Do the MDGs influence national policy? Should they?

Duncan Greene looks over a paper by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr on how well PRSPs in developing countries reflect the priorities in the Millennium Development Goals. The results reveal mixed involvement:

The analysis found a high degree of commitment to MDGs as a whole but both PRSPs and donor statements are selective, consistently emphasising income poverty and social investments for education, health and water but not other targets concerned with empowerment and inclusion of the most vulnerable such as gender violence or women’s political representation.

Fukuda-Parr and (to a lesser extent) Greene seem to be making an implicit judgement: that further alignment between national development strategies and the MDGs is the most desirable outcome.

While the MDGs have been incredibly important for shaping how we perceive development and offer a reasonable set of indicators for tracking the progress of poor societies (which we should continue to use), I think it’s unreasonable to expect or promote broad policy harmonisation around them.

For one, the MDGs are a broad set of international goals, but they do not comprise a one-size-fits-all policy, yet we continue to treat them as comparable indicators and implicitly weight them equally (this is reinforced by the structure of the MDGs). Why should India, where less than 80 children per 1,000 die before their fifth birthday, put the same weight on halving under-five mortality as Malawi, where over 130 children suffer the same fate? What if Indonesia decides it wants to put more weight on industrial policy than agricultural policy, with the expectation that the former will do more to reduce poverty in the long run? I think policy-makers and researchers often confuse the normative aspects of the MDGs (what we want to achieve) with the operational side (by trying to directly target each of the things we want to happen).

To be fair, Fukuda-Parr isn’t suggesting that developing countries should be just copying and pasting, even if that’s what appears to be happening:

Most [PRSPs], however, appear to have applied MDG Targets somewhat
mechanistically, without adaptation.

There seems to be a preference for adaptation; taking the normative framework of the MDGs and adjusting it for the local context. Even so, why must developing countries mold their strategies around a normative framework they don’t truly own? The MDGs represent an international consensus, but it’s not clear that the goal set that results from such a negotiation will bear much resemblance to any individual country’s aspirations.

Several months ago, I suggested that the next set of MDGs to be built from the ground-up, an aggregation of the goals of multiple development strategies. Instead of the international community telling developing countries what their priorities should be, then scouring planning documents to ensure adherence, the structure should grow from the opposite direction. Governments and civil societies in poor countries need to determine their own objectives for development, after which the international community should do its best to help them achieve it.

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