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MDG midpoint: Politics and process - What have we learned?

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30

Clare Short MP, Former UK Secretary of State for International Development
Prof Adrian Wood, Professor of International Development, University of Oxford


Simon Maxwell, Director, ODI

  1. Simon Maxwell introduced this meeting as the first in a series to mark the mid-point of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). He introduced Clare Short MP, the former UK Secretary of State for International Development, and Professor Adrian Wood, now at Oxford University, who worked closely with Clare Short as DFID Chief Economist from 2000-2005.
  2. Clare Short outlined the evolution of the MDGs from their first incarnation in 1996 as the OECD/DAC International Development Targets (IDTs), to their adoption by the Millennium Summit in 2000. She herself had become shadow minister a year before the General Election of 1997, and had been looking for clarity and coherence in development. Richard Jolly had pointed her in the direction of the IDTs, and she had then discovered that John Vereker, the Permanent Secretary of then-ODA, had been on the DAC Committee which had distilled the IDTs from the various UN Conferences of the 1990s.
  3. The IDTs were attractive, not because they acted as highly centralised, bureaucratic targets, but because they provided vision in high-level politics. They were formulated by all the UN member states, and were thus more decentralised and more widely owned than if they had been produced by just the West or the World Bank, for instance. They provided useful clarity of purpose for the new Department established in 1997. They licensed the development system to think long-term, and made it more difficult for politicians to make ad hoc announcements and to create new, vertical programmes. It was not true, she said, that the IDTs left growth out of the equation. It was always clear that the core poverty-reduction objective was about growth.
  4. It had not been easy to carry through the vision of the IDTs. Clare Short described the experience of working with the female ministers of the Utstein Group in the male- and finance-dominated world of the World Bank Board, and using the IDTs to refocus the work of that organisation. There was a sense in which the adoption of the IDTs marked the end of the Washington Consensus.
  5. Within the UK, the IDTs had also been very useful, for example in discussions with the Treasury about money and with the FCO about roles and responsibilities. The first DFID White Paper, published in 1997, provided the framework.
  6. When it came to the Millennium Summit, the UN was casting around for a big theme to match the profile of the event in 2000. The new MDGs were developed from the IDTs, and offered both hope and possibility for the future. She praised the contribution of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the then UK Ambassador to the UN.
  7. Ms Short concluded by saying that though the MDGs were meant to drive the work of everyone, they weren ’t perfect and were are in need of renewal. The countries with the worst prospects under the MDGs were those with oppressive governments and suffering from civil wars, and the goals needed to accommodate this. Ms Short said that, in her view, the G8 and the Commission for Africa had been something of a distraction, and ran the risk of patronising Africa. She was also not enthusiastic about the proposed International Finance Facility, which, she felt, rather ducked the need to take the decision to double aid. The MDGs needed renewal but offered a good way of managing development.
  8. Adrian Wood began by praising Clare Short for ‘changing the world for the better’, and inspiring and guiding DfID staff during the introduction of the MDGs. Professor Wood, during his work as chief economist under Ms Short, had spoken of taking the MDGs ‘seriously but not literally’, and he proceeded to explain why this was still important, referring to a paper he wrote in October 2004.
  9. There is a key distinction between goals and targets. The former are general objectives, such as reducing child mortality. The latter are numerical objectives associated with the goals, for instance halving the number of people surviving on one dollar a day.
  10. Professor Wood then explained why the targets should not be taken literally. He had two major objections to statistical targets:
    1. They can lead to bad results. In order to fulfil targets, an agency may give money to the slightly poor instead of the chronically poor, for example, and the targets act as an incentive to act in short-term interests.
    2. They can be inefficient. It may be far more efficient to stop slightly short of completing a target and switch resources to a less developed target, than to concentrate resources heavily in one area, which may experience a decline in pay-off. Furthermore, not all countries are equally weighted - some may already have 50 percent progress towards a certain goal, whereas others may only have five percent.
  11. Professor Wood said an economist would prefer progress goals to be summarised in one number, as this would allow efficient trade-offs, minimise restrictions and maximise progress.
  12. The goals should be taken seriously as they hold great appeal to non-economists, especially politicians and the public. They serve to motivate, to focus minds, and they encourage a political commitment to aid. Professor Wood concluded by stressing the importance of reminding people of the broader goals in which the MDGs are set.
  13. Points and questions raised in the discussion included:
    • The support of MDGs in various countries. In the UK the MDGs have been ‘sold’ to the public, whereas in the US the opposite prevails; there is widespread reluctance. Ms Short highlighted US apathy to the UN, and that this reluctance was the problem of the US, not the goals themselves.
    • Progress is lagging in Africa. The targets are global targets, and there was discussion over the merits of switching to national targets.
    • The number of actors and agencies in development, and their motivations. Departments such as DfID are essentially judged by performance, and it is important to remember this.
    • The dangers of targets. Ms Short built upon Professor Wood’s presentation, saying that there was a danger of targets becoming too ‘mechanistic’, citing an example of hunting for empty hospital beds instead of addressing the root issue and enlarging capacity.
    • However, measurement is important. The question of whether the goals are worth the risks of measurement is answered by the increases in aid which we have seen.
    • The use of statistics. The issue is not whether they should be used, but how their use can be improved and used more intelligently.
  14. Adrian Wood added that it is extremely important that the targets are maintained, and that further ‘fashion shifts’ are avoided, even though the process could take decades. Clare Short added that it is useful to keep the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in mind as a comparison to the MDGs. She also stressed the need to tackle issues of climate change alongside equitable development, to help develop an equitable global order.
  15. Simon Maxwell concluded the meeting by emphasising the value of the MDGs, but also the need for brave political leadership in interpretation and implementation, if they were not to become mechanistic.


The mid-point of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) falls on 7th July 2007. These eight internationally agreed targets were set in 2000, to be achieved by 2015. While the MDGs have enormous resonance and real political potency, are they achieving enough? At this half-way stage, we ask two leading global experts to look back to 2000, reflect on their decisions at the time, and to talk about how they set about transforming political ideals into concrete action plans.