Millennium development goals: the UN’s empty promises

Setting goals for the eradication of poverty has not worked
December 11, 2014

The year 2015 is the date by which the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were supposed to have been achieved. The ambitious set of eight goals for poverty eradication were agreed by the member states of the United Nations in 2000. Most have not been achieved, an outcome that ought to have been predictable merely by glancing back at the track record of the other 30 or so UN high order goals and resolutions aimed at poverty eradication in the developing world since the 1960s.

Here is a small sample. The period 1960-1970 was titled the UN Development Decade, the aim of which was to increase economic growth in developing countries by 5 per cent by the end of the decade. The following 10 years, 1970-1980, were dubbed the Second UN Development Decade, during which the aim was to create a just world order and 6 per cent economic growth. In 1974 came the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition, and a year later the Lima Declaration and Plan of Action on Industrial Development, which set out the goal of increasing the less developed countries’ share of production from 7 per cent to 25 per cent by the year 2000. The period 1976-1985 was termed the International Decade for Women and in 1978, the Alma Ata International Conference on Primary Healthcare resolved to bring about health for all by the year 2000. Next, 1980-1990 was the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade—the aim: clean water for all by 1990.

Such grand intentions (“a just world order by 1980”!) ought to have caused a degree of self-consciousness, if not embarrassment, about setting out such a challenging array of resolutions. Apparently they did not. Yet not only could most of these goals not have been achieved in double the time, more important, as grandiose as they are (“Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” is the first of the eight)  they represent a narrow and erroneous view of development and its relation to poverty. And so, as with “clean water for all by 1990,” or “health for all by 2000,” here we are, again.

One could make the anodyne argument that without goals nothing happens; that setting goals and deadlines to meet them gets things moving. As the Overseas Development Institute put it in 2010, the MDGs are “an important motivational force.” But in accepting such an argument (and Jeffrey Sachs, the Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, among others has also done so) we build in a “discounting factor” from the start. Just as we don’t get too upset when a New Year’s resolution to lose 20 pounds by June gets quietly forgotten on 30th June, perhaps those who set out the MDGs had low expectations from the start.

But while we may be casual about an individual’s vow to lose 20 pounds, resolving to eradicate hunger, or to “achieve decent work for all, including women and young people” (Goal 1b), or to “achieve universal primary education” (Goal 2), puts us in a radically different realm. Lightly skipping over the lack of achievement and gently muddling some of the data, both of which are occurring, will not do. In the case of the eight MDGs, with their 20-plus subsidiary goals, the built-in discounting factor suggests, at the least, a willful lack of reflection. Already in 2013 and 2014 the development establishment held high-level meetings about the “post-2015 development agenda,” with task forces and committees preparing yet another set of goals—to be called the “sustainable development goals” or SDGs—along with campaign style slogans like “We Can End Poverty” to carry us, and the built-in discount, well towards the middle of the century.

What are the actual results of the MDGs? It is a tricky question, since the data from countries with most to gain from the MDGs are either unavailable or unreliable, according to a recent report by a UN advisory group. Also, there are at least a dozen major progress reports from major institutions and think tanks (the World Bank, the Overseas Development Institute, World Health Organisation, the UN Development Programme among others), and they do not all agree. Though most begin with panglossian phrases such as “remarkable gains” or  “the MDGs have made a profound difference in people’s lives,” they differ when they get down to the more sober acknowledgments of the “we-still-have-work-to-do” sort.

How does the UN itself rate the MDGs? The UN’s 2014 Progress Chart breaks them down into 16 sub-goals and looks at the MDGs across nine regions—a chart therefore with 144 cells as indicators. Of these, six of the cells are deemed to have made “no progress or are in a deteriorating state”; 68 are deemed to have made “progress insufficient to reach targets if prevailing trends persist,” and two are reported as having insufficient data to draw any conclusions at all. Thus even the UN’s own score sheet shows over 50 per cent of the indicators as not having been achieved. The lowest scores are in “women’s access to reproductive health” (11 per cent achieved); a “three-quarter reduction in maternal mortality” (22 per cent achieved); universal primary schooling (33 per cent achieved) and “women’s equal representation in national parliaments” (0 per cent achieved). Among the indicators that have the best scores are “reduce by two-thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate” (66 per cent achieved); “halt and reverse the spread of tuberculosis” (67 per cent achieved); halve the proportion of the population without sanitation facilities (67 per cent achieved) and reduce extreme poverty by half (67 per cent achieved.) These do indeed constitute good news. No one can quibble with any reduction in “extreme poverty” or with seeing more children live past the age of five. Even if the exact percentages are open to questioning, there has been some progress.

But the important question is what explains these positive changes. To answer that, it is useful to look at the regional break-down. The starkest contrast in the UN score sheet is between sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Asia. In the former, only 6 per cent of the sub-goals are seen as achieved, while in the latter the figure is 81 per cent. This striking comparison shines a sobering light on the MDGs’ results. Two thirds of the poorest countries on earth are in sub-Saharan Africa. And while high economic growth rates measured in Gross Domestic Product per head have been seen in many sub-Saharan countries over the last decade, poverty and its associated problems prevail. Of the 32 African nations on the UN’s “least developed nations” list, 15 of them have been on the list for the full 43 years of its existence. As for eastern Asia, we are really talking about China, a country that has moved hundreds of millions of  people across the poverty line in the last 25 years, a complex but largely self-generated achievement, and one that by itself serves to give the impression of MDG success. Incidentally the greatest progress on the MDGs—skewed by the case of China—has little to do with the development establishment, while in those countries (from Angola to Zambia in sub-Saharan Africa) where the development establishment exercises its muscle the most, considerably less progress on the MDGs has been made.

Looking again at the MDG details, the goals and subsidiary sub-goals are stated with a mixture of precision and vagueness. Whereas one might be put forth with mathematical exactness— such as Goal 1a, “halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than one dollar a day”—others use imprecise and indeterminate words like “improve” or “combat.” Some, like Goal 6, “Combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases,” are specific to single issues and, like the military-style operation that eradicated smallpox in the 1980s, are achievable with logistics and large amounts of money. The specific sub-goals of Goal 6 included “halting” by 2015 the spread of HIV/Aids, “increasing” the access to antiretroviral drugs of those with advanced HIV infection, and halting the incidence of malaria and other major diseases by increasing the proportion of children under five who sleep under insecticide-treated bed nets. And, since such sub-goals are amenable to solutions like logistics and money, here we do have some positive results. The spread of HIV/Aids, while not exactly “halted,” has been slowed and the rest of the Goal 6 sub-goals have seen progress. Many agencies distributed condoms, trained medical and para-medical personnel, gave out bed nets and mounted social marketing campaigns with posters, radio programmes and street theatre, all aimed at conveying in as many ways as one can think the messages of safe sex, the link between mosquitoes and malaria, and so on.

Other MDGs, such as Goal 7—to “ensure environmental sustainability,” with subsidiary goals such as to reduce the rate of loss of land covered by forest; the proportion of water resources used; the proportion of terrestrial and marine areas protected; the proportion of fish stocks within safe biological limits; and the proportion of species threatened with extinction—were less than fully achievable in the best of circumstances. Even in the developed world we have work to do on many of these fronts. In most poor countries, however, not only is there limited awareness of the environmental threat, most people do not have the luxury of thinking abstractly about the future of the planet, and given a choice between reducing one’s meager income and cutting trees for cooking fuel, or poaching ivory or buying a used run-down motorbike that spews CO2 emissions, it is clear what the poor will choose.

And some of the MDGs are simplistic. Take, for example, Goal 7d: “by 2020, to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100m slum dwellers”. While slums are far from attractive, they are often a sign of human dynamism and ambition. They can serve as transition zones in most cities, places to move through on the way up from rural poverty, as well as places in which there are informal yet very real opportunities for economic gain. The literature on slums brims with case studies of vibrant transactions in untitled real estate, of bulldozed slums rebuilt overnight and so forth. To reduce the number of slum dwellers may well be a chimera.

Other MDGs virtually ignore political reality. Take Goal 8a: “Develop further an open rule-based, predictable non-discriminatory trading and financial system.” This has not happened.

And finally, there is at least one MDG that could be seen as throwing good money after bad. That is Goal 8 and especially two of its elements: address the special needs of the least developed countries (LDCs) including tariff and quota-free access for LDC exports; cancellation of official bilateral debt and more generous overseas development assistance.

Despite some achievements, the overall picture is not positive. One has to ask why targets like many of the MDGs and their predecessors over the years have not been met, repeatedly, in so many places? Are the MDGs a reflection of global hopefulness and moral urgency, or of wishful thinking and naiveté?  Are they a politically motivated hodgepodge, or a goad to the laggards of the world to get moving? Or are they all of the above?

The problem with the UN’s chronic goal-setting is fundamentally a conceptual one. As with most of the earlier goals, the eight Millennium Development Goals are unachievable because they are the wrong goals. Put another way, the majority of them have not been met because they could not have been, and that is because for the most part they misunderstand poverty and its relationship to development. They posit poverty as a condition to be addressed directly. Poor people are hungry, so grow more food, develop new seed varieties, teach farmers new techniques, invest in more irrigation, build farm-to-market roads… the list goes on. But the development establishment, along with the governments of most poor countries, has been doing all these things for decades and huge numbers of poor people are still poor and hungry. Poor people need to go to school of course, hence the goal of universal primary education and, under Goal 3 (“Promote gender equality and empower women”), the aim of increasing the ratio of girls to boys in schools. This means providing sanitation facilities, so that girls who are menstruating will keep coming to school, providing bicycles so kids can get to school on time from distant villages, reducing the price of school uniforms, improving school attendance rates by tackling common illnesses, building more schools, training more teachers… the list goes on. These things, too, have been part of the poverty eradication menu for decades.

There is nothing wrong with doing such things, except that they take poverty mainly as a condition; that is, they assume that poor people are poor because they are sick, have too little discretionary income, too few jobs that are part of a productive, as opposed to subsistence, economy, or too little education. But poverty is also a matter of position. Girls in many countries do not go to school, have children too young, are prevented from earning money and so on, largely because of their position in the culture and social structure. Caste in India continues to be a root cause of poverty and that is first of all about position, and only secondarily and consequentially about condition.

If the “D” of MDG (Development) is to have its due, it needs to be acknowledged that development is a far more complex challenge than that of ensuring more food or better medical care. The keys to poverty eradication have to do with institutions, national and international, and with social structural and cultural arrangements. These matters are, to put it mildly, much harder to tackle, not only because they are by nature non-material but because they are highly layered and complex. The late economist PT Bauer went so far as to state that the problems of underdevelopment are not “readily rectifiable,” writing that:

“...the potentialities of development economics for the promotion of material progress have been oversold to a credulous public… Economic development is a major aspect of the historical process of entire societies, and is therefore not susceptible to general theories.”

Thus when the MDGs stopped tackling the condition of poverty directly, rather than the complexities involved in institutional and related changes, they missed the point.

Where we have seen progress on poverty reduction during the MDG years—China, some parts of Latin America, the strengthening of a middle class in India—it is largely because of approaches that indirectly but powerfully affect poverty. These include complex home-grown changes in the political economy of the country, including trade and industrial policy, huge investments in infrastructure, and to a large extent the galvanisation of pre-existing elements of social capital and culture. But in Haiti, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Bangladesh, Guinea, and a good 40 or so other least developed countries, where “governments” are rent-seeking, institutions weak or dysfunctional, and cultural and social constructs remain out of line with what one might call the project of modernisation—where, ironically, the aid establishment pumps much money into direct attacks on poverty—most of the MDGs have by and large not been met.

Perplexingly, most professionals who work on poverty and development issues understand these complexities quite well. It’s just that complexity and public relations campaigns do not sit well together. If the UN proposed, for example, to eliminate the caste system in India, what date would be set for its achievement? Where and how would one start? How would we measure progress? It is clearly a messier goal than most of the MDGs, and yet such goals are the ones that count.

To give up sets of goals like the MDGs, goals that are mostly couched as direct attacks on poverty, might moreover be a threat to the $130bn aid industry which, over the years, has increasingly put itself on a narrowly-conceived “war on poverty” footing. To admit that the problems of underdevelopment are not “readily rectifiable,” especially by outside agencies who do not live with the consequences (or lack thereof) of their myriad interventions, is to risk the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of well-paid aid professionals who annually go on thousands of “missions” to supervise aid projects aimed at achieving things like the MDGs.

In the end one has to ask where the real ownership of the MDGs lies: whose goals were they? Did all the member states of the UN who signed on to them do so with full understanding and reflection, or did they simply go along with the sound of good intentions? Specifically, did the governments of the least developed countries, whose job it should have been to work towards accomplishing the MDGs, really commit to doing so?

As nice sounding as shoot-for-the-stars poverty eradication resolutions and goals are, (how could one reasonably argue against them? most would ask) they may well be postponing the day when we can begin to tackle poverty in a rigorously analytical and sober manner.