Critical Appraisal of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a framework for Promoting International Development. Essay

Critical Appraisal of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a framework for Promoting International Development. Essay


The UN global conferences of the 1990s raised social, economic and environmental issues facing both the developed and developing world today. As a result in September 2000 the Millennium Declaration was adopted unanimously by all the 189 UN member nations. This declaration included eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs; table 1.) which can be seen as broad goals to be achieved by 2015, subdivided into 15 targets. 48 indicators were chosen to monitor these targets, and these indicators had to meet the following 5 criteria: 1) Provide relevant and robust measurements of progress towards the targets of millennium development goals, 2) be clear and straightforward to interpret and provide a basis for international comparison, 3) be broadly consistent with other global lists and avoid imposing an unnecessary burden on country teams, Governments and other partners 4) be based to the greatest possible extent on international standards, recommendations and best practices and 5) be constructed from well-established data sources, be quantifiable and be consistent to enable measurement through time (UNDP,2003).

Table 1: The millennium development goals and their targets and indicators. Goal 8: to promote a global partnership was added later (source: UNDP progress report, 2006).

Table 1
Table1 Conti

Rationale for and challenges facing the MDGs

The adoption of the MDGs as a framework for development begs the question; why are the MDGs required? The concept of setting global human development goals is not new, and there were many set by the UN during the UN development decades of the 1960s-1980. These targets were known at the time to be overambitious and unattainable, mainly because there was no way to monitor the trajectory towards the desired results, which were often unclear. Consequently these targets were ignored and became discredited (Roberts, 2005). So what has changed and why are these goals different? One of the main changes to have occurred over the past few decades is the definition of poverty and therefore the benchmarks to monitor it. In the 1970s many economists argued that a solution to poverty was levels of employment, and the emphasis was very much on industrialisation and economic growth in developing countries. This argument was followed in the 1980s by the idea that the key for development and poverty alleviation was to meet basic needs. Towards the end of the 1980s development began to be defined more and more often as expanding peoples capabilities to lead lives that they value (Fukuda-Parr, 2004). More recently, the definitions of poverty are becoming more multi-dimensional, to include health and capability- based concepts such as education, security, political voice, discrimination and inequality (Bucknall et al., 2001). With the recognition that poverty is affected by a multitude of factors, and that human well-being rather than economic growth may mark a countrys progress, a strategy for combating poverty will need to take an integrated approach, addressing every issue affecting human development. This multi-sectoral approach will also mean that meeting a target in one area, may lead to an unexpected advance towards a target in another area (Fay et al., 2005). For example, by improving transport or water availability to increase the percentage of children being enrolled at primary school, the child and maternal mortality rates may also decrease due to faster access to health care. The MDGs therefore, provide a multi-dimensional framework, which focus the efforts of the world community on achieving significant measurable improvements in peoples lives (UNDP, 2002).

The MDGs however, are not without their critics. With many previous goals and targets being set by UN being left to fall by the wayside, the decision by all countries to adopt the Millennium Declaration was a controversial one. Attaran (2005) states the MDGs are a way to advance the reputation of the UN and global development community. Not only are the objectives of the MDGs, questioned, but also the design, costs and focus of the goals. Costs have been estimated at roughly US$50 billion per year to meet the goals, and that is with the assumption that the recipient countries are doing what is necessary to meet these goals (Clemens et al., 2007). One of the concerns is donor fatigue will ensue, coupled with recipient countries being distracted from much needed domestic reform in an effort to meet the set targets. There is also, a general consensus in much of the literature that many countries will fail to meet their MDG targets and that in fact for many, they were unobtainable from the outset. This will take away the triumph of the last 50 years, where there have been dramatic advances in the development of poor countries, led by the successful campaigns against polio and smallpox amongst other diseases and successful schooling programs, for example PROGRESA in Mexico (Clemens et al., 2007). Another negative effect from countries not meeting the MDGs will be the reciprocal accountability between donors and recipients; the richer countries will blame the poorer countries with corruption, and in turn the poorer countries will say the rich countries could have done more. This in itself would be an ironic effect, as it would directly go against goal 8 and this idea of global partnerships. Also, when many of the countries do fail to meet the MDGs, ammunition will provided to interest groups advocating against the continued assistance of rich countries to poor countries and other valuable engagement (Clemens et al, 2007).

Many argue that the design of the MDGs is flawed. Chapman (2002) argues that targets; 1) will maximise the likelihood of adverse, unintended consequences, 2) increase administrative overheads 3) make institutions more fragile, 4) demotivate staff throughout the system and 5) cause disillusion amongst the clients. By having such time-specific targets a reductionist approach is taken to very complex problems with no simple solution (Maxwell, 1996). Another criticism of having individual targets specific to each goal is that there is the potential for the multi-sectoral nature of the goals to be lost in an effort to meet these individual targets (Fay et al., 2005). Also, with the nature of the targets, there is then a difficulty in attribution; each target will be subject to many influences and so difficult to monitor. For example DFID was committed to a reduction of poverty in South Asia from 40% to 32% by 2006. In this region, however aid was relatively insignificant and accounted for less than 3% of the public expenditure. It could therefore be argued that this target was always going to be met with or without the funding (Maxwell, 2003). Not only have the targets been criticised, but also the indicators that will monitor the progress. There is a definitional ambiguity about the MDGs. For example they work in global percentages, however each country is expected to meet the goals. By one or two larger countries (e.g. India and China) meeting their targets, globally, this target would be met. Take for example the reduction of income poverty by one half, or the reduction of two-thirds for infant and child mortality rate. This ambiguity has the tendency to have negative effects on the commitment of governments in translating the targets of the goals into the objectives of national policy (Roberts, 2005). A further criticism of the MDGs is the validity of data and the methods in place for reporting and monitoring progress. Goal number 1 is easy enough to report as there are many economists, governments and businesses attempting to assess the purchasing power potential of many countries. However, for health related indicators, the situation becomes more complex and Attaran (2005) argues that there is a lack of scientifically valid data, and that although often the targets are portrayed in time-limited, measurable terms, the subject is measured so inadequately, that a baseline of the situation prior to the MDGs cannot be established. Attaran also argues that there are too many sources of information which can be in conflict, or repeat each other. Also, there are so many survey techniques that rarely is the data comparable. Another criticism of the surveys used by the UN agencies is that often they are so technical, that a layperson will have difficulty in understanding them.

There are many more criticisms and challenges specific to each goal, however there have also been successes.

MDG 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty

As listed on the UN website, this is the most prominent of the MDGs. This MDG will be monitored through household surveys and by converting $1 dollar per day into the local currency to reflect purchasing power parity (UNDG,2003). According to the UN Millennum Goals progress report (2006), in 1990, more than 1.2 billion people were living in absolute poverty, which worked out as 28% of the worlds population. By 2002, apparently this proportion had been decreased to 19%. However, the report does state that between 1990-2002, the African region showed little change, where as Asias poor decreased by of a billion. On account of the rapid economic expansion (and as a result a reduction in poverty) of India and China, MDG1 looks like on a global scale at least, it will be met by 2015 (Clemens et al., 2007). However, as the success of the goals is measured on a regional scale, it is unlikely that this goal will be met by sub-Saharan Africa. As already mentioned earlier, one of the criticisms for the monitoring of these goals has been the methodologies employed (i.e. numerous household surveys), however the reverse side of this is that there have been many more innovative ways emerging to define, combat and monitor poverty. The Millennium Declaration in itself has been hailed as a great step forward as finally it seems, there is more of a consensus amongst international institutions (e.g the UN and World Bank) as to the definition of poverty, and one of the innovations of the World Banks World Development Report (2000/1) strategy is the methodological innovations taking shape as an increase in participatory assessment techniques (Maxwell, 2003). One of the most passionate critics of the MDGs, and especially MDG1 is Pogge. Pogge, (2004) has four main, and detailed criticisms for this goal which can be summarised as follows: 1) The MDGs use 1990 as a baseline not 2000 (the year of adoption of the Declaration). The 1990s saw a dramatic reduction of poverty in China, and the targets of MDG1, state that the poverty changes should be in each region, not each country. Therefore due to the reduction in China, the MDG for the Asia region may be met. 2) Methods of quantification are not consistent, and this covers, not the household surveys as with other critics, but the indicator of 1$ ppp. The World Bank, in 1995, changed the baseline value of the US$. Up to 1995, the value as it was in 1985 was consistently used to measure the ppp of people in other countries, however this was changed to the value of the dollar as it was in 1993, which due to inflation, lowered the benchmark by 19.6%. 3) This criticism is more of a moral one. Pogge argues that the official development aid (ODA) that countries are receiving is not enough to reduce poverty to the goal set out and that also the ODA dropped throughout the 1990s from the agreed amount of 1% of aggregated donor GDP to currently 0.22%. Therefore, the donor countries should be spending more money in an effort to reduce poverty by the amount defined in the goals. 4) His final criticism is also a moral one and it is that in colonial countries, the current economic inequality was built up over colonial times, and that when the colonial powers were removed, no responsibility was taken for this build up of inequality. MDG1, therefore is not enough of a commitment on the part of the richer nations. However, regardless of the criticisms for this goal, progress is being witnessed, and this is mainly due to improved strategies for monitoring and reducing poverty. The implementation of results based management, changing the focus from inputs to outcomes and the introduction of poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) is a sign that progress is being made (Roberts, 2005).

MDG2: Achieve Universal Primary Education

Net enrolment rates have increased to 86% in the developing world, with 95% enrolment in Latin America and the Caribbean, although only 64% in sub-Saharan Africa. Faster growth will be needed in Asia, although again due to the fast economic expansion in India, Southern Asia improved enrolment from 72% to 89% in the period of 1999-2004 (UN MDG report 2006). The problem with the target for this goal (table 1), is that there is no way of monitoring the quality of the education that is being given, as the only focus is enrolment. In many countries, the infrastructure, materials and staff available are inadequate to ensure that a satisfactory quality of education is received. There is also no baseline in quality of education, meaning that it is difficult to gauge what an acceptable standard is. However, this goal is progressive, in that in previous targets and goals, education has been a target towards alleviating poverty, and not a goal in its own right (DFID, 2007). This in itself is evidence that the concept of basic human needs are evolving. As it stands, 20 countries are highly likely to meet this goal (UN MDG report 2006). The education for all- fast track initiative (EFA-FTI) has also been a way of promoting global partnerships (goal 8) and has proven to be successful in increasing the rate of enrolment to primary school. The lack of a focus on secondary education has also been seen as a possible detriment to the advancement of economies, as in most countries, the proportion of people receiving a secondary school education is seen as an indicator for the proportion of people reaching middle-income levels.

MDG3: Promote gender equality and empower women

Although women now represent an increasing part of the labour force globally (1/3), women remain at a disadvantage in securing paid jobs. Socio-cultural attitudes, employment policies and lack of options for balancing work and family are in part to blame for this inequality. This is further exacerbated by many women not having the option to control their bodies or the spacing of births (UN MDG report, 2006), which has been strongly linked to levels of primary education, which in turn is also linked to maternal mortality. The link between this MDG and MDG5 is also very strong and in many African regions, the high levels of maternal mortality can be seen as reflecting the status of women in these regions (Simwaka et al., 2005). This goal has been useful in raising awareness globally of gender inequality, and there have been increases in public debate and advocacy, which have resulted in a shift in the political landscape. In Africa, this goal has highlighted the need for a holistic approach to gender issues, by guaranteeing womens inheritance and property rights, reducing discrimination in the labour markets, increasing womens representation in political bodies and ending violence against women (Simwaka et al., 2005)

The health related MDGs (4, 5 and 6)

These goals have been extremely controversial, especially MDG6 in relation to combating disease. Sceptics have argued that 1) other major diseases are not explicitly given targets for, leaving much room for ambiguity (Attaran, 2005) and that 2) the monopoly held by the global pharmaceutical market means that many poor people cannot afford drugs to cure certain diseases even if the proportion of people living in absolute poverty decreases (Pogge 2004). Attaran (2005) argues that most of the health related targets are impractical to measure, with baseline figures being crude estimates at best. As an example, the maternal mortality ratio, is a crude estimate based on regression, on top of which the baseline figures for 1990 are not accurate. The one exception is the child mortality target. He notes, that most parents would remember the death of an under 5 infant very accurately, and if asked correctly in a household survey, the replies would most likely be very accurate. He states that this should be a basis for measuring health related targets. They should be practical, easily measured and with accurate baseline measurements followed up in subsequent years. He advises that the health related MDGs would be more measurable if an non-UN scientific body were formed to report on progress and that indicators being measured by house-hold surveys should have standardised surveys in all regions and the data be analysed by this non-UN task force. As it stands, he believes that whether it seems the goals are met or not, it is impossible to know based on them being so immeasurable. Notwithstanding the criticisms advances towards these goals have been a testament to MDG8 in global partnerships and campaigns in an effort to combat diseases. For example, global campaigns to fight HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis have shown the high level of commitment of the international community. Programs include the World Banks Global Strategy and Booster Programme, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. As a result of the Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Presidents Malaria Initiative, the distribution of mosquito nets treated with insecticide has increased 10 times in sub-Saharan Africa.

MDG7: Ensure environmental sustainability

The recognition of the importance of protecting and sustainably managing ecosystems, or humans impacts upon them, and the services they provide is central to an integrated approach to development, and the inclusion of an environmental component into the MDGs is an important step forward. The UN taskforce on MDG7 acknowledge that the reason many basic human needs such as access to water and food access are unmet is due to the degradation of the environment. Specifically the loss of diversity and the possible consequences upon the ability of the environment to provide basic needs is also made explicit. The background paper of the taskforce, also identify that at least 6 of the 8 MDGs (including this one) have strong, direct links with the environment. The background paper argues that the reason environmental issues have not been adequately addressed in the past is due to them being dealt on a one by one basis as opposed to adopting an integrated ecosystem approach. The paper also states that until the Millennium Declaration and the inclusion of MDG7, there was no appropriate framework for the large scale management of environmental degradation and sustainable use of genetic resources (UNDP, 2003). However, some have argued (Adams et al., 2004) that the MDGs will not promote the sustainable use of resources, or their effective management in the near future, as such time restricted goals like the MDGs to reduce poverty will cause conservation goals to be subsumed, and also that global environmental goals are not adequately represented in the MDGs (Gore, 2003).

MDG8: Develop a global partnership for development

This final MDG was included to the MDG framework after the Millennium Declaration, and yet its concept is central to the MDG strategy to fight poverty. This goal has no monitorable targets or indicators and this makes it open to interpretation. The idea is based around accountability, transparency, trust and shared ideals and is integral to the modern rhetoric of participatory governance. This goal marks an important evolution from the International Development Targets put forward by the OECD/DAC in 1996 where the fact that global development goals cannot be achieved solely by national development means is omitted. The introduction of the PRSPs is an important step towards achieving this goal of a global partnership and the recognition of international responsibility for development has further been cemented in the vast provision of aid towards achieving the MDGs. However, as with all the goals, specific criticisms arise when interpreting this goal. Due to the prominence of accountability attached to this goal, the idea of reciprocal accountability may be seen as asymmetrical accountability due to the nature of the rich donating to the poor. Consequently, rich donor nations will have expectations of their developing country partners and due to the results based management strategies being favoured to achieve the MDGs, will be able to control the flow of resources and concessions, such as aid and trade access (Maxwell, 2003). Even with criticisms to the possible implications of this unequal accountability structure, the inclusion of this goal is essential in encouraging individual countries to recognise the responsibility they have to other nations.

MDGs as a framework for development

Clemens et al. (2007) put forward two views that can be taken of the Millennium Declaration and the Goals. The first, is to take them literally and strive in putting as much effort in to reach them. The second, is that they can be taken as something to aspire to, whilst at the same time nurturing the kind of approach that will be most effective in the long run. This second approach has its critics, however it is useful in agreeing that these goals are a very useful framework upon which to base the future of development, even though they may not all be achievable by 2015. Whatever the criticisms for the goals, their adoption is evidence for the evolution of the concept of poverty from one of just economic growth, to one more concerned with peoples quality of life and well-being as a whole, and the increasing recognition in richer countries of their responsibility in this ever more globalised climate. Whether the goals are reached or not is irrelevant, they have been a successful framework purely for promoting a global, participatory approach to solving the poverty crisis. The one danger is that if the MDGs fail, the global community will lose support for the continued aid based on a participatory, accountable and partnership framework, and it is important the international community do not use their failure as a reason to negate this integrated approach to development.


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