MDGs must learn from past lessons

Development Policy18 Jun 2009Emmanuel Frot

I welcome Andy Sumner’s contribution on the future of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While there has been much debate around achieving the MDGs, and tracking progress of countries and regions, little has been said about the future of the MDGs. But this is needed in order to know what should be learnt from the past and so what to do about the MDGs after 2015.

While this discussion is important, its very existence already tells us something about the MDGs’ failure. If we take seriously the various summits, high level meetings, and conferences held on the MDGs, then a post-2015 debate should be irrelevant. Indeed, the whole discourse on these development indicators is about the commitment and the requirements to reach them by 2015. So if the development community had succeeded, then 2015 should have seen most, if not all, countries achieving these goals set in 2000. This may sound as a blatantly naive belief, but this is what one is led to expect when reading through official declarations. As a matter of fact, the UN webpage on the MDGs displays the headline “End Poverty 2015. Make it happen”. Just below lies the piece of news that world leaders renewed in September 2008 their commitments to achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, and to set out concrete plans and practical steps for action.

The whole communication surrounding the MDGs has precisely been about the resources required to reach the targets. The approach has been to state some needs, that indeed are important development indicators, and then to estimate the costs of fulfilling these needs. Unfortunately such cost analyses often rely on unrealistic assumptions. Clemens, Kenny, and Moss (2004) had already criticized this approach, because it led to believe that all that was required to achieve the MDGs was more aid money. But they also showed that the MDGs were unrealistic. To reach them would require unprecedented progress from developing countries, even by developed countries’ standards. Easterly (2009) also underlines that, because of the way the MDGs were defined, African countries are more likely to miss the targets. Failure to achieve the MDGs in 2015 will inevitably create some disappointment. Either aid flows will have increased (as they effectively did in the last few years), and failure will cast more discredit on aid, or aid commitments will not have been met, and the illusion that aid is the only input missing to achieve the MDGs will survive.

All in all, a healthy debate should take place about the mistakes that should not be repeated after 2015, when comes the time of redefining the MDGs. First, as underlined above, the discourse about cost analysis is counterproductive by equating specific targets with monies. Unfortunately it is not the case that x additional dollars can ensure universal education. Second, do not set up a list of unrealistic goals. Many targets are not, by historical standards, within reach of most developing countries. It runs the risk of portraying significant progress as failures. A country can fail to reach a MDG, but still have achieved tremendous achievements. That means MDGs should be country-specific, incorporate local conditions, and past performance. While this has the disadvantage of opening up possibilities for target manipulation, it will put progress into perspective and make the targets more useful. That brings me to the third point, which relates to the use that should be made of the MDGs. Clemens, Kenny, and Moss (2004) contrast two conceptions. On the one hand, one can take the MDGs literally, and accept them as targets and see aid flows as the principal tool to reach them. On the other hand, the MDGs are indicators towards which countries should progress, and aid is only one input of this complex process. Instead of being targets, the MDGs would become tools. Barder and Birdsall (2005) made a proposal underlining this potential, by tying aid to results in line with development goals.

The MDGs have had the merit to focus attention, track countries to record progress, and put pressure on aid donors about their commitments. However they are not without their own disadvantages, as I have argued in this short commentary. Barder and Birdsall (2005)’s conclusion is that we should treat the MDGs seriously but not literally. That goes against the current view that “in most or even all countries the [MDGs] can still be achieved by 2015” (UN 2005). A re-definition of the MDGs is required, and, the debate about their future should learn some lessons from its past, though short, history. A new set of indicators should include realistic targets, adapted to each country, that reveal its progress compared to its past evolution, and that are used to design new aid instruments.


Barder, Owen, and Nancy Birdsall (2005). Rescuing the MDGs. Paying for Results. Center for Global Developemnt.

Clemens, Michael A., Charles J. Kenny, Todd J. Moss (2004). The Trouble with the MDGs: Confronting Expectations of Aid and Development Success. Center for Global Development Working Paper 40.

Easterly, William (2009). How the Millennium Development Goals are Unfair to Africa. World Development 37(1), 26-35.

UN (2005). Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals