Michael Woolcock: The MDGs After 2015: Some thoughts and reflections

Development Policy26 Jun 2009Michael Woolcock

The MDGs have come to play an important symbolic and substantive role in current development debates and strategy. They are important symbolically because they represent, at one level, an unprecedented international moral consensus that reducing absolute poverty and expanding access to basic services for all people everywhere is both desirable and possible. And because of the symbolic importance of the MDGs they are also substantively important to the extent they provide a basis for policymakers to procure precious resources for helping to realize them and/or to justify a given course of action (ex ante or ex post). While it an empirical question as to whether the MDGs have in fact generated resources for or commitments to development over and above what would have occurred otherwise, it is less problematic to argue that they have provided a coherent focal point for development discussions across a broad range of interest groups, from everyday citizens to academics to front-line practitioners.

As 2015 nears, it is commonplace to lament that many of the goals (especially maternal mortality) will not be met and that in certain sub-Saharan Africa countries progress on even a single measure will be hard to identify, while in other countries (such as China and India) several of the goals may already have been attained. The logic of the MDGs, as with the stream of international ‘commitments’ that have gone before them (e.g., ‘water for all’), requires that a minimally compelling explanation be provided of why, where, and how the successes and failures have occurred. It is tempting to seek to ‘add’ new goals in the quest to shape the post-2015 agenda, but for me any such additions or modifications are a second order concern. The first order challenge is implementation: for example, why do upwards of 70% of teachers not show up for work on any given day in parts of India and Bangladesh? The answers to such questions are literally not rocket science; we don’t need crack teams of organizational consultants to “figure out” how to solve this problem, because it’s already been solved somewhere, somehow, by someone in other parts of these countries – the challenge is figure out how to build effective implementation systems, and/or change dysfunctional ones, across the board. For donors, the first order challenge is to simply do what they said they were going to do by way of providing resources (of various kinds). Realizing the commitments that have already been made – whether on the ‘supply’ (donors) or ‘demand’ (implementation) side – is more than enough for a follow-up agenda.

Doing any of this will require, however, more and better data so that policy decisions and project assessments are made on the basis of the best possible evidence. The attainment of national and international targets requires the aggregation of high-quality sub-national and local level data, the better to understand the nature and extent of variation, which in turn is a key basis on which to enhance broad-based implementation effectiveness. At the end of the day, the MDGs are a rough but tractable accountability mechanism; they should be used to not only hold donors’ feet to the fire, but the governments and NGOs around the world charged with providing vital services and opportunities to the poor. Rather than expanding or refining the goals themselves, our first priority should be sustaining the symbolic coherence of the MDGs and its capacity to engage ever-larger constituencies for change; all this ultimately rests, however, on the prosaic task of requiring, recognizing and rewarding effective implementation. Any ‘paradigm change’ in development worth fighting for is one that actually delivers on basic health care, schooling and justice for all. Justice? OK, well maybe we should add one more goal…