More is not always better

Development Policy08 Oct 2013Markus Loewe

Twenty years ago, a new idea emerged: development policy should no longer be assessed on the basis of who was doing what. Rather, there should be a manageable set of key goals that every relevant actor could agree upon. In addition, the efforts of development and donor countries should no longer be evaluated on the basis of their contributions in term of money, advice or manpower, but of the extent to which they have achieved  new development goals. That led to the founding of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were drawn from the Millennium Declaration in 2000: eight end goals for development, easy to remember, accept and communicate.

Admittedly, these goals, due to be reached by 2015, are far from perfect. They are deficient, inconsistent and short-term. They are deficient because they neglect certain aspects of development like human rights, political participation, social inclusion, equality and human security. They are inconsistent because some measure outcomes of development, such as child mortality, while others measure inputs, such as school enrolment or access to essential drugs. And they are short-term because they focus on development until 2015 and neglect what comes after that, as well as the possible side-effects of hastily raising incomes, education or access to information and communication technologies.

In addition, some of the goals are under-ambitious, while others are unrealistic and therefore unfair for many countries. MDG1, for example, aims at halving the share of people below an international standard absolute poverty line, but this is nothing more than a wish to continue past trends. MDG2 aims to provide all children in the world with an education, which – under normal conditions – is impossible for countries like Burkina Faso, which started with a school enrolment rate of about 30% in 2000. It has undoubtedly made admirable progress on enrolment, but is not very likely to reach the 100% level in two years. Originally, the MDGs were intended to be universal goals, but without modification, they were increasingly seen as national objectives to create accountability on the national level. However, this interpretation can easily delegitimize the governments of least-developed countries; despite being committed to development and their countries having beneficial starting conditions, they are unable to fully achieve all MDGs.

Nevertheless, the MDGs can be seen as a successful instrument. They have succeeded in rekindling interest in global development issues in the rich countries of the North, and strengthening willingness to put more resources into aid. They have increased the accountability of all relevant actors in both the global North and the South for the effectiveness of their actions, which has contributed to more effective development policies with a greater focus on results.

With 2015 coming closer, almost everybody wants a new agenda that is as instrumental and compelling as the MDGs. However, now that everybody has recognized how instrumental such an international agenda can be, most actors and groups are placing their own favourite goals under the umbrella of the new agenda; the wish list already ranges from transportation infrastructure to the management of communicable diseases, from the protection of glaciers to the rights of indigenous peoples. Some proposals already consist of more than 400 single goals. While all of these may be worth working for, there is a real danger that the new agenda will not be manageable at all. 400 goals are indeed impossible to remember and to communicate. Wouldn’t it be better to return to the origins and identify a very small – new – set of elementary end goals for development?