Monday, April 21, 2014
Exit from comment view mode. Click to hide this space

After the Millennium Development Goals

CAMBRIDGE – In 2000, 189 countries collectively adopted the United Nations Millennium Declaration, which evolved into a set of concrete targets called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These ambitious targets – ranging from halving extreme poverty and reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters to achieving universal primary schooling and halting (and beginning to reverse) the spread of HIV/AIDS – are supposed to be met by the end of 2015. As the deadline approaches, development experts are debating a new question: What comes next?

It is virtually certain that many of the MDGs will not have been met by the end of 2015, but there have been striking successes in some areas. For example, the goal of halving extreme poverty (measured by the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day) will likely be achieved ahead of time, largely thanks to China’s phenomenal growth.

At the same time, there is little evidence to suggest that those successes were the result of the MDGs themselves. China implemented the policies that engineered history’s greatest poverty eradication program prior to, and independently from, the Millennium Declaration and the MDGs.

Clearly, however, the MDGs were a public-relations triumph, which is not to belittle their contribution. Like all worthwhile PR efforts, the MDGs served to raise awareness, galvanize attention, and mobilize action – all for a good cause. They amplified the global conversation about development and defined its terms. And there is evidence that they got advanced countries to pay more attention to poor nations.

Indeed, the MDGs possibly had their clearest impact on aid flows from rich to poor countries. A study by Charles Kenny and Andy Sumner for the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC, suggests that the MDGs not only boosted aid flows, but also redirected them toward smaller, poorer countries, and toward targeted areas like education and public health. However, aid was not directly linked to performance and results, and it is much more difficult to know whether it had the desired impact overall.

The MDGs encompass eight goals, 21 targets, and 60 indicators. Much criticism has focused on the use of these numerical targets and indicators, which, skeptics argue, are misspecified, mismeasured, and divert attention from equally important areas. But these complaints miss the point. Any effort that is concrete and implementable needs to monitor the results, and setting clear numerical targets is the best way to do so.

Still, a central paradox plagues the MDGs. The Millennium Declaration was meant to be a compact between the world’s rich and poor countries. Poor countries promised to refocus their development efforts while rich countries pledged to support them with finance, technology, and access to their markets. But, oddly, of the eight goals, only the last one deals with “global partnership,” or what rich countries can and should do.

Even here, the MDGs contain no numerical target for financial aid or any other aspect of rich countries’ assistance, in contrast to the highly specific poverty-related targets set for developing countries. It is perhaps telling that the “progress charts” prepared by the United Nations Development Program, the agency charged with reporting on progress toward achieving the MDGs, track only Internet usage under that goal.

Why we need a global effort to convince developing countries to do what is good for them is not clear. Poverty reduction and human development should be the first order of business for governments in these countries, with or without the MDGs.

It is true, of course, that these governments often pursue different goals, for political, military, and other reasons. But it is wishful thinking to believe that they can be persuaded to act otherwise by international declarations that lack enforcement mechanisms. If we have learned one thing in the development business, it is that real reform cannot be bought with donors’ money, let alone with vague promises of money.

Equally problematic, the MDGs implicitly assume that we know how to achieve development targets, and that only resources and political will are missing. But it is doubtful that even well-intentioned policymakers have a good handle on, say, how to raise secondary-school completion rates sustainably or reduce maternal mortality.

Many development economists would argue that significant improvements in governance and political institutions are required before such goals can be achieved. The most that rich countries can do is to provide an enabling environment for the benefit of developing countries that are willing and able to take advantage of it.

These considerations suggest an obvious direction for the next iteration of the MDGs. First, a new global compact should focus more directly on rich countries’ responsibilities. Second, it should emphasize policies beyond aid and trade that have an equal, if not greater, impact on poor countries’ development prospects.

A short list of such policies would include: carbon taxes and other measures to ameliorate climate change; more work visas to allow larger temporary migration flows from poor countries; strict controls on arms sales to developing nations; reduced support for repressive regimes; and improved sharing of financial information to reduce money laundering and tax avoidance.

Notice that most of these measures are actually aimed at reducing damage – for example, climate change, military conflict, and financial crime – that otherwise results from rich countries’ conduct. “Do no harm” is as good a principle here as it is in medicine.

This kind of reorientation will not be easy. Advanced countries are certain to resist any new commitments. But most of these measures do not cost money, and, as the MDGs have shown, setting targets can be used to mobilize action from rich-country governments. If the international community is going to invest in a bold new public-relations initiative, it might as well focus on areas where the potential payoffs are the greatest.

Exit from comment view mode. Click to hide this space
Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (6)

Please login or register to post a comment

  1. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    MDG, lofty as they are, remind us of the little that is left in terms of time to achieve certain targets like halving poverty. China continues to achieve through its mindful pursuit of growth in fixed asset investments and taking an unambiguous stand on urbanization with all its costs and achieving at the end a result that no nation till date could achieve in terms of poverty reduction, which also includes other human factors like nutrition, primary education and other health statistics. This had nothing to do with the advanced nations aid or any other initiative. India moved in the same trajectory, but perhaps has stopped midway from an internal crisis which could not be tamed through the process of discussion and arguments. It simply could not manage the process of people displacement processes and on the other hand the polity lost credence in developing an approach that was transparent in terms of awarding nature’s endowments , or any other formto the private sector, whether it be minerals or telecom license.

    The question therefore is that the MDG to be achieved by developed nation’s aid and other initiatives is an agenda that is steeped in financial wizardry that perhaps was aimed towards investment opportunities when such avenues dried up for the advanced nations. The successes of some nations prove that such dosage of investments from the external environment did precious little. On the contrary it is the internal government, polity and the institutions of the country that help to create the grounds for lasting poverty alleviation programs. In any case there is very little scope left in the advanced nations to help facilitate in MDG, when the prospects are mired in their own domestic arena and so much is left to be desired. Dani Rodrik's suggestion of global partnership, or the lack of it in the current times, is truly apt, but with balooning deficits and mountains of debt, the focus has shifted to goals that are less altruistic in nature. It leaves a sobering thought whether at all there would be any nation in the West left to lead this process.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  2. Commentedsrinivasan gopalan

    Prof.Rodrik has done a masterly exercise that there is a world beyond achieving millennium development goals and that adverts to reminding rich world about its responsibilities. This reminds one of the Washington Consensus years when the developing countries then had vociferously but justifiably cribbed that the policy- based lending extended by the IMF was harsher on them as the conditionalities such borrowings entailed were disproportionate to their capacity to adjust. In those days such well-founded criticisms also meant highlighting asymmetries in the lending pattern of the IMF. Now with the IMF orchestrating multi-billion dollar rescue packages to the countries in the eurozone periphery or other advanced countries that were hit by the financial crisis or slowdown, the time is ripe for evolving a fresh batch of conditionalities on the borrowers from the rich world. This set of conditionalities could relate to their global responsibility in conducting themselves in such a fashion that would redound to the common good of all including countries that exist on the margin or emerging economies. But the question is who is there to bell the cat of biggies when counsels do not even deserve a glance from them!! G.Srinivasan. New Delhi, India

  3. CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

    If we learn anything from Professor Rodrik's analysis, it is self-interest on the part of nation-states which can move mountains, or land a man on the Moon.

    China has indeed made great progress and quite outside the Millennium Development Goals. The fact that it was in China's best interest to do so, is everything in this conversation.

    When it becomes in the best interests of all nations to do so, great things can be accomplished, such as meeting or exceeding the Millennium Development Goals.

    Elected officials tend to want re-election. When it becomes in their best interests to pursue and support MDG and whatever agreement supersedes it, great progress will be made.

    Therein lies the answer. Motivation by dissemination of information to voters across the nations.

    Here's how it's done, watch this short Hans Rosling video.

    Best regards, John Brian Shannon

  4. CommentedNorm Bennett

    What are the payoffs? You state that the original goals set did not have means of measuring the effectiveness so how can it be judged how will MDG did over all or by each member. If an individual country was say $1.45 a day would they receive help. Now with the Global food inflation and shortage would a 12 year old standard be above poverty.
    If a Global group was set up to study all the under developed nations to determine what each nations level of Just above minimum human necessity, in income, shelter, food, health and education we could use this in 4 measurable ways to set goals.
    Raise each nation levels to the Just above level.
    Average out all the nations Just above minimum levels to raise those below to those levels.
    Raise the nations with a higher level so those below can reach it.
    When X% of this is accomplished re-evaluate them all and set new standards.

    Developed nations could train the growing number of unemployed, paying then to learn rather with un employment, welfare and other social monies. After training and education send them out to countries as a Global Peace and Training corp. A large part of the integrated education would be in human global inter-connection, good for the benefit of all. As these individuals finished their time in a country they will have obtained a new global understanding of how connected we all are, Upon returning home they could then disseminate this information and training new people to go out.
    All of this would start benefiting all of society. We would learn tolerance for others culture and beliefs, change our consumption from a throw away world to a pay what is useful, lasting and resource conserving.
    We also need to get corporations to join in, creating reasonable profit, higher wages where needed and a new attitude that if they do what benefits the good of all, move away from profit driven just for more profit and less competition the public will reward them via status as society caring firms.

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    The goals are noble and the potential is huge.
    As always the problem is finding the positive motivation, as only positive motivation can provide long term driving force.
    The way we can provide positive motivation is a global education about the global integral world.
    Such a program could clearly show people in a factual, scientific manner that in today's integral, interdependent system the priority, well being of the whole is the same as individual and national priorities and well being as we are tied together as mountaineers, climbing or falling together.