So what’s wrong with the MDGs?

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?

This week

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

7 thoughts on “So what’s wrong with the MDGs?

  1. Pingback: World Wide News Flash

  2. This report misrepresents the MDGs and takes a very Eurocentric view of the development enterprise. First, the report states that the MDGs are too narrowly defined. Yet, they represent a far more comprehensive agenda than the growth-driven doctrine that previously prevailed. Going further than this and aiming at a universal political blue print of how development should be managed would be a bridge too far. We live in a world of sovereign states and poor though they may be developing countries will undertandably resist the unabashed political conditionality that you are advocating.

    Second, the paper states that the MDGs confuse means and ends. This is absolutely not the case and ironically it is a main drawback of your own report. Conversely, a notable strength of the MDGs is that they emphatically stay away from specifying the means to achieve the goals and indicators it lays out to track development progress. achieved.

    Indeed, the Monterrey compact makes it abundantly clear that individual countries are in the driver seat of the poverty reduction agenda. This is the purpose of the Poverty Reduction Stragegy Process. While it studiously stays away from domestic politics, it stresses the need for a holistic development vision and lays out ownership, partnership and result orientation as fundamental principles of engagement.

    Third, the report does not address the legitimacy issue. The MDGs are grounded in the work of several UN conferences to which all countries of the world have participated. They were endorsed by all UN members at the highest level (except for Cuba) following intensive debate and negotiations that involved all major stakeholders.

    By contrast the fragility concepts that te report uses to buttress its narrative are not broadly accepted. Indeed, they are resented by countries thus categorized by the rich countries’ club. Following the recent financial crisis it now appears that many OECD countries are exhibiting signs of fragility while emerging market economies that do not comply with the governance tenets proposed by International Alert have become the engine of the global economy. Nor is it accurate to state that India and China did not benefit from aid. For decades they were the largest World Bank Group borrowers and they have made shrewd use of the economic management advice proferred to them.

    Fourth, the report is grounded on intellectual premises that need revisiting in the wake of the unfolding financial crisis. The rules of the game of the global system more than the MDGs need revisiting in the common interest. The International Alert report does not address issues of trade, migration, foreign direct investment, environment that underlie the current global malaise and hamper development in the poorest regions of the world. Here again, the report fails to notice the value of the MDGs: MDG#8 does address (however tentatively) the need to level the playing field of the international economic system.

    Fifth, the hard reality is that achieving a shared understanding of what human progress looks like is a missionary and aspirational goal which can only be reached (if it can be reached at all at the global level) through public debate, broad based participation and shrewd international diplomacy.
    From this perspective, the template proposed by the report is polemical and it would be dead on arrival in the international diplomatic arena. Indeed, the Douglass North view you are promoting is not all that different from the “end of history” model proposed by Francis Fukuyama in the wake of the Soviet Union implosion. This “big picture” model of the world no longer fits. Indeed, Fukuyama has since clarified his position and his more recent state building doctrine is far more nuanced, agnostic … and convincing. Paradoxically the liberal, pluralistic, civil society centred approach that you are advocating (and that I personally subscribe to) is precisely the model that the United Nations agencies (especially the UNDP) has quietly promoted alongside the MDGs.

    But it is now being shunned by many developing countries. This is not surprising: many western countries that comply with its tenets are teetering on the brink of financial ruin. By contrast, a number of “development states” (China, Vietnam, etc.) have broken many of its rules and yet (whether we in the west like it or not) have so far proven remarkably resilient to global economic downturns. Indeed, over the past decades they have experienced high growth rates, reduced poverty and accumulated vast reserves of foreign currency.

    A corollary of this unexpected outcome is that it is bringing back to the fore basic apolitical “Washington consensus” rules about sound economic management that the western states have ignored in the exuberance of their debt driven economic strategies and that developmental states able to connect to the global market and to achieve internal security have studiously observed with excellent results at the macroeconomic level.

    The unpalatable fact is that the authoritarian capitalist state model while unappetizing to western electorates has many adherents in the zones of turmoil and transition (witness Rwanda) for one simple reason: it offers stability and security for the bulk of the population. This is where big bang economic reform strategies pushed by the international financial institutions in post conflict states have lacked savvy.

    Fifth, given these trends, it is unhelpful for your paper to ignore the Human Development paradigm (and the Amartya Sen perspective that it embodies). This broad based development consensus is in fact not inconsistent with what you are suggesting and it is surprising that your paper does not examine it. Nor do you give credit to the efforts of the previous Secretary General to connect security and development through the Commission for Human Security and the In Larger Freedom report. It failed to secure broad based support but was nevertheless the right doctrine for the times and it is one that may yet prevail.

  3. Your para 1 misses the point. Of course poor states want to be “sovereign”: the conditionality sought is their governments’ responsibility to their own sovereign people. It is the desire of some poor governments to refuse to be held properly accountable to their electorates that calls into question their international sovereignty.

  4. Dear Professor Picciotto / Bob:

    I agree that the MDG perspective of development is broader than the growth-oriented economic model that in some respected preceded it, and in some respects is co-existing with it. But that does not answer the different point I made, that is also made in International Alert’s report, that is also made by a range of different commentators, and that is also implicitly conceded by the latest draft “final outcome” document of the UN Summit: this point is simply that the MDGs are narrow compared to what is needed for development.

    It follows in logic and in fact that pursuit of the MDGs is misleading as a way of pursuing development. To emphasise the point again, the goals in themselves are uncontestable and the first big problems arise not because of the goals but because of the way they have been treated as if they are comprehensive. Unless you are prepared to argue that peace, good governance, security etc are not necessary for development, I cannot see a way in which this critique is not valid.

    As to confusion of means and ends, the MDGs do indeed – or, more precisely, are indeed treated so that they – include targets and indicators. Each goal is expressed with a set of targets and with the targets go the indicators. So they are used as measures and anecdotal evidence makes clear that there are cases of them being used as guides for policy. Sorry to say, but it is a classic case of confusing ends and means.

    The legitimacy argument is a strong one and I grant – and International Alert’s new report also grants – that the case can be made. But as a different comment on this blog post points out, the legitimacy of some governments is not as strong as the legitimacy of some others. Repeated approval by a succession of UN conferences can carry more than one meaning.

    We can certainly agree that the rules of the international financial, trade and economic game could do with being revisited in a quite far-reaching way – no dispute from me on that – and perhaps they deserve that attention more than the MDGs do. But, firstly, that suggests that the economic environment is more determinative of economic development than development aid, which I don’t take to be your argument. While, secondly, the difficult thing to figure out is how it is possible for countries to develop despite unfair trading relations and general global inequity. The International Alert proposes that it is possible to do that while working within the current international economic world system, but only by paying attention to politics and to conflict issues, both of which were excluded from the MDGs.

    It is indubitably a great big ask to seek a shared understanding of human progress. And certainly there is nothing in International Alert’s report or my blog post to justify the criticism that it is proposing or seeking a blueprint. To a different charge – putting forward an overall vision to see what takers there are and to stimulate debate – to that I think we happily plead guilty.

    And by the way, on human development, if you look again at what the report takes out of the Douglass North work on violence and social orders and compare that with the work of Amartya Sen and of the HDP going back to the early 1990s, you will find a lot of common ground, and a common basis of critique not only of the growth-oriented development model of old but also of the selective focus of the MDGs.

    Sorry we disagree on this. On some issues the disagreements are quite small but on some also quite significant. I think this is a discussion that must and will keep developing.


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