A Champion for Think Thanks in the Global South: Interview with Southern Voice’s Debapriya Bhattacharya

I recently sat down with Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya and spoke to him about the process for coming up with the post-2015 development agenda. Dr. Bhattacharya is the convener of Southern Voice, a consortium of 48 think tanks located in the Global South.  He is also a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in Dhaka and the former Bangladeshi ambassador to the WTO and UN Office in Geneva. 

Bhattacharya stressed that the inputs to the post-2015 discussions mainly come from the Global North.  Southern Voice helps to fill the gap in participation by leveraging member organizations’ research and analysis. Southern Voice stresses the need to focus on outcomes in education, and also to improve productivity and economic growth.

Read my full interview with him below.

Xanthe Ackerman: What is Southern Voice?

Debapriya Bhattacharya: Southern Voice is a consortium of 48 think tanks from South Asia, Africa and Latin America led by the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Bangladesh.  Our member think tanks were all grantees of the Think Tank Initiative managed by the International Development Research Centre and funded by the Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and other bilateral donors.

Research from Southern Voice members addresses questions such as whether goals should be universal or country specific and whether poverty-related goals or the sustainable development goals process should frame our next set of global goals. We also look for opportunities for partnership and strategic engagement.  Beyond the United Nations, Southern Voice is working with, among others, the OECD Development Forum, UN Foundation, Centre for Global Development and Oversees Development Institute.  We also speak with the senior government officials and country delegations at the UN to inform their thinking and involvement in post-2015 development agenda discussions.

XA: What compelled you to form Southern Voice?

DB: Individuals and countries from the Global South do not participate equally in the post-2015 debates. Eighty percent of all written inputs into the post-2015 development agenda are submitted by individuals and institutions located in the Global North.  Developing country governments need to have more voice, yet national governments have a capacity deficit that hinders participation in the post-2015 debates. The think tank members of Southern Voice work to fill this gap by offering research and analysis, such as a report we wrote to inform the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.  Many of the think tank members of Southern Voice have been monitoring and evaluating the Millennium Development Goals over the last decade and are well versed on the MDGs and the operational strengths and weaknesses of the framework.

XA: How is Southern Voice thinking about global education, and how does this add to the ongoing discussions about the role of education in development?

DB: Southern Voice has the same goal as the global education community (e.g. the need for a focus on quality, equitable education) but takes a different approach on how to get there by focusing on the labor market. We don’t currently have a target on jobs in the MDG framework, despite the importance of employment. We know that that improved learning outcomes are critical for generating sustainable productive employment and income.  This kind of economic growth is underpinned by the structural transformation of economies, including relocating labor from agriculture to other sectors.  Without economic transformation, we won’t achieve any of the social goods we need, such as education. So, the causality runs both ways.

XA: What does Southern Voice feel must be reflected in a future development goal on education?

DB: Southern Voice’s education priorities are access, quality and equity. We would like to expand global goals so they include early childhood development and post-primary education, and we aim for universal secondary education.  In terms of quality, education must move beyond literacy and numeracy as indicators of quality.  We need to take into account factors such as diversity of languages and the specific competencies— such as computer skills— that youth need to be successful in today’s job market. On equity, we have studied broadly how the MDGs can contribute to a more just world.  Future goals should do more to address and promote equity.  In education, there are a number of disadvantaged groups – including physically challenged children – that need our attention.  

Education tops all post-2015 discussions and surveys as the greatest priority.  We need to keep the commitment of the MDGs, but go even further. The MDGs did not focus on equity and the indicators for the MDGs were based on input, and sometimes on outputs, but not on outcomes.  In education, we need to focus on learning outcomes and on quality education for all children.

XA: What lessons do we need to learn from the MDG process?

DB: The strength of the MDGs was in the targeted nature of the goals, which allowed for a strong communications effort.   We need to maintain that political momentum in the post-2015 development agenda. We also need greater country ownership over the goals as well as commitments from international actors to uphold the promises of development cooperation. For the post-2015 development goals to be successful, resources have to be generated not only through greater inflow of foreign aid, but also by mobilizing more domestic resources in the low-income economies. In order to build human capital and physical infrastructure, these countries need to have access to global resources through policies around duty-free and quota-free exports, remittances flow, and access to technology.