Welcome to the dance?

Knowledge brokering23 Sep 2010Michael Edwards

Ok, I admit it – I have little interest in the Millennium Development Goals, despite working in the development arena since 1978. Do I need medical or psychological help? Is there something seriously wrong with me? Don’t I have a heart? Picture me and a few other ugly ducklings standing at the edge of the dance hall while Bono, Bill Gates and the rest of the in-crowd party the night away in New York City – that just about sums it up.

But maybe my lonely and miserable existence is coming to an end? A growing number of activists and academics are posing questions about the MDGs and their impact, including on this blog, and calling for something radically different. As David Hulme points out, it’s clear that they have been important in building support for foreign aid in the North, and some of that aid has helped to get more children into school and more drugs to those who need them.

But in the South (or in middle-income countries that have high concentrations of poverty), I’ve never seen any evidence that leaders were elected or thrown out because of the MDGs, or that any great social movements have been born, or that economies have been restructured to spread wealth and opportunity more widely, or even that communities have become more determined to solve problems for themselves. That’s because the MDGs focus on meeting short-term output goals, not the infrastructure – the processes, capacities and institutions –that are required to sustain progress and innovation long into the future as national circumstances change.

As the mutual back-slapping and political re-commitments in New York show, the MDGs seem set to continue in modified form, regardless of their weaknesses. And no wonder – it’s difficult for anyone to resist the powerful psychology of saving the world within their lifetime. Who wouldn’t support the drive for measurable results in health, education and other areas, even if the MDGs have had little influence over the drivers of development? Since governments are not prepared to do the difficult things like curbing tax evasion and reforming global trade, they will continue to do the easy thing by pumping yet more money into systems that are ill-prepared to use it effectively, in the hope that short-term gains in reach and access will eventually connect with the capacity required to sustain them over time. If this is the case, there isn’t much point in standing at the edge of the dance floor and carping from the sidelines, so what should we do?

Without buying into the hype that surrounds the MDGs or ignoring them completely, I think there are two avenues for action that can help to close the gap between the hopes they represent and the substance of real, on-the-ground realities that drive developments in politics and economics. The first is to focus as much as possible on flexible support for long-term national development strategies, in whatever structures emerge from the General Assembly’s discussions and negotiations. That doesn’t mean more Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers and the like; it means placing resources at the disposal of locally-controlled political processes that are best positioned to decide on their deployment.

The second avenue, closely related to the first, is to reverse the direction of accountability in the MDGs from external to internal, which is why local and national control over resources is so important. Sure, countries and communities will make mistakes and engage in some good old-fashioned rent-seeking of their own, but over time, as experience in Latin America, East Asia and elsewhere has shown, it is politics and state-building that determine the best results. I’ve no idea what that would mean for the detailed goals and mechanisms of the MDGs, but I’m pretty sure that they would be more effective as a result. Maybe it’s time I entered the dance floor after all?