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Obama and the Millennium Development Goals

Written by Andrew Shepherd


Mr. President

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the world’s major framework against absolute poverty and deprivation. They were set in 2000/1 based on trends to 1990, and so should not have been too hard to achieve. Nearly 20 years on, they are proving challenging – with some large countries doing well, and others struggling; with more progress on some goals than others. Achieving the goals would represent a very basic level of wellbeing. It would be good to see the US administration putting its weight behind the goals, working with others to see how their achievement by 2015 can be hastened, and how obstacles can be removed. In the past few years the US has punched below its weight on these issues in the international arena. I’m sure with you in charge that will change!

The countries that are struggling most are, obviously, in need of most help. This includes fragile and conflict-affected states, and the development community is waiting to see a joined up but positive developmental approach to this problem from the US administration. Clearly, ending and preventing conflict, and developing better post-conflict development strategies, devoting adequate resources and person power to recovery is critical, and an area where the lessons from the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere need to be urgently learned and acted on. I know you will be taking a different approach to your predecessor on these issues, and am confident that you will be more effective in finding political and developmental solutions for societies in deep difficulty.

There are also some goals which are hard to reach – especially those where political support is inadequate or where greater gender equality is required to make faster progress (for example sanitation, maternal mortality, hunger) . The US has a fine tradition of explicitly promoting political development as well as gender equality, both of which could be resuscitated in the service of the basic development the MDGs represents. I know that you believe in politics as the source for positive change, and look forward to seeing you work with difficult regimes and politicians in the service of the poorest in their societies.

There are significant financing gaps – for example in primary education and health, which the US could fill. You will inherit the recession, and severe limitations on public finances. However, the amount the rich world saves for the poor world is minute compared to the cost of bailing out the banks. I sincerely hope you will be able to expand the US’s financial contributions towards achieving the MDGs, of course, it’s not all or even mainly about money. Much more depends on having the right policies in place in developing countries themselves, and developing the tax base to see them through. Aid is only the icing on the cake, but nevertheless it’s an important part of the cake, and even more important at a time of declining tax takes in developing countries.

You could also consider supporting some further development of the MDGs where there are clear gaps:

  • Poor people are vulnerable to shocks, and others continue to become poor as a result of shocks against which they have no protection. They need systematic safety nets or social protection that can be relied on if they are to become less poor through their own efforts, and enhance their ability to participate in education, health services and save and invest in enterprise. There is a global movement for the provision of very basic social protection (at levels which will not generate dependency or welfare scrounging) which could be translated into an MDG target – motivating the necessary tax and aid based expenditure.
  • Many poor households are unable to manage their fertility in the way they would like, and descents into poverty. The US has a fine history of promoting reproductive health services and choice: something else to resuscitate. There is now an MDG target to provide universal access to reproductive health services. This will be a very difficult target to achieve, as there are many opponents – strong support from the US is probably a sine qua non.
  • Education is a way out of poverty. To escape from poverty households generally need one or two members who have gone beyond primary education – completion of primary is not enough. Finding ways of expanding post-primary education, and pathways for poor children to continue education beyond 6 years is critical. The multiplier effects will be many. The US could consider mobilising for and sponsoring a Jomtien-style conference on this issue. We all depend on the education we have – it should be easy to ensure that this resonates with the US public.
  • The US was concerned in 2000/1 about the absence of commitments in MDG 8 on governance. Goal 8 has indeed proved a hold-all goal into which aspirations have been dumped. The key commitments needed to achieve goals 1-7 are good policies north and south, and adequate tax revenue, public expenditure and aid. The MDGs need to move from an aid- to a tax-based discourse, with aid topping up where poor countries cannot go the whole stretch. Countries will generally not make the long term financial commitments unless they can see that they can be met through tax revenues, since aid has proved too unreliable. So increasing the reliability of aid flows is an area where the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) should be helping, and where the US can, and should, commit itself.