What have we learned?

Development Policy15 Aug 2013Amarakoon Bandara

Since their adoption, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have received a level of attention that is unprecedented for any UN development declaration. Their simplicity, clarity and good intentions united the international community. The MDGs are arguably the most politically important pact ever made for international development, generating an unparalleled global convergence around poverty reduction. 

Setting a benchmark for global development policy, they are seen as a significant step towards an international social norm that sees extreme poverty as morally unacceptable, thereby changing international values. The MDGs have also been instrumental in mobilizing public and political support for development, and successful in advocacy and improving the targeting and flow of aid. Several key issues and lessons learned from the MDGs are noteworthy:

Have the MDGs changed the development discourse?

Although the MDGs have received widespread attention and have been integrated in the works of aid agencies, and to some extent to the Bretton Woods Institutions, they have not been successful in shifting donor countries’ policies. The MDGs were meant to influence Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) and national development plans, but their alignment to these strategies has been limited. And, although the MDGs have contributed to shifting policies from the narrow confines of the Washington Consensus, they have not been successful in gaining greater traction since they have not provided a fully articulated and institutionally embedded alternative. As a result, the MDGs have not quite served their strategic purpose of changing the discourse on development.

Donor-led agenda

The MDGs are criticized for being a donor-led agenda and paying little attention to local context. This argument is supported by the fact that they are mostly based on the international development goals adopted by the OECD and that they were agreed without wide consultation. As a result, national ownership by developing countries has been mixed and weak. Because of the unified structure for achieving the MDGs, which disregards countries’ initial conditions, the poorest countries – where achieving these goals is a great challenge – might have been penalized and stigmatized.

The MDGs overlook crucial dimensions of development

The MDGs overlook crucial dimensions of development, like climate change, human rights, good governance and security. They also omit quality aspects of some goals, like education, chronic poverty and income inequality. To measure progress, the MDGs only look at national averages, leading to neglect of the poorest and most vulnerable. And, although employment is a target under MDG 1, little attention has been paid to this dimension.

How would the world have fared without the MDGs?

Although it is difficult to attribute successes in reducing poverty and promoting development entirely to the MDGs, they have helped to raise awareness of these issues. Despite current challenges, the MDGs have been able to garner support from both developed and developing countries alike, and appear to have had an impact in prioritizing poverty reduction in developing countries.

Who owns the MDGs?

Lack of clear ownership and leadership on some targets has been a major limiting factor in progress on the MDGs. A clear example is MDG8, which was added later in the process and does not demand that rich countries provide any measurable support or ensure fair trade rules. At national level, the MDGs are mentioned in the PRSPs, but most see them as a donor-driven process with limited ownership. Another issue that has affected ownership is goal-setting. Because the MDGs were designed to be achieved at global level, pursuing them at national level has become ineffective.

In short, the following lessons can be learned from the MDGs: they have not served their purpose of changing the development discourse, are donor-led and therefore disregard countries’ initial conditions; they overlook crucial dimensions of development and only measure national averages; and because of the lack of clear ownership, pursuing them at national level has become ineffective.

These lessons could be helpful in designing a new development agenda for post-2015.