On MPIs and MDGs

Conan, what is best in life? "It is 1/3 crushing your enemies, 1/3 seeing them driven before you, and 1/3 hearing the lamentation of their women."

Conan, what is best in life? “It is 1/3 crushing your enemies, 1/3 seeing them driven before you, and 1/3 hearing the lamentation of their women.”

Sabine Alkire and Andy Sumner have released a short paper suggesting that the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) be used as a `headline indicator’ for the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). If you’re unfamiliar with the MPI, you can read up on it here. Alkire and Sumner are suggesting that whatever indicators emerge out of the inevitable post-2015 intellectual bloodbath be aggregated into a single index using the same method that is used for the current MPI. This has excited some people, including Duncan Green, who thinks it will be useful in inducing governments to take the post-2015 goals seriously:

That in turn would allow the post2015 process to generate more traction on national governments (the lack of which is the subject of my paper) through league tables. Imagine if every year, all countries (including the rich ones) are ranked on a comprehensive human development table that (unlike the Human Development Index and other similar efforts) has buy in and recognition from across the international community. Each annual report would pick out the countries that have risen/fallen relative to the others. Regional tables could compare India and Bangladesh, or Peru and Bolivia, to generate extra public interest and pressure on decision makers.

I’ll go out and say it: I think this is a really bad idea. It combines the two things that make  two things that make me uncomfortable about both the MPI and the MDGs – arbitrary weights on different indicators/goals and an inflexibility to local preferences.

I’ll use a very basic example: let’s say that the next set of MDGs focuses on two things: hunger and access to clean water. After what will bound to be a seriously convoluted process, someone will agree on internationally-agreed weights on these two things. Let’s say the weights are fifty-fifty, that the final index puts just as much weight on a person who is hungry as one who does not have access to clean water.

Now consider a fictional country, Bigmacistan, which has a culture that sees hunger as being the ultimate state of poverty, much more than clean water. If Bigmacistan were allowed to assign its own weights, it would prefer 3/4 of the total weight to go to hunger and 1/4 to clean water. In fact, given limited resources, Bigmacistan will choose to combat poverty in a way that is not only seen as sub-optimal by the post-MDG framework, but would result in a fall in its global rankings, even if every single person in Bigmacistan is in agreement with its national emphasis on hunger. So differences in MPI 2.0 rankings not only reflect aggregate differences in each country’s success in fighting poverty, but differences in the structure of national social welfare functions.

What one could do is let countries set their own weights (I’ve argued that this is the only way the MPI could even be useful for governments in the long run), but this would never appease the technocrats, because once weights start varying across countries, country rankings start making even less sense.

One could argue that, if there are some indicators that we can reach a reasonably broad consensus on, then imposing these preferences on other countries might be defensible. Unfortunately, this still doesn’t adequately justify the use of the MPI, especially if they are used for annual rankings. Imagine the Bigmacistan actually cares as much about clean water as it does about hunger, but realises that, given its own complex context, it needs to deal with its hunger problem before it will have the capacity to deal with its water access problem. It draws up a national plan which ends hunger by 2020 and then improves access to water by 2025. Yet, from 2015 onwards, Bigmacistan is hounded by donors, NGOs and the media for its poor performance on the MPI 2.0 due to its lack of concern for those living without water.

Finally, any time we want to say anything interesting about the MPI 2.0, we’ll still have to unpack it into its composite indicators, a point Claire Melamed makes on Duncan’s blog:

Say the MPI 2.0, or whatever you called it, went up, or down, in a given country. You’d need an extra layer of data analysis – always fatal as that’s the point you lose people’s attention – to know why. It could be that health outcomes got a lot better, but education outcomes got a bit worse, and so the overall MPI score went up a bit. This would neither be helpful for policy makers, nor tell you much about what people think is important, and it would all be much too complicated to generate any campaigning or political energy anyway.

I do think MPI has its uses, but could we please avoid creating another worldwide indicator that doesn’t tell us very much and imposes what will ultimately be imposing fairly arbitrary weights on individual countries?

On happiness

There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.

Wise words from Charles Kenny on why we probably shouldn’t make happiness a direct goal in itself (by adding it to the MDGs):

As I suggest in this CGD Essay, for a society to maximize average happiness poll answers, its most effective course would probably be to put everyone on an antidepressant-ecstasy cocktail and (given the strong genetic component of happiness poll answers) add in chemical sterilization for the naturally unhappy.  Is that really what we want out of a new round of Millennium Development Goals?

Similarly, if we wanted to maximize the Happy Planet Index, we should do the same as above, while also reverting to a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

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).

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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.

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.

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What do you think should replace the MDGs?

Expect the discussion over what should go into the next set of MDGs to be heated

Expect the debate over the composition of the next set of MDGs to be heated

A few weeks ago Duncan Green posed the question on a number of our minds: what comes after the Millennium Development Goal deadline in 2015?  It’s an important question that both proponents and critics should be considering. It is highly likely that political pressure will result in some sort of framework to replace it, and so it would be great if we all did our homework beforehand.

We should keep in mind the arguments of both sides when considering the future: skeptics argue that the MDGs are immeasurable and unrealistic, that the goals are implicitly heterogeneous across countries and override domestic ownership. Advocates insist that the creation of the MDGs have generated an unprecedented rally around the elimination of both poverty and its awful byproducts.

How should they change? Do they need to change at all? Should they be eliminated all together? Green has some suggestions for issues that should at least be considered: social protection, global warming, aid commitments (both levels and effectiveness e.g. Paris Declaration), other indicators of well being, as well as dealing with the problem of failed or fragile states.

I know what I think (I’ll make my suggestions the end of the weekend). What, savvy readers, do you think should come after the MDGs? Don’t be shy, there’s a comment section just below.