Have the MDGs affected developing country policies and spending? Findings of new 50 country study.

July 24, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

One of the many baffling aspects of the post-2015/Sustainable Development Goal process is how little research therecorrelation v causation cartoon has been on the impact of their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals. That may sound odd, given how often we hear ‘the MDGs are on/off track’ on poverty, health, education etc, but saying ‘the MDG for poverty reduction has been achieved five years ahead of schedule’ is not at all the same as saying ‘the MDGs caused that poverty reduction’ – a classic case of confusing correlation with causation.

So I gave heartfelt thanks when Columbia University’s Elham Seyedsayamdost got in touch after a previous whinge on this topic, and sent me her draft paper for UNDP which, as far as I know, is the first systematic attempt to look at the impact of the MDGs on national government policy. Here’s the abstract, with my commentary in brackets/italics. The full paper is here: MDG Assessment_ES, and Elham would welcome any feedback (es548[at]columbia[dot]edu):

‘This study reviews post‐2005 national development strategies of fifty countries from diverse income groups, geographical locations, human development tiers, and ODA (official aid) levels to assess the extent to which national plans have tailored the Millennium Development Goals to their local contexts. Reviewing PRSPs and non‐PRSP national strategies, it presents a mixed picture. [so it’s about plans and policies, rather than what actually happened in terms of implementation, but it’s still way ahead of anything else I’ve seen]

The encouraging finding is that thirty-two of the development plans under review have either adopted the MDGs as planning and monitoring tools or “localized” them in a meaningful way, using diverse adaptation strategies from changing the target date to setting additional goals, targets and indicators, all the way to integrating MDGs into subnational planning. [OK, so the MDGs have been reflected in national planning documents. That’s a start.]

MDGsA high correlation is detected between income group, PRSP status and ODA reliance of countries and their propensity to incorporate the MDGs in their planning instruments. A closer examination of the national plans indicates that PRSP countries are more likely to have aligned their national plans with the MDGs. On the other hand, all the countries that have not aligned their plans with the MDGs belong to the middle‐income countries and are least dependent on ODA. [Not surprising – the more poor/aid dependent a country is, the more it has to listen to donors banging on about the MDGs.]

The correlation between countries’ human development level and their propensity to adopt or adapt the MDGs is similarly quite strong, as the number of MDG‐based national strategies decreases as countries’ HDI increases. The discouraging findings include the dwindling attention national plans pay to the targets pertaining to reproductive health, environment, gender equality beyond education, and maternal health. [Richer countries pay less attention to MDGs, either because they are less aid dependent, or because they find them less relevant – doesn’t bode well for ‘universalism’ in the future]

More disconcerting is the lack of a connection between planning and implementation, as MDG alignment of national strategies is not coterminous with greater pro‐poor or MDG‐oriented policies. In fact, countries that have not integrated MDGs into their national plans are just as likely to allocate government funds to the social sectors as the MDG aligners.’ [Ouch – this is the killer para. Whether MDGs are reflected in plans or not, they do not have any apparent influence on how governments spend their money. She measured this by looking mainly at spending on health (the data was not great, but better than for education) before and after the relevant National Development Strategy and found: ‘the probability of a country increasing its health budget in the years after the publication of their national development plan was the same for countries that had aligned their reports with MDGs and those that had not aligned them.’]

If true (and there’s certainly a need for more research on this issue), the last paragraph is important for the SDG process currently under way – if a simpler, shorter list of MDGs, backed by huge donor resources cannot be SDG graphicshown to have influenced government spending decisions, what chance has the sprawl of the SDGs (current draft weighing in at 17 goals and 169 targets, see right) got?

I hate to say I told you so. Actually, screw that, I love saying I told you so. The post-2015 circus spent a ridiculous amount of time and energy arguing about which baubles to put on its Christmas Tree. It is only now getting to the interesting and important part – ensuring that whatever is agreed is designed to actually influencing the spending and policy decisions of developing country governments. At this point, it ought to have been able to draw on the lessons of the MDG experience; unfortunately, propaganda and wishful thinking seem to have squeezed out serious research on what those lessons actually are. Elham’s paper is at least a start in redressing that.

Oof. I feel better for that.

Please send comments to Elham. And here’s her bio in case you want to give her a job. ‘Elham Seyedsayamdost is a researcher and development professional specializing in the political economy of development. She was recently awarded a PhD in Political Science at Columbia University, where she was a Cordier Fellow at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Her PhD dissertation, titled “A World Without Poverty: Negotiating the Global Development Agenda,” examines the political processes, interests and preferences of international actors in creating the Millennium Development Goals. Previously, she worked for many years on development policy with UNDP and the World Bank. To learn more, visit http://elham.se.’

July 24, 2015
Duncan Green