Some thoughts on MDGs 2.0

You can have any development policy you want, so long as it's the MDGs

You can have any development policy you want, so long as it's the MDGs

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.

6 thoughts on “Some thoughts on MDGs 2.0

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    October 27, 2009 at 11:00am

    Great post, crammed with important points and interesting ideas. I’m going to think this through a bit more but right off the bat:

    1) You’re totally right that the individual countries’ targets should be domestically set, and should enhance, rather than undermine local ownership. But having said this, won’t it be difficult to get challenging targets set? might Governments set politically popular targets, easily met and ignore the more difficult issues?

    2) As an extension to this thought, why do we need targets at all? Local ownership is crucially important: let the local Government (in consultation with civil society etc.) set its development plan, lay out the key constraints it wishes to address, the key policies it wishes to enact and then look at the progress it makes on a range of indicators year by year without binding it to the outcomes. Rather measure their progress in making their policies a reality.

    3) Indeed if we try and measure year-on-year progress against indicators we might bias action towards ‘steady progress’ policies, rather than removal of binding constraints, which might take longer but yield better long term results.

    just initial thoughts.

  2. Matt

    October 27, 2009 at 11:29am

    You’re spot on with all of those issues. They are all difficult to deal with – but are problems pretty much every country in the world, developed or otherwise. How often do the US or UK governments set easy targets, or stick to progress on things that are easier in the short run (US drug policy, for example).

    To be honest, if it was up to me I would do-away with these kinds of over-reaching targets completely. I would see the new, bottom-up MDGs as being as second-best, or a transition to something more appropriate.

  3. Adam Jackson

    October 27, 2009 at 11:35am

    It’s a whole lot more complicated than this though, right? It’s not at all clear that many developing country legislatures and executives have the interests of their populations at heart, other than through patronage as a means to political power. That’s not necessarily devastating to growth or development (Bangladesh has had dysfunctional politics for decades but has made amazing progress in many ways, for example) but it does bear the questions WHOSE plans, and WHOSE grass-roots?

    On the global plans vs grass roots point, a big issue with the MDGs is that we’ll meet several of them at a global level, but due mainly to the efforts of two countries – China and India. If we assess progress towards the goals by the proportion of countries who meet a certain number of MDGs then it’s a very different assessment. Promises are of course already made at a country level in the form of (implicit or explicit) manifestos by political parties, but the extent to which these are technocratic documents varies from country to country…

  4. Sam Gardner

    October 27, 2009 at 8:40pm

    So a good working democracy, putting the concerns from the bottom at the top AND donors respecting this is a prerequisite for defining MDG 2.0.

    I like the idea.

  5. Ranil Dissanayake

    October 28, 2009 at 7:29am

    Adam – if the executive/legislature doesn’t have the interests of the population at heart, what good will targets like the MDGs do? A locally determined planning approach is still better than the top down one, since it will give flexibility to those countries that are pursuing developmental policies and be no different to the MGDs for countries that aren’t.

    As an aside, no policy mix or plan will be popular throughout the whole country. All processes of development have had winners and losers, so the question of ‘whose plans’ and ‘whose grass roots’ will always need to be asked. And in those countries which are being looted for cash by Government, the pressing question isn’t what targets or systems will mitigate this, but ‘why is it being looted – what are the political and social reasons for this’. We don’t really ask those questions much – we tend to go after the Governments involved as if the only reason is that bad people are at the top. Sometimes problems are more systematic than that.

  6. Matt

    October 28, 2009 at 10:49am


    You’re right, it always is more complicated than that (although is it more complicated than just pushing one set of targets?). It’s true that many governments and legislatures are not altruistic, but then again, not many governments in this world pass that test (the closest, from what I’ve seen, are the Scandinavian countries).

    However, the answer to this begins with engaging governments, not bypassing them. Your comment has highlighted something I neglected to mention: country-level MDGs should be government-led, but would ideally be constructed through negotiations with civil society. Otherwise, as Ranil pointed out, the government could always set itself easy targets, or things that it cares about that have no benefit to the people (tanks).

    On your last point – I would hope that there would be at least enough comparability between country-level MDGs to aggregate to a global level, so you could still look at the global progress towards reducing child mortality (by looking at the sum of total progress towards the sum of the targets for child mortality). Still any analysis immediately drags you down to the country-level (as it really should do today).

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