Marieke Hounjet: Live from Brussels I: MDGs as a Beacon without Strategy

Development Policy23 Jun 2009Marieke Hounjet

Marieke Hounjet is reporting live from the Brussels Forum for The Broker

In his welcoming word Andy Sumner states that 2015 ‘is a line in the sand’ and that therefore it is good idea to have a discussion on the future of the Millennium Development Goals ahead of time. The purposes of the morning plenary sessions of this High Level Policy Forum were to discuss both the impact of the MDGs and the large processes that guide the MDGs present and future. This first blog will discuss plenary one, entitled: What has been the impact of the MDG paradigm on poverty reduction to date and what does that mean for an MDG plus agenda?

Let me start with the end of this plenary as expressed by Lawrence Haddad, who concluded that we learned three points during the session:

1) The MDG agenda has impacted international norms, but in a truncated way.

2) The MDGs cannot be a substitution for strong leadership at the national level.

3) We have not learned enough in the last 10 years.

Thus, this plenary was on the impact of the MDGs, or in Haddad’s words, their ‘theory of change’. What are the MDGs supposed to be doing and how do current global challenges ask for adaptation of the MDG agenda after 2015? Questions Haddad identified as being central to this plenary are: what did the MDGs miss out on? Should there be more or less goals? Should they be output or process oriented? National or global? And finally, should there be MDGs or not?

It was questioned by numerous speakers whether current times are of such quality that the MDGs which originated in calm times need to be adapted. The first speaker, Salil Shetty (Director, United Nations Millennium Development Campaign) immediately questioned this statement, naming the tsunami’s and 9/11’s of then the climate and economic crises of today. In other words, the answer to the question of whether the world is less calm now is very subjective. Shetty claimed not to be unbiased towards the MDGs, as his position indicates. He expressed to feel rather uncomfortable to be speaking of the MDGs after 2015 when there is so much to address before then. Shetty admits that there is a long list of things that are wrong (which is something many speakers emphasise today in both plenary sessions). Common accusations include: a donor driven agenda, technocratic, ignoring human rights, not including any aid targets and several regression errors. Nevertheless, he argues that the MDGs have been a beacon during the last years. It provided an alternative to the Washington Consensus, it is widely accepted all around the world on both regional and national levels. The MDGs, Shetty reminds us, are a public good, there is room for adaptation and transformation. Of course there are many challenges ahead, including the economic, food and climate crises but in the end the MDGs are a political choice. The global community spend 18 trillion on bailing out companies while in comparison only 1% of this number was spend on aid in the last 49 years. Hence we should focus on the MDG review, learn from our lessons and move action to the local level so that the element of the MDGs that represents a ‘global movement’ comes more to its right.

The second speaker, Enrico Giovannini (Chief Statistician OECD) enters the debate with the perspective of a statistician, and statistics being central to the MDG discourse this is an important perspective. Giovannini introduced his talk by stating that talking about statistics is indirectly talking about the goals of society. The MDGs have definitely impacted statistical methods, thereby elaborating on some negative and positive effects. Amongst the positive was that the MDGs stimulated the cooperation of international organisations and that there have been investments into the statistical capacities of developing countries. Negative aspects are that the discussion became very political (hereby excluding statisticians), and that that the framework of the MDGs was made into a straightjacket. Giovannini emphasised the importance of a focus on outcomes and production rather than inputs and communication. If the MDG game is to be repeated in 2015 information will need to be shared, especially in terms of what did or did not work.

The third speaker, professor Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (New School, New York), in contrast to Giovannini, stressed the importance of the process. She poses the question: What MDG paradigm? The MDGs are namely part of policy priorities, development paradigm, partnership paradigm and international norms. Fukuda-Parr argues that donors have interpreted the MDGs in such a way that it resulted in a shift of aid to social support investments and away from infrastructure and growth (or so-called productive sectors). Not to claim that there is a dichotomy, the point is rather that this might result into lower levels of development. Even though the MDGs have not shifted the development paradigm, there has been a large impact on the normative level: ‘ the MDGs became the message of poverty reduction’. It this sense the MDGs are not much of an alternative to the Washington Consensus, but rather a continuation with social investments and economic governance added on. What rather seems to be the problem, according to Fukuda-Parr, is that there is no agreement of what poverty really means, and strategies are not discussed, which is vital for the post 2015 paradigm.

The debate that followed was quite critical of the MDGs’ success and future. Some main points voiced were that important indicators such as inequality are not included and that one of the main problems with MDGs is that we do not know how they are to be achieved. Fukuda-Parr responded saying that the MDGs are sometimes dubbed as ‘Most Distractive Gimmick’ because the outcome focus distracts from the ‘how do we get there?’ question. Some differences of opinion will remain however, as the call of some for more ‘soft’ indicators of poverty, such as inequality perhaps is countered by people such as Giovannini who are afraid that politicians might abuse soft data, choosing whatever indicators they like best.