The Emphasis of an MDG-plus Agenda

Development Policy18 Jun 2009Ali Abdel Gadir Ali

In this contribution we directly address the four queries posed for the debate. To do so we need to note at the outset that from a development perspective it can easily be argued that the adoption of the MDGs by the world community in September 2000 reflected an emerging consensus that “development can be seen as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy” (as eloquently explained in A.K. Sen’s book on Development as Freedom; Oxford University Press). As is well known the philosophical foundations of this freedom approach to development require judging the welfare of individuals not in terms of the utility of goods and services, nor in terms of primary goods, but in terms of “substantive capabilities to choose a life one has reason to value”.

Capabilities reflected in the MDGs include being educated, living a healthy life, and having a decent standard of living. On the basis of such an understanding of the development process, we offer the following responses with emphasis on Sub-Saharan Africa (the poorest region in the world):

  1. Should the emphasis of an MDG-plus Agenda be on universal indicators or on more locally defined measures of progress, or on both? It can easily be argued that the MDGs themselves, and the indicators identified therein, will continue to be relevant for Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries for a long time to come. But, there is an obvious need to supplement these with locally defined measures of progress. Such additional measures will need to reflect not only quantitative dimensions (e.g. school enrollment ratios) but also qualitative dimensions (e.g. quality of health care).
  2. Should the emphasis of an MDG-plus Agenda be on global development or the “bottom billion”? While the current MDG emphasis on “global development” is useful from the perspective of the donors (in their search for enhancing the effectiveness of aid), there is a large number of countries at different stages of development that need special treatment. SSA, as a region, is a case in point. This will involve identifying more than one group of countries at the level of the world. Thus, for example, various regions in the world currently require different time horizons to achieve the current MDG-1: starting from 2005 as a base year, and given past poverty reduction performance, it will take SSA about 131 years to reduce 1990 poverty by half, compared to only ten years for East Asia and the Pacific region (the only region poised to achieve this goal)! A similar result, I am certain, could be established for the various countries of SSA. Moreover, the attractive coinage of the “bottom billion” category does not adequately reflect the depth of poverty around the world. Indeed, using more realistic poverty lines we should be talking about more than “two billions” at the bottom! For example, at US$2 per person per day the total number of the poor in the world is about 2.6 billion; at US$2.5 poverty line it is 3.1 billion!! 
  3. Should the emphasis of an MDG-plus Agenda be on material deprivation or human development or human well-being? A proper understanding of the foundations of the MDGs (in Sen’s Development as Freedom) should make it clear that all three dimensions of deprivation are closely related. The distinction between them should be understood as an analytical device. In this respect, it should be recalled that the original five substantive freedoms identified by Sen as having immediate policy relevance embody the above three approaches. These substantive freedoms are: “political freedoms; economic facilities; social opportunities; transparency guarantees; and, protective security”. “These instrumental freedoms tend to contribute to the general capability of a person to live more freely, but they also serve to complement each other” . From a methodological point of view I don’t believe that it will be difficult to come up with an appropriate weighting scheme, given the stage of development of various countries. 
  4. Should the emphasis of an MDG-plus Agenda be on indicators of outcomes or progress, or on reducing vulnerabilities? A short answer to this, given that the focus is on MDG-plus, is that there is no reason why we should not be able to develop an appropriate mix of the two approaches to enable judging the emerging social conditions. For my own way of thinking “reducing vulnerabilities” should be reserved for defining “development objectives” as in the current MDG-1. These will be the multiple objectives of a planning framework for effecting development in the developing world. Such a framework will have to identify a number of indicators of “outcomes or progress”. Depending on country circumstances, and the relevant planning horizons, such a framework should enable to “plan” their future development paths. Such an approach, indeed the current MDG approach, does not sit well with Easterly’s utter distaste to any hint of “planning or planners” but that is another story.

Be the above as it may, I am indeed surprised that an MDG-plus Agenda did not pose a query about the relevant time horizon over which development goals are to be achieved. The most recent Global Monitoring Report shows clearly that SSA will not be able to achieve most of the MDGs by 2015. This implies that the original planning horizon of 25 years was not realistic for this region. Should the emphasis of an MDG-plus Agenda be on a unified time horizon for all countries, or on country defined time horizons?


  1. See Chen, S., and M. Ravallion, (2008), “The Developing World is Poorer that we Thought, But No Less Successful in the Fight Against Poverty”; WPS no. 4703; p. 35, table 8;
  2. See, Sen, A. K., (1999), Development as Freedom; Oxford University Press, Oxford; p. 38. Emphasis is not in the original, but it explains what is meant by the statement in the text.
  3. See W. Easterly, (2006), The White Man’s Burden: Why the west’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good; Penguin Press, New York.