The MDGs were never serious development goals

Development Policy17 Jun 2009Brian Pratt

Before looking at a post-2015 MDG debate, we must remind ourselves that the MDGs never made a great deal of sense in development terms – they aren’t for the most part even goals but indicators of other activities. They are a muddle of good intentions, indicators and policy statements.

So why did we all buy into the MDGs? Because they are simple for politicians to understand and for them to explain to others, primarily their constituents. This shouldn’t be underestimated as an important role for the MDGs – we need a constituency for development and for the important issues that the MDGs represent. However, when looking at life after 2015, we shouldn’t be asking how long we should extend them, in order to ensure we actually achieve some. We should be asking the wider and more important question of whether they will still have currency with our constituencies.

The real debate is not what we achieve by 2015, rather the issue is that the world has changed dramatically, as have the assumptions upon which the MDGs were based. Until little more than a year ago the predominant development theory (right or wrong) was that economic growth (which was dramatically high in many areas of the world) would provide the resources to allow countries to move out of poverty. Even Collier accepted this, although he warned us about the problems faced by those who did not gain from this growth, i.e. his bottom billion. Therefore some donors were already planning a reduction in the breadth of their aid programmes, to focus on the smaller number of countries housing this population which had lost out through the growth of our economies.

We are now in a situation where growth cannot be taken for granted in either the developed or developing world. Therefore the question is not whether we can stop our aid programmes in 2015 as more countries move to middle income status, but what can we do to maintain the gains of past decades in certain parts of the world, and will our constituency allow us to maintain our aid budgets? We already know some aid budgets are being cut – either in absolute terms (i.e. Ireland) or because the aid budget is expressed as a percentage contribution of a donor country’s GDP, and the overall GDP has reduced (i.e. Holland and Sweden).

Meanwhile other issues such as conflict and security, and climate change and adaptation, are absorbing an increasing amount of donor funds. This trend is likely to continue, making MDGs look less central to the work of many donors. Therefore perhaps the answer to the question of the MDGs post-2015 is that we need new goals in terms of what we really do which encompasses a wide range of human and social development rather than just marking up a narrow range of indicators, or we continue to focus on our work whilst politely continuing to use the MDGs as useful political window dressing – be it in the knowledge that these may soon prove insufficient to keep our tax paying constituents satisfied in light of their seeing domestic budgets being cut.

Would security and climate be more convincing reasons to persuade voters that aid will still matter post-2015? I am not sure, but we should open the debate wider than the future of the MDGs, which were never really serious developmental goals, but useful pegs upon which to hang our work and explain ourselves to the world outside development.