The Millennium Development Goals: what have they achieved? What next?

March 16, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

Last week I spent a day closeted with statisticians, UN officials and academics reviewing the MDG phenomenon. Agreed off the back of the Millennium Summit in (unsurprisingly) 2000, the MDGs, setting out 2015 global targets on everything from health to education to poverty, have become a familiar part of the aid landscape, a reference point for politicians and donors, but what have they achieved? The discussion was built around an excellent new review by Richard Manning. Some conclusions of the discussion:

The MDGs have been a good way to build political and public support for aid in the donor countries, and focus it on outcomes like education, water and health (rather than simply propping up your political allies or generating contracts for your exporters through ‘tied aid’). The older guard in the seminar stressed just what a mess aid was in before the MDGs and warned us not to ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’ (along with the innumerable elephants in the room, my current candidate for most overused metaphor in the development business). If the development professionals get sniffy about the MDGs, someone else is bound to step in to fill the vacuum, probably with something worse. What’s more the MDGs have become an important part of Obama’s aid policy, so ditching them now would be very poor timing.

But opinions were sharply divided about what impact the MDGs have had in developing countries. Are they just a song governments sing to keep donors happy, or have they become a way that citizens can hold governments to account, e.g. for delivering schools and teachers? People had plenty of anecdotes, examples, conversations etc on both sides of the argument, but what was striking was the apparent lack of any systematic research on whether the MDGs have achieved genuine traction over domestic political processes, and why.

The MDGs have some very big holes in them. Somewhere between the Millennium Declaration and its codification into specific targets, most references to human rights went missing. Inequality barely gets a look in. Nor does economic growth, which is pretty odd given its central role in development. Risk and vulnerability, community/collective rights, climate change, well-being, poverty as shame and humiliation, rather than mere low income etc etc – the candidates for inclusion are legion. But every addition dilutes the core attraction of the MDGs – their simplicity. Big trade-offs there.

There will be a review by the UN in September 2010 – the details and status of the review are still being fought over internally in typical UN style, but it is likely that that event will see the first official negotiations on what comes after 2015. Politicians like novelty and new initiatives, so are unlikely to accept just pushing back the deadline. There are plenty of options: refine them but keep them essentially unchanged (but maybe with a new title, as the ‘millennium’ tag is fading fast)? Start with something entirely different, e.g. the existing body of UN conventions and human rights law? Give up on targets altogether in favour of the ‘binding constraint’ model of identifying one or two key reforms in economic policy, institutions etc. One idea I suggested was that, just as the MDGs imposed some kind of order on the proliferation of UN summit commitments on education, water, women etc in the 1990s, a new instrument could do the same for the current proliferation of ‘vertical funds’ on health, education etc. Why not pull all these supposed donor-recipient contracts together and try and make them binding, with monitoring and name and shame when either partner fails to deliver?

But what we kept coming back to was ‘what problem are the MDGs trying to solve?’ Are we trying to strengthen global commitments and coordination on everything from sanitation to climate change, or do we want to shift the focus to a much more bottom up process of citizens holding their governments to account. My gut instinct is the former – the latter is the stuff of domestic politics, political parties and civic action, with all their specific national and local detail, not some lengthy and generalized UN process.

March 16, 2009
Duncan Green