What Next for the Millennium Development Goals? Suggestions from an MDG Skeptic

June 01, 2010

This September the UN will host another major summit to evaluate progress toward the Millennium Development Goals -- the 8 goals, 20 targets and 60+ indicators agreed at the UN summit a decade ago. Bill Easterly reminds us today that the way the particular goals were chosen made it almost impossible for Africa to “succeed”. Past work I did with colleagues Michael Clemens and Charles Kenny also raise concerns that overly-ambitious MDGs and outcomes only tangentially affected by aid flows might lead to another round of aid skepticism and wrongly label many countries doing very well as losers.While there is a good case for abandoning illusory global goals, that seems unlikely this September, not least because the entire industry of MDG watchers/trackers/advocates have an interest in keeping it going. And, oh yeah, utopian goals seem to work as a fundraiser.My short article in the new Global Policy Journal from LSE asks “what next for the MDGs?” I argue that, if we must have more goals, they should be:

  1. Bottom up, not global down. New global goals should be based on the aggregation of each country's targets rather than setting a world goal and then retrofitting targets to country plans.
  2. Based on ambitious yet reasonably achievable expectations. New country-based goals must take into account the context and starting point of each country's circumstances, combined with bold yet practicable improvements. It took the United States from 1800 to 1905 to make the transition from 40 per cent school enrollment to universal coverage. Expecting countries currently at a similar 40–50 per cent level (like Ethiopia, Mali, Burkina Faso or Senegal) to race ahead to 100 per cent completion rates in just 15 years seems utterly unworkable.
  3. Aimed, where possible, on intermediate outcomes. A requisite for upholding even a modicum of accountability means picking targets that are more closely linked to things under control of the relevant actors. For instance, health officials and their partners in donor agencies have much more scope to influence immunization rates than overall child mortality rates.
  4. Considered warning markers rather than operational goals. Global goals are useful in letting us know where we are and as a signal for where we hope to be one day. They also can add pressure on governments, in both the rich and poor worlds, to identify where they may need to apply additional efforts and arm their own citizens with information. Yet such benchmarks are not necessarily useful either for making funding decisions or for assigning praise or condemnation to regimes or the development community as a whole.
  5. Able to identify success. Scorecards of progress should be able to identify and celebrate success of those countries ahead of the curve and being creative in enhancing the lives of their people.
Am I now the hopeless idealist to think any of this might happen?


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