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Are the MDGs Passé?
The deadline set for the Millennium Development Goals is 2015. So far, I haven’t heard a lot of discussion in the United States about what comes next. Do the MDGs need to be extended? How long—another 5, 10, or 15 years? Is it helpful to set global development goals at all? And if so, what kind of goals will be most effective in a post-2015 world?
Before long, these questions will start grabbing attention here in the United States—and the debate will be a lively one. Bread for the World Institute will be right in the midst of it. We’ll be hosting our own discussion here on Institute Notes and we invite others to join us.
In some parts of the world, the discussion is already underway. I have to give a lot of credit to the Overseas Development Institute in the U.K. for putting out some exciting material about a post-2015 MDG framework. Their timely work is hardly a surprise: the Overseas Development Institute is one of the premier U.K. think tanks on development issues, and the U.K. government considers the MDGs an important factor in deciding how and where it will provide foreign aid.
Recently I mentioned to a colleague who also works on development issues here in Washington, DC, that I’ve been thinking a lot about the MDGs, and his response was, “Aren’t the MDGs kind of passé?” I hadn’t realized that this idea is common. So let me highlight a few of the top reasons the MDGs aren’t passé. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but to colleagues who work on development issues in the United States—this is mostly for you.
The MDGs have clearly made a difference to development assistance. The last decade saw increases in development assistance and a refocusing on reducing poverty that one can’t help but attribute to the establishment of the MDGs. Maybe this is more correlation than cause—we’ll never know the counterfactual of what would have happened without the MDGs—but I believe we should take donors at their word. For example, in her confirmation hearing in January 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton identified “working aggressively to reach the Millennium Development Goals in health, education, and economic opportunity” as one of the Obama administration’s priorities in Africa.
The MDGs are often criticized because so many developing countries, particularly in Africa, are going to fall short of reaching them. This is frankly unfair, because the MDGs were never intended to apply to individual countries. These are global goals, and the world is responsible for meeting them. Judging the MDGs by whether the individual countries that started in the most difficult circumstances have met them only fuels the cynical view that development assistance doesn’t work.
And, in fact, African countries have made strong progress on development. The context matters. Say country A, with a child mortality rate of 250 per 1,000, cuts this rate to 200 per 1,000. Country B, beginning with a child mortality rate of 20 per 1,000, reduces its rate to 5 per 1,000. This means that the lives of 50 children were saved in country A for every 15 lives saved in country B. But country A is seen as a failure on the MDG indicator of cutting child mortality in half, while country B is considered a success because of its 75 percent reduction.
What no one considers is the reason there was such a gap between the two rates of child mortality to start with: the health system in country A was much weaker than in country B. Development will simply take more time in country A, because development is about building systems that can sustain progress.
I’ll be writing lots more about the MDGs in the months ahead. Hope to hear from you.
View or order the 2012 Hunger Report at www.bread.org/hungerreport.
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