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.