emerged first and foremost from a joint belief and against the odds of cursory deal-making. The Economic Research Centre is, and will be, a gem of governance in the Maldives – one of the new generation programme’s UNDP is building with the aim to backflip development assistance using the genetic strands of Maldives’ own DNA – so that the Maldivian people we care about so deeply, the Maldives’s nature we love – and has too often no voice in economic decision-making – can prosper and regenerate in these complex and uncertain times ahead of us

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