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Gordon Brown and the MDGs at midpoint


UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s speech at the UN last week was strongly focussed on renewing global commitments on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It is interesting to reflect on this in the light of three recent ODI public events on the MDGs.

The content of Mr Brown’s analysis of progress quite closely followed the UN’s own MDG report, debated in meeting two. As regards rich country contributions to Goal 8 - and the rest - he spoke of increases in aid, and also – discussing both the need to end OECD trade protectionism and the conflict in Darfur – implicitly acknowledged that development is about much more than aid. (However, the call on protectionism was balanced by assertions about the need for developing countries to open up their trade regimes too which, at the blanket level it was made, has little support from many prominent recent commentators e.g. Paul Collier or Ha Joon Chang ).

But more generally, his speech was a good illustration of one of the points made in favour of the MDGs by participants in the recent ODI public events.  Despite cynicism about them in the development community, they have been quite successful in one of their key purposes – to rewrite the international development agenda. They have helped move donor governments away from the narrow focus of the Washington Consensus on macro-economic stability, and towards a more multi-dimensional view of human development. As he said: ‘In the 1990s the talk was structural adjustment; in 2007 it is sustainable development.’ He proposed a global MDGs summit in 2008 – a call taken up with enthusiasm by the UN Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon.

Of course the MDGs were not the only part of this story, and, as some of their principal architects and advocates have noted, they are imperfect, and incomplete. Many things are missing from them. Some of the most important global issues – e.g. conflict, climate change, inequality, human rights – are not explicitly addressed in their original formulation. (A recent conference paper by Professor David Hulme attempts to trace the ins and outs of the negotiations in the ‘global public policy process’ that produced the original MDG list.)

But while they still have political purchase, and while there is still, as Mr Brown put it, ‘a million miles’ to go, it would be premature to ditch them. Supporting their evolution and improvement is more useful. Current amendments to include targets for ‘decent work’ and access to reproductive health services are an example of what can be done. And the targets, as Professor Adrian Wood reminded the first ODI meeting, are not the same as the Goals – the latter have a broader focus and thus potentially a longer shelf-life. And perhaps – as Mr Brown strongly asserted – the climate change agenda at least can be harmonised with the MDGs, under Goal 7.

So if the MDG process is here to stay, what should be done with it? A number of interesting points came up across the recent ODI public events:

  • The Goals are outcomes rather than outputs – they do not specify a strategy to achieve them. The kind of aid + technical capacity approach outlined by Gordon Brown has thus been a typical donor response. As Tony German argued at the CPRC/ODI meeting, the OECD countries certainly can afford to do more, and should, to help developing countries: and such approaches can make worthwhile headway towards the 2015 targets.

    But, as he went on to say, going from halving to eliminating poverty is not just ‘MDG1 x 2’. This would miss the big political challenges required for the full realisation of the Goals: social protection, redistribution and social change. Conflating poverty reduction with growth + technical services is to miss the reality for many poor people: not total exclusion from the market or society, but inclusion on extremely adverse terms. Technically, this is analysed as ‘adverse incorporation’ – in lay terms, exploitation. Both ODI director Simon Maxwell and Prof Sir Richard Jolly’s call for greater focus on social justice and the distribution of the benefits of growth, and recent South African government attention (albeit not in an MDG context) to ‘negative incorporation’ of poor people into the economy, indicate that social justice analyses are gaining ground.

  • The mantra of taking the MDGs ‘seriously, but not literally’ appears to have gained widespread support. This means both being flexible about trade-offs between different Goals (e.g. getting 90% towards 2 targets is better than 100% on one and 0% on another), and sensible about adjusting targets to be realistic in local conditions. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to the Goals, expecting the DR Congo to work to the same targets and deadlines as India or China, is unsupportable. This view has been espoused by a wide range of people, from MDG sceptics to Salil Shetty, Director of the Millennium Campaign. In his presentation he asserted that progress was best where the Goals and targets were adapted to local conditions with not only strong political leadership, but wider political, media and citizen engagement in debates over development priorities. However, several participants in the meetings felt that such sensible and flexible attitudes were not in evidence at operational level in their work, where rigid ‘targetry’, and duplication of donor-driven targets rather than alignment with local processes were still too often encountered. Hopefully the picture will change.

  • Getting the most out of the statistical monitoring process is obviously important. One challenge is to increase developing country statistical capacity. Realistic targets and indicators are little use if the numbers reported are meaningless. Some participants in the meetings went further and called for a simplification of the MDGs to make the task easier. However, capacity can increase – see progress in some of the poorest countries (e.g. Burkina Faso, Ethiopia).

    Another danger is that monitoring, and warnings of the type that ‘Africa is off-track’ etc, act more to diminish the public credibility of the MDG exercise, and encourage politicians to look elsewhere, rather than motivating improvement. Perhaps Sir Richard Jolly’s suggestions, based on past experience with UN global target setting, to ‘suppress spurious precision’ and focus monitoring on progress and achievement, rather than simple ‘success/fail’, is an alternative way forward.

Of course, the adoption of such lofty goals by the ‘international community’ or ‘world leaders’ hardly means that international realpolitik around short-term economic and political interest is dead. Far from it! But if there is going to be an international discourse about development, it is surely worth trying to make it reflect the needs and problems of the poorest as much as possible.

Statements of ambition like the MDGs are tools, which need to be used to leverage as much action as possible from the powerful. They are no guarantee of action. But without them, or with eroded versions of them, the task may be even harder. Mr Brown’s initiative is to be welcomed in helping to maintain international attention on the MDGs, and on the sustained effort that will be needed to address the shocking global inequalities that they highlight.