This week’s UN summit will call for a big renewed effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. But there are reasons for starting to think a bit further ahead. A new report from International Alert asks us to get ‘beyond the MDGs”.
At a launch meeting a couple of weeks back in London, the moderator – the BBC’s Bridget Kendall – asked the report’s lead author, Phil Vernon, “You clearly seem to have a problem with the MDGs – what’s that about?”
Yes, what is it about? A call for the rich to support the poor that has garnered the support of all UN member states and a glittering array of international stars and celebrities – who could object? Or, more precisely, what’s the nature of the reservation that has been nagging away at some people for a decade since the MDGs were first articulated and is now starting to be aired in a variety of media and forums?
For me the problem with the MDGs comes down to five main inter-related issues:
1. They are not comprehensive so do not fully depict what developing countries should aim for – or what richer countries should assist them in. The MDGs include much that is of fundamental importance for development.* But among the key factors impinging on development that the MDGs wholly leave out are peace, the system of governance, security, law and order, justice, corruption, statutory law, human rights and education beyond primary level. Of course, setting out big development goals in a relatively concise form necessitated selection. However, the items that have been left out are not (or should not be treated as) mere after-thoughts or add-ons; these are some of the fundamental, determinative considerations of development.
Initially, it was the Millennium Declaration that set out the aspirations – a commitment to a better world defined through values, principles and basic goals (take a look at them in the footnote below).** The MDGs took two elements from the Millennium Declaration – #3 on development and poverty eradication and #4 on the environment – and re-fashioned them into eight global goals. The selectiveness of the MDGs, in short, was conscious, a point to which I return below. Even within a narrowly defined view of development, the MDGs are selective, with three focusing on health but none on agriculture, for example, while complex issues of trade, global finance and investment are wrapped up under the heading of MDG #8 on global partnership.
2. To a considerable degree, however, the problem resides not in the MDGs themselves but how they are used. Even though the MDGs omit some of the fundamentals of development, nobody could disagree with them. I will not object to the goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015, for example. But when you hear a donor government official say that he cannot fund secondary education because his government, committed to achieving the MDGs, wants education programmes to focus on the primary level, then you think something might be wrong. And I have heard that and comparable sentiments voiced on more than one occasion. In a similar way, for several years the MDGs have given licence to donor government officials to avoid thinking about how to address problems of peace, security and governance in their ODA policies and programmes.
In other words, the real problem is not just that the MDGs are incomplete but that they are treated as if they were a comprehensive guide, which can only produce misleading results.
3. The MDGs express some broad aspirations well but creak under the burden of being treated as quantifiable indicators of progress. If the MDGs were treated merely as expressions of intent, there would be much less to dispute. But they have been given the task of measuring progress and thus have become not only both ends and means but also quantitative indicators and planning guides.
From the Millennium Declaration to the MDGs, out of which came targets and indicators and, now, a whole world of data on development progress. And these indicators have been used not only to assess global progress but also to guide strategic planning for individual countries. With that, the purpose of the MDGs seems to have become thoroughly twisted and this selective set of eight goals has seriously been over-loaded.
I appreciate the arguments of those who say that the world of ODA has improved and strengthened enormously since 2000 because the MDGs functioned both as a clarion call to support international development and as a concrete, hard-data way of measuring progress and therefore holding political leaders to account.
But the communication potential of the MDGs is one thing; their statistical robustness is another matter entirely. Even so strong a supporter of the MDGs as one of their initial architects, Mark Malloch-Brown, acknowledges that the reason why progress towards halving the number of people living on less than $1 per day (Target 1A) looks pretty good is because of economic growth in China and other parts of Asia (which especially includes India). What goes by in silence is the point that China’s and India’s growth rates have not been fuelled by ODA or indeed by UN or international action.
Late editorial addition: here it is worth checking out what Michael Edwards reported on openDemocracy from the big academic conference on Ten Years of War on Poverty, held 7-10 September in Manchester. In particular, take a look at what the academics were saying about the unreliability of poverty statistics. One expert refers to the figures as “nonsense on stilts” while others affirm that there is no valid way of answering the question of whether world poverty is declining – and far less explaining why.
So keep MDGs or other similar goals in order to summon people to action to help eliminate world poverty – but don’t use them to measure and far less to guide government policies because they will only sow confusion.
4. Though selective, the MDGs are generic. In other words, they manage the not inconsiderable and somewhat paradoxical feat of being too broad and too narrow at the same time. In badly governed, conflict-affected countries, boosting primary education and focusing on some basic health issues are not likely to move the country’s development agenda along. These activities will help people and do therefore express the basic humanitarian impulse that is part of the driver of ODA from rich countries but that is not the same as development.
Improving primary education and basic health is an absolute good but programmes to that end, if not connected to an effort to ensure that the national capacity for delivering education and health services is strengthened, may foster a culture of dependency. That is the opposite of what real development needs and generates. In other countries, where conflict and governance are not such overwhelming issues, the health and education focus may be key to kick-starting development. Then again, in such countries roads and communications might be what are most needed.
It depends – it is bound to vary from one country to another. In that sense, by being generic, the MDGs are drawn with too broad a brush while what they draw is too limited.
5. And then there’s the a-political politics of the MDGs. So why are the MDGs so narrow? Part of the answer is about politics while part of it is, frankly, a bit of a mystery. The MDGs focus largely on those aspects of development in which politics play little part. There are two exceptions:
- MDG #3 promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women. While the accompanying target translates that goal into gender equality in education alone, the indicators include proportions of women in employment and in parliament.
- MDG #8 is a vaguely worded aspiration for a global partnership for development, which is translated into targets that are partly about trade, some types of investment, world finance and debt relief.
Those are highly political questions but the world community has become adept at air-brushing the politics out, removing their bite, and then making snail’s pace progress at best on what’s left of their filleted content.
Going back to 2000, what was for the most part possible to agree is a set of actions that are a-political, non-contentious and humanitarian. The challenge for implementation can then be seen as essentially technical – a matter of getting the programmes, financing and indicators right. There can be little argument against the proposition that while government leaders could agree that sort of big vision in 2000 (or now), there was little likelihood that they would agree to a series of goals addressing both international imbalance of power and the very limited participation by ordinary citizens in the affairs of so many developing countries. The biggest single limitation in the MDGs is that they do not challenge interests that are vested in the status quo – and nor, realistically, could we expect them to.
What I find a little mysterious is why, after politics had been selected out, there was even further selectivity at play. While mentioning HIV/AIDS and malaria, why was TB relegated to “other diseases”? Why primary education but not secondary and why were university graduates (even if only to provide teachers to deliver primary education) not seen as important for development? Why did agriculture not get a look in? What about roads?
All in all, we can agree that it was quite some achievement to get the MDGs established. The governments of the world probably went as far as they could collectively go with the Millennium Declaration and the more specific MDGs. The latter are selective but that might have posed no difficulty, except that they were then simultaneously reified as objectives and deployed to shape and assess policies.
It is worthy of note that the summit’s 13,700 word draft outcome document , while largely structured around the eight MDGs, includes quite long passages on economic interdependence and trade, recovery from the recession, peacebuilding and conflict issues, universal access to basic social services, anti-corruption measures and human rights. With this, the summit reflects the way in which the real problems of development are increasingly being included in the frame of reference of the major international development institutions. It is an implicit recognition of the partial nature of the MDGs.
This is welcome movement. It is reflected in OECD-DAC and its work on peacebuilding and statebuilding, in the World Development Report 2011 from the World Bank, with its focus on development in fragile and conflict-affected states, and in the evolving policies of a few donor governments, in particular the UK (on which, more in my next post).
I am sceptical that it will get much news coverage – but inching towards a future beyond the MDGs is actually the big story in this week’s MDG Summit.
* The eight MDGs are: 1 Eradicate extreme poverty & hunger; 2 Achieve universal primary education; 3 Promote gender equality & empower women; 4 Reduce child mortality; 5 Improve maternal health; 6 Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria & other diseases; 7 Ensure environmental sustainability; 8 Develop a global partnership for development.
** The eight elements in the Millennium declaration are: 1 Values & principles – promote dignity, freedom, equality, equity, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature, shared responsibility and the sovereignty of nations; 2 Peace, security & disarmament; 3 Development & poverty eradication; 4 Protecting our common environment; 5 Human rights, democracy and good governance; 6 Protecting the vulnerable; 7 Meeting the special needs of Africa; 8 Strengthening the United Nations