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The Millennium Development Goals are at risk: The EU should give them new momentum

Written by Simon Maxwell

A high profile European report on the MDGs is being launched in Brussels on Friday and in New York on 24 September. The report has been written by an independent group of European economists, led by Professor Francois Bourguignon, Director of the Paris School of Economics, and of which I am a member. It says the Millennium Development Goals have been a force for good in the world, but that progress is uneven, too slow and threatened by the global economic slowdown. The authors argue that the European Union brings particular strengths to the MDG project. The EU’s own history shows the advantages of regional cooperation, support to weaker members and joint action to secure public goods of value to all. Its development policy and implementation capacity provides a unique marriage of political, economic and aid instruments, underpinned by a structure of mutual accountability. All this provides a platform to do more.

The press release is pasted in below and summarises the six main action points that arise from the report. Some of the action points will be familiar – the call for aid pledges to be met, for effectiveness to be improved and for better integration of instruments in fragile states. Some of the action points will be echoed elsewhere – for example, the call for better social safety nets will be picked up at an ODI-led side event in New York. Less likely to be heard is the call in the report for much greater attention to the impact of global growth on the development prospects of poor countries. In a week when the news is dominated by shocks to the financial system and the possible impact on the real economy, it is significant that the report identifies global economic governance as a key arena for reform. The MDG Call to Action has provided an invaluable arena for discussion of progress towards health, education and other measures of welfare. The new report reminds its readers that social progress must be underpinned by sustained and faster growth – and that achieving this needs action both internationally and at country level.

I’m encouraged by this approach, and also by the call for the EU to do more. Of course, we must deliver on our aid pledges and meet the aid effectiveness targets set the other day in Accra. In addition, the EU should lead a new charge on reform of the international system and on better economic governance.

Here is the press release:

The Millennium Development Goals have been a force for good in the world, but progress is uneven, too slow, and threatened by the global economic slowdown. An independent group of European researchers argues today that existing commitments must be met, but also that a new approach is needed. They argue that growth in poor countries is at risk because essential investments in infrastructure have been neglected. Global institutions must also be reformed if poor countries are not to be thrown off course by oil and price shocks and a general slowdown in global growth.

Speaking today in Brussels, the group’s leader, Francois Bourguignon (Director of the Paris School of Economics), said

‘Our research shows that progress against the MDGs are shaped by three factors: how far countries participate in global growth; how far their own policies contribute to shared growth and poverty reduction; and how well aid is delivered and used. We find cause for concern in all three areas.

We find that action is needed in six areas:

First, the MDGs remain a valuable framework for development action to 2015. But progress needs to be accelerated, with more money, better used. Donors need to deliver on all their pledges, including those related to trade and debt relief. When it comes to aid, both volume and greater effectiveness are priorities.

Second, both the historical record on the benefits of shared growth and the current weakness of the global economy lead us to say that investments in infrastructure and policy frameworks to stimulate and sustain growth are essential. Such investments should not be at the expense of basic needs and rights, but the money must be found.

Third, the weakness of the global economy also points to the need for rapid and effective reform of global economic institutions, including the Bretton Woods Institutions. The reinvigoration of trade agreements is part of this, including the Doha Round and the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements. Better regulation of the financial system is a priority.

Fourth, the poorest need to be protected from shocks, whether caused by high food and oil prices or the emerging consequences of climate change. Social protection should be on every country’s agenda, and should be supported by the MDG planning and funding process.

Fifth, there are particular problems in countries with weak institutions, often embroiled in or emerging from conflict – countries sometimes called ‘fragile states’. It is essential that ‘fragility’ be tackled if progress on the MDGs is to be achieved. This will require sustained engagement and new, imaginative use of combined political, financial and sometimes military resources. Multilateral approaches are necessary, with further strengthening of the UN Peacebuilding Commission.

Sixth, it is important to begin now thinking about the MDGs beyond 2015. The location and geographical distribution of the poor is changing, with China, India and other countries moving to middle income status, and with rapid urbanisation changing the economic prospects of the poor.’

The Bourguignon group sees a special role for the European Union in taking this agenda forward. Also speaking in Brussels, group member Simon Maxwell (Director of the Overseas Development Institute) said

‘The European Union brings particular strengths to this new and enlarged ‘project’ to deliver the MDGs. Its own history shows the advantages of regional cooperation, support to weaker members and joint action to secure public goods of value to all. Its development policy and implementation capacity provides a unique marriage of political, economic and aid instruments, underpinned by a structure of mutual accountability through treaties and joint political bodies.

The EU as a whole is the world’s largest aid donor and a major trading partner. The EU’s members have taken a leadership role in peace-keeping and peace-building. The EU is committed to improved practice in complementarity in aid delivery, through its Code of Conduct on Complementarity and Division of Labour. All this provides a platform for further engagement on the agenda we have outlined.’