A few weeks ago I found myself watching The Biggest Loser, one of those weight-loss reality shows. Several men and women were going through an intensive weight-loss program, each competing to see who could lose the largest proportion of pounds every week. They were already several weeks into the competition and all of the remaining contestants had lost a lot of weight already. Consequently, many found it increasingly difficult to shed those extra pounds. It didn’t help that each group went through the same exercise regime each week: forced to pursue the same objectives, regardless of their current condition.
I hope the analogy is clear - we development bloggers are not known for our wonderful analogies (sorry Bill). One of the main criticisms of the Millennium Development Goals was that, as global, uniform targets, they imposed unfair expectations and an inflexible framework on many developing countries. Chris Blattman, in an unsurprisingly reasonable critique of the MDGs, put it nicely:
Once again, whatever humanitarian gains are achieved by 2015 risk being labelled as failures merely for failing to reach unrealistic and under-informed expectations.
Development must be a bottom-up process. We say this a lot, but my meaning is slightly different: development cannot be driven or dictated on a global level. While we will forever disagree on the nature and degree of government involvement in the development process, I think we can all agree that recipient governments are the key element to making it work. Whether they do this by mostly staying out of the way or providing the public goods essential for progress is still up for debate. Through planning or searching, each country must start at scratch and find their own way to the end of the maze. As a global community, we have a collective responsibility to help countries find their way – but they know the terrain better than we do.
The MDGs represent laudable goals for putting a dent in human suffering, but they also implicitly shape the way that policy is created at the domestic level. Since their inception, the they have dominated the policy debate in nearly every donor-recipient relationship on the earth. Not only does most donor assistance revolve around the targets, but after so many years of exposure, many recipient governments just mimic the same framework when creating their own policy. If you’re a firm believer in the Paris Declaration, this is truly a nightmare, akin to the brilliant scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where Brian tells his fervent followers that they’ve all got to work things out for themselves, to which they reply, in unison: “Yes, we’ve all got to work it out for ourselves! Tell us more!”
This would be fine if the cookie-cutter approach to reaching the goals worked in every context. In some places it has, but in many we see stagnation. The only way to deal with this is by letting recipient countries take the reigns, not only in the policy debate, but also in goal-setting.
In my previous post, I asked for suggestions as to what should be included in the MDGs next time around (let’s call the new set of targets the MDGs 2.0). While I have my own preferences on what our next set of global goals should be (and doubtlessly you do as well) – why not consider this alternative approach to creating the MDGs 2.0: an ownership-driven, bottom-up, aggregate construction of the indicators.
Developing countries can present their own set of goals (either from scratch, which is preferable, or using a common framework), which they should be doing anyway to give donors something to align to. These goals can then be summed and presented as global targets, while still being tackled at the local level. It’s absurd that we expect both China and Lesotho to reduce infant mortality by the same proportion. Instead, let them both set their own pragmatic targets for infant mortality, and present the sum of those targets as the overall MDG.
This approach would convert the MDGs from being both an international framework for improving the welfare of the poorest and global scorekeeper into just the latter. This might seem like a limitation, but it would actually allow for a more nuanced discussion of progress. Currently, the rationale for lack of progress is an unsatisfactory muddle: it’s either blamed on a lack of funding (or the connected financial crisis) or on the implausibility of some of the goals. Allow for developing countries to set their own specific targets would both avoid the high-minded thinking which results in overly-optimistic goals and bring the discussion on solutions immediately down to a country-specific context.
It would also do a great deal to enhance country-level ownership. Instead of filtering aid through a very rigid set of universal goals, aid would be aligned to the priorities and objectives that the recipients have set (of course, there are exceptions such as military expenditure) to meet their own MDGs. So suddenly we have a global set of goals which are no less measurable, but also compatible with our Paris Obligations.
Another commonly-cited issue with the MDGs is the lack of any specific responsibility for their achievement, as Easterly noted:
And if the agreement is broken, how can you find WHO is to blame, when 189 leaders (not to mention dozens of international organizations and NGOs) are COLLECTIVELY responsible?
If the promises are instead made at the ground level: between governments and their own citizens, rather than some nebulous global collective contract, they are more likely to be fulfilled – and if they aren’t, then there might actually be real ramifications to missing those targets. Where the MDGs have always been in danger of undermining domestic accountability, the MDGs 2.0 could actually act to enhance it.
Can we maintain the benefits of a global commitment and allow developing countries to forge their own paths? I think we can – but we must abandon this notion that progress must be conceived globally – it can only be done so at home. Let’s consider a set of global goals which are the sum, not the average, of our aspirations.