Did the Millennium Development Goals make things better?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been a sort of North Star for the development universe since 2000. Governments, Donors and aid wonks all talk about advances in terms of how close it brings a nation closer to achieving a given goal. The goals expire in 2015 and discussions are already underway for what should come next.

One question seems to have been forgotten: did the MDGs actually work?

Charles Kenny and Andy Sumner dug in a bit in a working paper for the Center for Global Development back in 2011. The MDGs did a good job in increasing aid spending and led to improved development policies. However whether or not the goals helped to speed up progress in target areas is hard to determine.

“The causal chain from international agreement to policy change to development outcomes is a long one with many confounding influences,” concluded Kenny and Summer. “Given that, it is impossible to say with any certainty what was the impact of the MDGs.”

A UN Population Fund statistician named Howard Freidman took a two month sabbatical to take another go at analyzing the impact of the MDGs. The results that he discovered were not quite what the UN was hoping.

An new analysis of of the progress towards achieving the MDGs determined that half showed no acceleration in progress between 1992 and 2008. Another third were showing signs of accelerated progress before the MDGs were declared.

Friedman published the findings earlier this month when the UN said it would not publish the report. The UN distanced itself from the report when US News and World Report asked for a comment.

U.N. spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci distanced the agency from the research on Monday in an emailed statement, saying it “does not represent the United Nations or UNFPA’s position.”

Only one MDG, Indicator 8D (Debt Service), showed “significant acceleration in progress” after 2001. Friedman posits that improvements that began prior to the implementaiton of the MDGs likely set in month the current global development trends.

Unfortunately the data examined is not broken down from a global context. Freidman concedes that there could be regions or individual countries that saw accelerated progress due to the MDGs. They are not necessarily a condemnation of the MDGs, but give pause as the post-2015 agenda is debated.

Kenny and Harvard’s Lant Pritchett published a working paper Wednesday that puts forward the idea of eschewing goals for a set of ideals. Kenny is even kind enough to have drafted a UN declaration on the Post-2015 agenda. He says that the Secretary General is free to seize the idea. Kenny blogged yesterday:

One big benefit of the approach of leading with the declaration is that the diplomats and world leaders at the UN General Assembly could spend their time considering the broad framework for progress over the 2010–2030 period rather than getting bogged down in technical issues of how to measure progress in specific, plausible, numerical, and time-bound indicators across all areas.

Notes on the side of Kenny’s draft declaration explain his rationale for the document and places where some countries may or may not have issues. He puts forward a series of broad sustainable development goals that can help create the appropriate environment for goal-setting. Setting high-bar targets next to specific goals will help in four ways say Kenny and Pritchett:

  1. Make goals more relevant to middle-income countries;
  2. Improve the ethical basis for the goals;
  3. Create condition that allows for national-level political cooperation to achieve targets;
  4. Multiply policy impacts by encouraging long-term solutions as opposed to quick fixes.

“The MDGs provided a welcome focus on the world’s most deprived. Any post-2015 development agenda should retain that focus. But it should also clearly acknowledge development doesn’t end with the defeat of extreme poverty,” they write.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.