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Why the MDGs need critical friends

It is easy to criticise the Millennium Development Goals . Some consider them, at best, naïve and, at worst, a sop to misguided global welfarism. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of sceptics who predict a damning failure to reach the goals by the 2015 deadline.

World leaders in New York this week need to prove them wrong. What the MDGs need now is not scepticism or naivety, but critical friends. These are friends who acknowledge the value of the MDGs, face up to the evidence about their strengths and weaknesses and have something constructive to say about next steps.

First, their value. The goals agreed in 2000 have galvanised national and international action on an historic scale, and many of the world's poorest countries have made unprecedented progress, despite the odds.

Last week ODI published The MDG Report Card , revealing genuine and impressive progress on poverty reduction, access to education, closing the gender gap in primary education, and improving access to clean water.

When it comes to absolute progress, sub-Saharan Africa can count itself amongst the best performers. Ghana, for example, has outstripped almost every other country by reducing hunger by nearly 75% between 1990 and 2004. It should reach MDG 1 (halving the rates of poverty and hunger) before the 2015 deadline. And ten African countries, including Angola, Egypt and Ethiopia have significantly reduced their rates of absolute poverty.

Then there are the failings. Progress on the goals is uneven and reversing in some areas. Some blame the implicit welfarism of the goals and the lack of a clear focus on means as well as ends. Others blame governments that have picked off the ‘low-hanging' fruit of the easier targets, while others still blame a lack of political will to unlock the potential that the MDG framework offers. But there is also growing recognition that structural inequity has constrained progress to date, and may impede progress further down the line.

This is confirmed by our research, which shows that those who have benefited most from progress are those who were already better off, even if only marginally. In country after country, national progress excludes the poorest, including those in rural areas and, very often, women and girls. So, as we celebrate clear evidence of national progress, the situation for many of the poorest people has actually deteriorated.

Of course, the MDGs can be reached in inequitable, unfair societies. But the evidence suggests that not only will progress be more difficult, it will also be harder to sustain, built as it is on weak foundations rather than on the bedrock of genuine equity.

So, what are the next steps? Other ODI research related to the MDGs highlights the need for three ‘fundamentals' that are essential for their achievement: equitable economic growth, gender equity and social protection.

  • First, strong and inclusive equitable growth. To be truly worthwhile, economic growth needs to support human development, and human development needs to support economic growth. We need equity in who can take advantage of the new jobs or market opportunities created by economic growth and in how the benefits are distributed through government spending. At national levels, leaders need to raise money from tax payers and then allocate resources in ways that benefit the poor. At local levels, governments must find the most efficient and effective ways to deliver services and be held accountable for the results. Strong and inclusive growth is about enhancing the capabilities of the poorest to participate in labour and product markets, but it is also about industrial policies that promote job creating businesses and investing in infrastructure in disadvantaged areas.
  • Second, gender issues. These cut across all of the MDGs, yet the goals themselves are largely gender-blind. As things stand, progress is being stymied by the deprivations and discrimination experienced by so many women, particularly in the poorest countries. A stronger focus on keeping girls in school, for example, or ensuring that women are able to access basic health services, would increase the impact of public sector education and health programmes. Unlocking women's labour market potential and addressing the discrimination so many face in key markets (from land to credit) would boost growth, while addressing political discrimination against women would have lasting consequences on the prospects for greater equity for the next generation.

  • Third, effective social protection. This is another way to tackle inequity, as social protection schemes such as cash transfers and public work programmes can boost incomes in the short term and help people increase their incomes in the longer term, if backed by investments in health, education and agriculture. In many developing countries they remain small scale pilot programme that are dependent on donor funding. They need to be transformed into national programmes, owned by national governments and in line with national priorities.

Reaching the MDGs will need tailored action on these fundamentals if progress for some is to be transformed into progress for all.

The big question is: will we reach the MDGs? A yes or no answer would be convenient, but the truth is, it depends. If we can tackle inequity and get the fundamentals right, there is still a chance. If we rely on old formulas and business as usual to deliver lasting human development, we will fail. That is why world leaders need to be critical friends this week, not only for the MDGs, but for each other.