Why I still believe in the MDGs

With world leaders and officials meeting for yet another summit on the Millennium Development Goals, this post is extremely relevant.

From the title, it would seem that I am a die hard supporter of the eight Goals. However, a little history will tell you otherwise. I first discovered the MDGs during my first campaigns event as a UN Society campaigner. At that time, I had to be an  all out supporter of the goals and I chose to focus on Goal One, that of halving poverty and hunger by 2015. The campaign was happened and ended very quickly, but by the end, I had a feeling that the wording of the goal was over idealistic.

I returned to that goal and the MDGs later in my final year dissertation, addressing it broadly by examining the changes in aid organisations. I also briefly returned to them (although it was not the main theme) in my masters dissertation. By the end of all the writing and researching, I moved from just the “MDGs are too idealistic” to the “MDGs have something to offer” view.

The first and common mistake that people would make about the MDGs is their setting. The layman would think that because it was the year 2000, world leaders suddenly dreamt up of eight goals to better the development of the world (especially the developing world) and urged all countries to meet them. Quite the contrary, the MDGs were formed over time as the result of the history of development and aid–especially from agreements/conferences and actors (individuals). To understand more, a good read is Riddell (2008). An even better history and argument can be found in Hulme (2007). In (Hulme,2007: 3-12), the  author showed  how the goals came from the various social development conferences in the immediate post Cold War era and how in materialised from the initial International Development Goals (IDGs). The major actors which pushed for the IDGs included then Secretary of State for DFID Clare Short and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. These actors and the rise of development targets led to the Millennium Declaration, the legal document for the goals.

This background and development of the goals (they aren’t really eight goals–there are many sub goals within the eight main targets) shows how much the goals were part of the drive to refocus the international agenda back on  development and  poverty. Furthermore, the MDGs were a considerable step in shifting poverty towards a multidimensional perspective on poverty, away from the “lost decade” of development of the 1980s. I do disagree with Hulme (and other authors) who propose that the MDGs are part of the Human Development paradigm. Nevertheless, the various targets  capture many aspects of poverty and development beyond  money–health, maternal health, basic education, environmental sustainability (to name few). In  this sense, having these broad goals keeps the international focus back on development and constantly on development instead of ignoring them.

The second issue that needs to be set right is the overall framework of the MDGs. As the wording of each MDG suggests, they are global targets. Is widely seen that these global and  also “noble” targets (as Sir Bob Geldof as termed them) are a sudden catalyst for all countries. Rather, global targets have been the hallmark of the UN. The UN has had at least four time periods listed as “Development Decades” and has set various goals such as the eradication of smallpox, the expansion of education, growth for Least Development Countries (see Jolly, 2003). Jolly did note that not all developing countries have met the goals, but collectively (“as a group”); they have targets such as economic growth and the reduction of infant mortality (2003: 4). This was also similarly argued by another architect of the MDGs Jan Vandermoortele (2008: 220-221). With global targets being part of the norms in UN ideas/policies, it shows how the MDGs are targets to keep countries in the race and not let them fall out.

Having clarified that the MDGs are global targets, this will help clear under a further another misunderstanding and criticism levelled at the MDGs–that they are unrealistic and that it is impossible for all countries to achieve all those numerical  targets. This is the argument especially by William Easterly (see Easterly, 2007, 2009), Todd Moss, others from the Center for Global Development and other critics. The MDGs are not only too general; they do not consider the physical realities.

The creation and affirmation of global targets does not intentionally create winners (which again are not possible) or losers. This setting of such targets is mainly for “tracking vis-à-vis [the goals]” while naturally not possible for “any region or particular country”. Global targets, which are “the outcome of intergovernmental negotiations”, are meant to be “reached collectively” (Vandermoortele, 2009: 258). Even if some countries don’t meet the goals set, the goals still can be met due to the combined efforts of countries (Vandermoortele, 2009: 259).Within the nation itself, there must be “country-specific” or context-specific development targets in order for plausible progress to be made (Vandermoortele, 2008: 224). By view the MDGs through their proper interpretation, it shows how the goals are meant for a united effort and not thrown up without thought or in vain. In this light, I still see the need for the MDGs.

Others would continue to argue that first, countries have failed to see the goals as local and not global targets and furthermore, the wording of each goals does not give any instructions on how to reach the targets. Ha-Joon Chang argued that this largely makes the MDGs as “development without development” and that rather development should be about structural transformation of a country/an economy (2009: 2). Ashwani Saith (2006) has also honed in on this, claiming that the MDGs  have distorted the usage of funding for development, development research and the whole political economy of international development.

A simple glance at the Millennium Declaration will show that it was never structured to be a full development concept like say import substitution, state owned enterprises or even neo-liberalism. Yes, in its historical context, it came as a relief to the disastrous era of structural adjustment programmes/diffusion of free-market theory/neo-liberalism. However, it was never an alternative or a new route towards actual development. Now, the Human Development Paradigm itself is the alternative to neo-liberalism. (More on that below). The MDGs are more a “cheerleading” tool in the arena of development–they (as mentioned above) “are meant to help re-align national priorities with the objective of human development and poverty reduction” (Vandermoortele, 2008: 224). They are the train signals to lead both donors and developing countries not to forget about the need to have development on their agenda.

Having the MDGs and a global symbol for promises however has lead to a “donor centric” and “money centric” norm in development circles which has damaged the path towards development (Vandermoortele,2009: 366). Giving aid is of course necessary in many cases, but Vandermoortele see the exchange of ideas–“ideas changing minds” (Vandermoortele, 2009: 369). Having MDGs as goals without instructions has also let them open to much abuse. For example, the World Bank claims to be helping countries reach the goals by incorporating them as part of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). Charles Gore (2004) has termed this inter-play with the neo-liberal PRSPs and the MDGs as a “double bind” (an inescapable trap).

What then, would it be like in a world without the MDGs? Would the world be better off without these vague goals which have been grossly misinterpreted? I believe then that neo-liberalism would have won by a bigger margin–it is still predominant despite all its detrimental effects. There would be no increase in aid or aid would be used more for non-developmental purposes. Development would be less of a concern for industrialised countries. I had this argument with my good friend John while walking down King’s Parade in Cambridge. It’s like fixing a broken engine, I said. you can tighten a screw which will make the engine splutter and work for a while. If you didn’t bother to even touch once screw, the engine would be cold. A world without the MDGs would be the cold engine.

As much as I believe in having the MDGs, they can only be improved/altered by a miniscule come the 20th of September to the 22nd. Human Development as noted is a development concept and a contender out of the neo-liberal world. Yet, human development has not made the impact that the MDGs have. Human development is largely confined not to the UNDP but to the HDRO of the UNDP. The annual human development reports have the disclaimer that they are independent of the UNDP administrator (see page 130). This means that human development is less globally accepted/feasible than broad (and vague) goals. Like it or not the MDGs are  the least form of indication that development is a necessary topic.

Come Monday the 20th of September 2010, World Leaders, policy makers and activists will again say let’s work towards the right MDGs/let’s accelerate progress towards 2015. I have tried to show how despite the many flaws of the goals that they should stay. Yes, but those descending on New York City next week should not cheer for the MDGs blindly but understand what they do and do not represent.

Chang, H-J., 2009, “Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark: How development has disappeared from today’s ‘development’ discourse” in Khan, S. and Christiansen, J. (eds.), Towards New Developmentalism: Market as a Means Rather than Master, Abingdon: Routledge, forthcoming

Click to access HamletwithoutthePrinceofDenmark-revised.pdf

Easterly, W., 2007, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Easterly, W., 2009, “How the Millennium Development goals are unfair to Africa”, World Development, 37(1), pp.26-35

Gore, C., 2004, “MDGs and PRSPs: Are Poor Countries Enmeshed in a Global-Local Double Bind?”, Global Social Policy Forum, 4(3), pp.277-283

Hulme, D., 2007, The Making of the Millennium Development Goals: Human Development meets Results-based Management in an Imperfect World, Working Paper 16, Manchester: Brooks World Poverty Institute

Click to access bwpi-wp-1607.pdf

Jolly, R., 2003, Global Goals–the UN Experience, Human Development Report Office, Occasional Paper, Background Paper for Human Development Report 2003, New York:Human Development  Report Office, United Nations Development Programme

Click to access hdr2003_jolly.pdf

Riddell, R., 2008,Does Foreign Aid really work?, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Vandermoortele, J., 2008, “Making Sense of the MDGs”,Development, 51(2), pp.220-227

Vandemoortele, J., 2009, “The MDG Conundrum: Meeting the Targets without missing the point”, Development Policy Review, 27(4), pp.355-371



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7 Responses to Why I still believe in the MDGs

  1. kellipsf says:

    Thanks for this great overview and perspective on the relevancy and progress of the MDG’s!

  2. You’re Welcome Kelly.

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  6. Nurain Janah says:

    Thanks for linking me through, that was a really interesting read and an in-depth look through into the MDGs and how they’re progressing, that I don’t generally come across :)

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