Beyond the Millennium Development Goals

Today’s post is contributed by Dan Smith, Secretary General of NGO  International Alert, as part of our coverage of the Millennium Development Goals Summit taking place in New York. Click on the logo to go to the Summit website.

This week’s UN summit called for a big renewed effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. But a new report from International Alert asks us to get “beyond the MDGs”.

The MDGs have been repeatedly blessed as the grail of development but two truths intrude: first, they will not be fully achieved and, second, regardless of that, there have been widespread if quiet reservations about them ever since their launch a decade ago. Why?

Let’s look at five inter-related issues:

1. They are not comprehensive. The MDGs include much that is of fundamental importance for development. But among the key factors they leave out are peace, governance, security, law and order, justice, corruption, statutory law, human rights, and education beyond primary level. Of course, setting out big development goals in a relatively concise form necessitated selection. But what have been left out are not optional items; they are some of the determinative considerations of development.

2. But much of the problem resides in how the MDGs are used. Whatever the MDGs omit, nobody could disagree with them. I will not object to universal primary education by 2015, for example. But when a donor government official says he cannot fund secondary education because his government, committed to the MDGs, wants to focus on primary education, then you see how they have gone astray. Similarly, for several years the MDGs gave licence to donor government officials to avoid thinking about peace, security and governance in ODA.

In other words, the real problem is not just that the MDGs are incomplete but that they are treated as if they were a comprehensive guide, which can only produce misleading results.

3. The MDGs creak under the burden of multi-tasking. If the MDGs were treated merely as expressions of intent, there would be much less to dispute. But they have been given the task of measuring progress and thus have become not only both ends and means but also quantitative indicators with, in consequence, a whole world of data on development progress.

In turn, these indicators have been used not only to assess global progress but also to guide strategic planning for individual countries. With that, the purpose of the MDGs seems to have become thoroughly twisted and this selective set of eight goals has seriously been over-loaded.

4. Though selective, the MDGs are generic. In other words, they manage the not inconsiderable and somewhat paradoxical feat of being too broad and too narrow at the same time. In badly governed, conflict-affected countries, boosting primary education and focusing on some basic health issues are not likely to move the country’s development agenda along. These activities will save lives and help people in quite fundamental ways. They thus express the basic humanitarian impulse that is part of the driver of ODA.

But that is not the same as development. What is needed to assist development varies from one country to another. In that sense, by being generic, the MDGs are drawn with too broad a brush while what they draw is too limited.

5. And then there’s the a-political politics of the MDGs. The MDGs focus largely on those aspects of development in which politics play little part. There are two exceptions – MDG#3 on gender and MDG#8 on partnership for development with targets that include trade, investment, world finance and debt relief. Those are highly political questions but the world community has become adept at air-brushing the politics out, removing their bite, and then making snail’s pace progress at best on what’s left of their filleted content.

In 2000, what was for the most part possible to agree was a set of actions that are a-political, non-contentious and humanitarian. Neither then nor today could many countries’ leaders agree anything more challenging or requiring more change – yet when countries are mired in under-development, poverty, poor governance and violent conflict, challenging change is exactly what they need.

Moving ahead

The UN summit’s 13,700 word outcome document while largely structured around the eight MDGs, includes quite long passages on economic interdependence and trade, recovery from the recession, peacebuilding and conflict issues, universal access to basic social services, anti-corruption measures, and human rights. With this, the summit reflects the way in which the real problems of development are increasingly being included in the frame of reference of the major international development institutions. It is an implicit recognition of the partial nature of the MDGs.

This is welcome movement. It is reflected in OECD-DAC’s work in INCAF on peacebuilding and statebuilding, in the World Development Report 2011 with its focus on fragile and conflict-affected states, and in the evolving policies of some donor governments including the UK.

It won’t get much news coverage – but inching towards a future beyond the MDGs is actually the big story this week.

Useful links

OECD work on the Millennium Development Goals

The International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding

OECD’s Asbjorn Wee talks about fragile states in this Guardian article 

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