24 January 2010

The MDGs: Means-Free Development?

I’m on my way to a workshop at the UN which is part of a dialogue about what comes after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015. The MDGs were conceived of in the 1990s, a relatively stable period for development. They are the outcome of a political process. They served as a human development counterweight to the economic development framing of the World Bank and IMF. They captured the results based management culture of that time.

Have they been a force for good? There is no uncontestable evidence either way. ODA has increased, but it is hard to link the existence of the MDGs to it. Some national development plans highlight the MDGs, some do not. It may have helped advocates of aid to make their case, but we don’t know. It may have distracted attention away from issues not captured in the goals, targets and indicators (infrastructure is often mentioned) but that may be due to other factors.

Against a backdrop of increased uncertainty on how to stimulate development best, many are asking the question, what should we do about the MDGS after 2015? There are several camps, including these:

• MDGs are needed but we need better outcome goals and indicators
• MDGs are needed but the outcomes need to be shaped by a much more broader global process
• MDGs are needed, but they need to reflect models of change about how development occurs. They must cover a combination of outcomes and behaviours. They must apply to rich, emerging and poor countries.
• MDGs are too reductionist. They need to be replaced by redistributive institutions and structures that specify the kind of global society we wish to live in.

My take on the MDGs is that the global community needs some kind of commitment mechanism. But it must:

1. Articulate the kind of world we want to live in. Outcomes are vital, obviously, and a different set may be warranted 15 years on. But the means are equally vital. Do we care about rights and justice? What about representation? If so, we must have targets for how the rules of the game need to change, particularly at the global level.

2. Apply to all countries, not just the poorest. The indicator of rich country behavior that is regularly monitored is the 0.7% of gross national income to ODA. Other features of rich country behavior (e.g. on climate, narcotics, finance, arms) need to be monitored.

3. Reflect the preferences of each country. There is no blueprint for development. We know a lot about the things that are helpful. But the exact combination of legislation, policies and spending will reflect national contexts, politics, capacities, and priorities.

4. Allow everyone to assess efforts as well as outcomes. It is too easy for countries to say they are doing one thing while doing another. Progress (or lack thereof) in the current MDGs does not shed any light on performance of individual actors. We need more monitoring of effort as well as the results of those efforts.

Whether these are the right attributes of such a commitment mechanism and whether the MDGs will be fit for purpose should be discussed not just by development insiders in New York, but all over the world and by those who would not describe themselves as development workers. I will be sure to update you on the conclusions of the workshop and whether it changed my mind.


Hugh Beevor said...

Just back from 3 weeks in beautiful, delightful but poor and badly and viciously run Union of Myanmar. Returning to a cold, inward looking UK worried only about how the next Government will cut the deficit. MDGs??? People have to be first weaned off their cynicism about badly spent foreign aid capable of producing bad unintended effects. The Development Community talking to itself does not seem to appreciate the lack of interest and support for the MDGs, maybe even their relevance. Goals must not start from inputs, inputs that lack credibility in the eyes of many decision makers and most of the electorate. To win hearts and minds you must start with outputs and deliver a convincing narrative on how to get there. One narrative that does not work is about attempts to improve governance. If a country has a bad government it is almost impossible for outsiders to work to improve it unless that government asks for the help. Their own people are the only ones who can do that. Even when they cannot, as in Myanmar, outsiders still cannot achieve a change. General trade sanctions just hurt the poorest and take too long. The Development Community must just limit itself to where it can make a difference. Basket bad governance cases must be left until a chance incident opens up the possibility of change and then rapidly organize help. I have just been watching Rory Stewart on Lawrence of Arabia, full of the hubris when trying, unasked, to help other countries.

Returning to the 0.7% GDP goal for ODA I keep remembering an IDS presentation where the theory of the Fiscal State was expounded which shows the tendency for Governments to treat well their citizens only when dependent on them for the majority of public revenues. States like Uganda, where too much of government finances regularly comes from foreign aid, are likely to treat their sponsors better than their citizens. There is also that cynical aphorism of C Northcote Parkinson that "foreign aid is a method of taking money from the poor of rich countries to give it to the rich of poor countries". So on the one hand ODA should not be a goal but an input. Secondly citizens of the 1st world need examples of the type of foreign assistance that has worked, if they are to support a limited focused amount of it in the future, especially in these fiscally straightened times.

Anyway Good Luck in coming up with something worthwhile and achievable. HUGH BEEVOR

Don Doering said...

It is interesting that amidst the MDG conversation you mentioned the 0.7% - which doesn't have many of the characteristics of indicator targets that you mention but, on the other hand, shows how a simple target can influence assessment but does it impact decision making? My fear of the a "new MDG" is how that process in itself will tie up the development bureaucracy for a good long time. I'd aim for a far simpler and less detailed truth that can be a rallying cry.

Paul Isenman said...

Thanks. This is thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Recall that the MDGs were invented by the DAC (as the DAC goals then the
IDGs) on the basis that they had already been agreed, so no one could
question them. There were some modifications, but the base on previously
agreed international development goals was a huge help. Except for those
modification, it would be hard to get something "shaped by a much broader
global process". As you say, the benefits are unproven -- although my view
is that the political benefits were high relative to the (non-trivial)
distortions. The chances of negotiating something new more or less from
scratch -- even if it were not to achieve uncertain benefits -- seem not
high to say the least. Adding in something on process or that commits those
who are unwilling (US on .7%, China on political targets on justice and
rights) would lower those chances exponentially. Why get into it?

I didn't understand the reference to the "preferences of each country", by
the way, but doubt that this could offer a way out without substantially
reducing the political value-added.