2015 and the Millennium Development Goals

With 2015 looming, I couldn’t resist taking a look at the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for this week’s topic.  The international community agreed these goals back in 1990 with a twenty-five year horizon (not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which we have been commemorating this weekend). For an ‘establishment’ view of the MDGs and how they fit into the overall international development agenda, see the speech from 4 November by Helen Clark, the head of the UN Development Programme.

The eight goals set in 1990 with a time horizon of 2015 were:

  1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. To achieve universal primary education
  3. To promote gender equality and empowering women
  4. To reduce child mortality rates
  5. To improve maternal health
  6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. To ensure environmental sustainability
  8. To develop a global partnership for development

The MDGs are meant to be assessed by the end of 2015, but it is appears that some goals are being met and that others will not be met in many countries.  So how should one assess the success of the MDGs? More importantly, should there be a new set of international development goals going forward and if so, what form should they take?

And what of the criticisms? Malloch Brown does not challenge the MDGs per se, as much as the underlying ‘welfarist’ conceptions of development that produce undesirable distortions and insufficient focus on growth. Thomas Pogge, I think, is essentially making a criticism based on relative versus absolute gains, namely that the growing inequality and gap in wealth is more important than the ‘slight improvements’ in overall conditions.  Others, such as Bjorn Lomborg have even more fundamental criticisms of the process, for example, challenging the lack of data on which the current MDGs can be assessed or other new goals established, a point made by Amir Attaran in 2005 in PLoSOne Medicine about their immeasurability.  If you wanted to take a look at the data yourself, then you can look to the UN’s IIF website, which is designed to track progress on the MDGs.

The topic begs some quite basic questions:

1) What have the MDGs themselves accomplished? One might argue that the MDGs simply crystallise what development has been trying to accomplish for decades.  Clean water, ending hunger, etc are objectives which require sustained effort on the part of national governments, development agencies and NGOs, so one might ask what the counterfactual looks like — what would have happened today if there were no MDGs? Even if the situation might look similar to today does that mean MDGs have served no role?

2) How valid do you think are the criticisms of Mark Malloch Brown? of Thomas Pogge? or Lomborg and Attaran?

3) What should the post-2015 framework look like? What are the advantages of disadvantages of moving away from the 8 current MDGs?

4) What implications do the MDGs have for individual countries? How can the specific MDGs or sub-targets be translated into national policy actions? What are the implications for development agencies in the North such as DfID or USAID or for major development NGOs such as IRC, Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision, ActionAid or CARE International?

5)  What role has technology played in addressing the current MDGs and should there be more or less emphasis on technology in the next round?