The African and the Millennium Development Goals

"A new idea is something they don’t know yet, so of course it’s not going to show up as an option. Put my campaign on TV for a year then hold your group again and maybe it will show up."

In 2015 the MDGs are set to expire, and while it is inevitable that some sort of global development commitment will rise up to replace them, it is currently unclear whether or not it will be based on an extension of the original goals or some completely new framework altogether.

Proponents have long-argued that, while the targets weren’t perfectly conceived, the MDGs acted as a rallying-point for development financing. As the end-date looms there will be immense pressure to generate a new set of goals as soon as possible – campaigners are too wary of a scenario where development aid flies blind for too long (even if it would be a wonderful opportunity to test their claims).

Yet, the benefit of having a single, unifying set of goals, while useful in conveying norms and direction to both aid givers and receivers, may not be entirely consistent with the actual goals of recipient countries. This is what aid wonks would call a lack of `country ownership’ or a real stake in the creation and achievement of the MDGs.

Many would argue that the adoption of the Millennium Declaration provides such a basis, but critics like Bill Easterly have been right to point out that there never has been any scope for holding signatories accountable, either on the international or domestic stage. While some see the Declaration as a moment of universal agreement, developing countries really had little to lose by signing on, as they aren’t bound by anything concrete.

Why is ownership important in this context? In reality, while the MDGs have led donors to better concentrate their funding, the pursuit of those goals by recipient governments for the targets is more an artifact of strategic mimicry than genuine conviction. Feigned enthusiasm rarely translates into effective policy, and so progress in achieving the goals has been flagging in many recipient countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa (although there are plenty of other reasons why some haven’t met the overly-ambitious expectations).

A lack of ownership wouldn’t be a huge issue if the MDGs accurately reflected the preferences and aspirations of those in need, but even this is unclear. Gallup recently released the results from a series of surveys administered in African countries in which they ask respondents to rank several of the MDG outcomes from most, to least important. The results show that, on average, respondents consistently favour some outcomes over others:

Now, to a certain extent these differences are driven by forcing people to rank, but the averages still reveal a sharp divergence between `African’ preferences and both the de jure `everything is equal’ nature of the goals and the de facto priority given to goals such as universal primary education.

Of course, these averages mask cross-country differences (which the report  goes on to unpack), but this is precisely the problem: the fact that cross-country differences exist implies that a top-down approach to the MDGs was always going to be flawed.

A reasonable counter-argument would be that donors pushing the MDGs as guiding principle don’t actually have that much sway – that countries who had aggregate preferences for some goals over others will just focus more on those goals: internal incentives trump external incentives.

Sadly, this isn’t the case: comparing data from the Center for Global Development on country-level progress on individual goals to the country-level rankings from Gallup shows no absolutely no connection (positive or negative) between country-level preferences (how high the respondents ranked an MDG goal) and outcomes:

Of course, such connection may be more the result of bad governments failing to deliver according to their electorate’s preferences (or, even worse, my slapdash analysis) than the unyielding nature of the MDGs. Still, the lessons remain the same: while the MDGs certainly have led to a concentration of funding, they are not well suited to match the diverse preferences of most recipient countries.

The next best solution (short of scrapping the MDGs and embracing full country ownership), is to design a bottom-up system for the MDGs. Let respondents rank a list, like the Gallup exercise, and let the goals be set on a country-to-country basis based on the results of the ranking. Even better: let countries choose their own lists, although the data geeks of the world would only ever be happy with something that is internationally comparable. I suggested this as an approach about a year and half ago, and several others have begun to rumble on about similar approaches for other metrics of development, like the MPI.

In the end, where you sit in this argument depends on which effect you think will dominate: the efficiency gains of having goals which  more accurately match the desires and aspirations of recipient countries versus the potential lose of a unified set of goals which act as a guiding light for development financing. I was always skeptical of the latter, but you might feel differently.

Another common argument is that the MDGs were never supposed to reflect specific preferences on the ground: they represent an objective set of metrics we associate with development (or, as Claire Melamed put it, “which reflect an understanding of what the main problems were in the late 1990s”). I feel uncomfortable relying on completely objective measures, not only because they smack just a little of paternalism, but because as much as we like to depend on indices, development is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, and the next set of MDGs will be more effective if they are designed to reflect that reality.

which reflect an understanding of what the main problems were in the late 1990s and where international cooperation could usefully be part of the solutionwhich reflect an understanding of what the main problems were in the late 1990s and where international cooperation could usefully be part of the solution

7 thoughts on “The African and the Millennium Development Goals

  1. Claire Melamed

    May 3, 2011 at 10:49am

    The debate about the MDGs after 2015 seems to be finally taking off, which is great. But, as I said on my blog on the subject on Global Dashboard, (, confusing what makes good MDGs with what makes good development policy is not necessarily a good place to start. I completely agree with you that governments, and donors too, should base their own priorities and plans around what people want (though the Mad Men quote at the top of your piece may also apply to the preferences of poor people, who may change their views when new options are presented to them). But this is just about good policy making – you don’t need all the politics and architecture of an international agreement for that.

    Could an international process incentivise governments to put in place processes to make sure that their policies reflect their citizens’ preferences? Well, maybe, but I’d suggest that the history of governance reforms is not that impressive.

    So the question for post-2015, for me, is not what is good development policy and how to get it, but instead, where can an international agreement add value to what is and should be going on in national policy making and politics all the time. It’s a smaller question, and rightly so. There’s a global public good element (some problems, e.g. climate change, have to be tackled internationally), a resource allocation element (can global agreement on a few objectives usefully focus and perhaps coordinate global development finance resources?), a resource mobilisation effort (having an agreement seems, at least in the past, to have made action by donor countries more acceptable to their publics), and probably some others that I haven’t thought of yet. But we shouldn’t confuse this with the daily bread and butter of national level policy making for poverty reduction – that doesn’t and shouldn’t need an international agreement.

  2. MJ

    May 3, 2011 at 1:05pm

    Missing from your argument is the possibility that a top-down agreed set of goals like the MDGs are better at stimulating donor funding. More money might be better than less even if it isn’t all so well spent. I’m not sure I would subscribe to this belief myself, but it’s an additional counterpoint to consider.

    ps. Some might argue that better it is your analysis that is slapdash than developing country governments failing to deliver what their citizens want. 😉

  3. Matt

    May 3, 2011 at 3:02pm

    Hi Claire,

    I totally agree that creating good MDGs and good policies are entirely different goals. I don’t think the best rationale for an MDG redesign is to better influence recipient government policy, rather that a redesign could make an international framework less disruptive to good government policy. I want to see less cases of donors looking at domestic policies and querying, “How will this policy speed up progress on MDG X?”

    So many governments have learned to mimic donor preferences when it comes to the MDGs – e.g. when Malawi finally was given the breathing room to create its own development plan, the whole thing ended up being an amalgamation of standard donor lingo.

    Basically, I would see a bottom-up redesign as a way of letting developing countries lead on what matters to them in terms of development, but also giving donors a framework which they can loosely follow which roughly reflects the preferences of the countries they seek to help (although likelihood is that they will keep on doing their own thing, but one can hope), but not as a way for micro-managing policy.

  4. Matt

    May 3, 2011 at 3:05pm

    Hi MJ,

    This is kind of what I was getting at with my second-to-last paragraph, although you are right – I never explicitly stated it. To be honest, I’m slightly skeptical about the role of MDGs in stimulating the big increase in ODA in the past ten years. There’s a huge omitted variable here: `zeal’ for development financing from campaigners, which might have driven both the creation of a framework and the increase in financing.

  5. terence

    May 6, 2011 at 2:47am

    Hi Matt,

    It’s a long time since I’ve done any work on the MDGs, so my memory may be failing me but my understanding was that countries were encouraged to come up with their own indicators, relevant to their national contexts. So, to the extent that this has occurred, it seems to me that your critique is partially off the mark.

    Of course the expectation may have never really been met. IIRC in the Pacific PNG was the only country to attempt to come up with locally relevant indicators. And I don’t know how far they got.

    Also, it’s worth acknowledging that people’s preferences may not always be right. So education gets ranked relatively lowly in the table above, but people who’ve never been educated may not fully appreciate its value. In saying this I don’t want to push the argument too far because I’m also aware that the opposite is probably even more true: i.e. development experts probably aren’t always that expert in what’s really needed in particular countries.

  6. Matt

    May 6, 2011 at 9:54am

    Hi Terence,

    Thanks for the thoughts – I think I’d need more concrete examples of what you’re talking about. While many recipient countries have, in more recent years, been encouraged to come up with their own development plans, they are more . I have heard nothing about any MDG-related exercise to come up with measurable indicators, but would welcome examples. However, even if it did exist, at least in the SSA context (and this is the context which my post is covering), I’ve seen little to no evidence that donors take this into account.

    You’re very right – we may not always want policy to be completely aligned to preferences – they might fail us in several ways (although I’m more worried about bigger problems, like policy that may unpopular in the short term, but necessary for long term welfare gains, rather than whether individuals are making rational decisions). There are also issues with getting incentive-compatible answers (i.e. we want to provide you with service X, how much would you pay for it? – Clarke-Groves problems). But yes, at the end of the day there are going to be some preferences we want to give less weight to – but those policy decisions should be made by policymakers in-country, not by global assumptions about what we think is best for *everyone*.

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