Heather Grady: Overcoming weaknesses

Development Policy20 Jun 2009Heather Grady

Andy Sumner’s article ‘Beyond 2015’ captures well both the strengths and the shortcomings of the current MDG framework. My organization, Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, has participated in several events exploring this topic over the last couple of years, and it is gratifying to see that a group of key institutions and individuals like those who will be meeting next week in Brussels is joining up efforts on something so important to global governance.

Andy Sumner helpfully indicated what participatory poverty assessments and other research have highlighted as the most important dimensions of poverty: vulnerability, risk, security, dignity and voice. In my twenty-plus years of working at the coal-face of development in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, I found that these cross-cutting dimensions in measuring the well-being of a household were more relevant than the sectoral divisions (such as health, education, gender and environment) that we utilize with the MDG approach. Moreover, the MDGs have encouraged an overly technocratic channeling of funds with too little emphasis on the social, economic and political processes that constrain or empower impoverished communities to demand the changes that bring them out of poverty.

I often cite the following links for useful information in this area:

There are common criticisms of the MDGs such as the lack of a focus on the most vulnerable, and not centrally incorporating goals of equality and non-discrimination. The MDGs also underemphasize people’s own agency – the participation of impoverished people in claiming their rights, the importance of legal empowerment, and related issues like freedom of information, transparency and access to justice. MDGs generally give too little attention to women’s rights and the women’s movement (or movements in general). There is also inadequate attention to sustainable livelihoods and economic empowerment – achievement of the MDGs does not necessarily reduce dependence on aid, and has done nothing to address egregious global trade policy and the threat of climate change. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that sixty years of an internationally-agreed human rights framework has, as well, done little to eradicate poverty.

Let’s recognize what the MDGs have achieved – for there is much – and learn from the ‘how’ of it. First, distilling complex human development outcomes into indicators might be reductionist, but it also allows comparison across time and across countries – and this is very necessary. Second, a framework that becomes common currency not only between donors and aid-receiving countries, but also becomes the basis for national development plans and a basis against which fiscal stimulus and recovery packages can be measured, for example, is also useful. But a key question is how to address the gaps listed above, and what should be emphasized in the 2010 Development Summit.

I suggest we start by meshing the internationally-agreed human rights framework with the MDGs. Strengthening a human rights approach within the MDGs, and indeed ensuring that the post-2015 development framework fully encompass a human rights approach, would go far in overcoming the generally-agreed weaknesses of the MDGs. This is not impossible – at the 2005 World Summit, world leaders recognized that the UN’s mission to secure peace, development and human rights were inextricably linked, a recognition that indeed is at the heart of the UN Charter.

Let me return to this tomorrow, to give you my thoughts on how human rights can be made central to the MDGs – and what analytical works needs to be done to make this happen.