In 2000 the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Declaration, which committed their members to a new global partnership to tackle poverty and other development challenges. In 2005, under the leadership of Jeffrey Sachs, a number of time-bound targets were developed – they have become known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). As the 2015 deadline looms, it is time to reflect on the usefulness of the MDGs and to think of new development guidelines.
As a reminder, there are eight MDGs and the UN monitors their progress based on 21 targets, measured by 60 variables. The latest UN report indicates that remarkable progress has been made, with four targets having already been met: extreme poverty and the proportion of people without access to safe water has been halved, lives for slum dwellers have improved and there is now parity in primary education between boys and girls.
However, progress around the world is uneven. While China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam have experienced high growth rates, a reduction in poverty and improvements in living standards, other countries have seen far less progress. The majority of Sub-Saharan African countries will miss most of the targets. Worldwide, none of the fragile states will achieve a single MDG. Despite the progress in reducing extreme poverty, about 1 billion people will still be living on less than $1.25 a day in 2015. Eighty percent of these extremely poor people will be Africans. Other targets, such as hunger, infant mortality, maternal mortality and communicable diseases are unlikely to be met globally by the deadline.
Thus, we are still facing huge development challenges. How should we respond? Should we continue to use the MDGs as our measure of development progress, consider a ‘MDGs plus’ or develop a new framework altogether? I believe that the MDGs have focused the attention of rich countries’ on the plight of the poor around the world and helped to build a constituency for change. While many SSA countries have made progress, historical comparisons suggest that the MDGs were overly-ambitious, given the low levels these countries started at. In order to maintain momentum we should continue monitoring development targets but also move to revise some to reflect achievable goals for the countries that have made the least progress. I fear that, without a revision for SSA countries, the international community might disengage when they recognise that these targets cannot be achieved. Fragile states across the globe should also be given additional consideration: we need a better understanding of the impact of political, technical, financial and military support and combine these resources to assist in stabilization.
Another aspect of the MDGs as a development framework that has received little attention is how to prioritize resources across time to maximize gains. We now have a wealth of micro studies revealing which interventions work in a large number of countries. Some interventions are more cost effective in the pursuit of development goals. For example, the comparisons within the Copenhagen Consensus project show that health interventions have the best benefit-cost ratio: rehydration drugs are cheap and save children’s lives and vaccinations drastically reduce infant mortality. These lifesaving technologies exist but are currently not affordable for the poor. Thus, it is largely not a problem of technology but affordability. In the longer term the hope is that countries grow out of poverty and build health care systems able to deliver these primary health services without support from donors.
Finally, many economists and political scientists believe that poor institutions hinder equitable growth in many countries. Often institutions are not inclusive, with leaders using their political power to provide patronage goods to a narrow circle of supporters rather than public goods for all citizens. Spending aid on rehydration and vaccinations will save lives now but won’t bring about fundamental change for the children of future generations. The current MDGs may lead us to spend a lot of aid on health and education interventions rather than on the more difficult-to-measure changes necessary to bring about institutional change, enabling countries to grow out of poverty. A re-design of the MDGs beyond 2015 should address pressing political economy issues
For example, the adoption of inclusive institutions is more likely if governments are accountable to their citizens. One important link between governments and the governed are taxes: “no taxation without representation”. However, tax revenue is typically low in poor countries, with financial flows from remittances, oil and minerals and aid often dwarfing government revenue from tax. As Adrian Wood points out, non-tax income can undermines good governance by distorting accountability, with governments dependent on aid paying too much attention to donors and too little to their citizens. He proposes capping aid to developing countries, giving governments an incentive to pay more attention to their own people. A cap could be phased in over a period of time, possibly over a decade for aid-dependent peaceful countries and 15 years for post-war countries. The introduction of a credible cap on aid would place the emphasis on long term strategies rather than the attainment of short term outcomes. Investigating methods which improve country accountability will make efforts to reach the MDGs more effective.
In conclusion, the MDGs have focused global attention on the eradication of poverty, but in 2015 only some countries will have reached the MDGs. To make further progress, in particular in fragile states, we need to re-design the MDGs. We will need to make targets more realistic and turn our focus from narrowly-defined yardsticks to the long term development aim of inclusive growth. In the run up to 2015 the UN is beginning a worldwide consultation process, and one project that will provides guidance over the coming five years is the NOPOOR research programme, a consortium of 20 international partners aimed at creating new knowledge on the nature and extent of poverty in developing countries. The explicit aim of this EU funded programme is to provide policy-makers with a broader understanding of poverty. The research is grouped into seven ‘work packages’ and I am the lead researcher for the work package on ‘States and Political Systems’.
Thanks for these extremely sensible and constructive thoughts. The UN system did Africa no favours by insisting that the MDG targets be interpreted as applicable to each individual country, rather than to the developing world in aggregate (which I believe is how they were originally intended), because, as you say, they were impossible for many countries and (ironically) particularly for those where the problems of poverty were most serious. But it is now going to be politically hard to set more realistic targets for individual countries beyond 2015 – which would provoke jeers of ‘MDGs-lite for Africa’. I liked the targets (though again as you say they put insufficient emphasis on growth) and I would be sorry to lose what you describe as the mobilising effect of the MDGs, but I fear that it will be harder to develop a consensus on what should follow them than it was to design them originally.