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MDGsLeaders from around the world meet in New York City next week to review progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, a list of development targets set in 2000, after a decade of UN conferences and summits, for achievement by 2015. Ahead of the MDG Summit, I spoke with Michael Clemens and Todd Moss, senior fellows at the Center for Global Development and outspoken critics of the design and implementation of the MDGs. On the Global Prosperity Wonkcast, we discuss where Todd and Michael think that the MDG effort went wrong, and how it could be better going forward.

Undoubtedly, the MDGs have achieved one objective: they have provided a focal point for development advocates to make the case for increased foreign aid in rich country capitals. The MDGs have “been tremendously successful at getting the aid budget up,” Todd allows. What they have not done, he says, is to “focus development goals in a way that’s useful for countries.” Both Todd and Michael say that applying global targets—such as 100% school enrollment and universal access to AIDS treatment—to individual countries is a recipe for failure.

What’s wrong with aiming high? “I can see the benefits of aiming for the stars and maybe you’ll hit the barn, but I see drawbacks to those goals as well,” Michael responds. Already, there is the perception that Africa is a place where nothing is going right, he laments. “By constantly portraying failure, even in cases where countries are making enormous progress…we contribute to that vision of inevitable disaster.”

Another major flaw with the MDGs is the question of how (and even if!) they’re being measured. For many indicators, because data is so poor and collection so spotty, Todd says, even when we reach the finish line in 2015, “We will have no idea if we’ve met them.” Going forward, Todd and Michael recommend carefully separating goals that are to be used as global symbols (“eradicating poverty”) from those that are used to measure progress at the country level. Towards the end of our conversation, we discuss how this might work and lay out a few metrics (Todd likes a jobs indicator, Michael wants an economic growth indicator) that might be added to a future set of MDGs.

Listen to the Wonkcast, then write to me to tell me what you think, or post a comment below. If you use iTunes, I invite you to subscribe to get a new episode delivered to your computer every week.

My thanks to Wren Elhai for his very able production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and for drafting this blog post.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.