How the MDGs make us not care for Pakistan

Knowledge brokering25 Sep 2010

I was recently reminded of an older debate we used to have during my anthropology studies, a debate about the MDGs. Actually, not an old debate at all, but rather a never ending one, as was shown during this month’s summit on the MDGs, with lively discussions between critics and supporters.

The MDGs are of course nice goals to strive towards: less poverty, less hunger, fewer people dying etc. How could you not agree with something like that? Well, you can’t. So everybody is now blindly rushing towards some rather abstract goals – abstract in the sense that you cannot possibly fathom how the end of poverty and hunger would look like.

But that’s not the point. The point is that these MDGs have effectively shifted the focus away from the political and moral responsibility of those who are actually most responsible for the suffering in the world. By placing the main problem with the lesser developed countries, and by letting the development NGOs and other treehuggers solve the problems, inequality and injustice have effectively been depoliticized. It has become a question of money rather than social and political equality.

When I was thinking about how we obviously care less about the people in Pakistan during the recent floods than we did about the people in Haiti after the earthquake, the MDGs also came to mind. Of course, there’s the thing about westerners not caring for muslims, people thinking Pakistan is filled with terrorists, and all the other things ignorant and prejudiced people tend to think (or people not thinking at all). But there’s also the money and goal-oriented development industry, and the way in which this is presented to the wider public.

The MDGs are just an example (a big one at that) of how the development sector has become an industry – money and measuring are the most important things now. Not that efficiency, effectiveness etc. are bad things, on the contrary. But I think we’ve been led too far away from the real issues in our quest to make development measurable. And, unfortunately for Pakistan, the last couple of other major disasters (Haiti, the tsunami etc) have been great examples of how aid workers are unable to show direct results in a crisis situation.

So now there’s Pakistan – not many dead people, many muslims affected but also a political crisis in our own backyard (in fact all of Europe). In short: we have better things to do. And as shown, the money spent on development is not spent well, because obviously if there’s no direct result there can be no result at all. That’s exactly why the MDGs were invented, and it’s also why the MDGs keep the attention away from real issues. The MDGs make people believe you can measure development, and now that it has become so painfully obvious that measuring does not always show the results we want to see, people think development aid in general is useless. I wonder what will happen if the MDGs are not realized by 2015.