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After the Millennium Development Goals

From Project Syndicate by Dani Rodrik:

n 2000, 189 countries collectively adopted the United Nations Millennium Declaration, which evolved into a set of concrete targets called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These ambitious targets – ranging from halving extreme poverty and reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters to achieving universal primary schooling and halting (and beginning to reverse) the spread of HIV/AIDS – are supposed to be met by the end of 2015. As the deadline approaches, development experts are debating a new question: What comes next?

It is virtually certain that many of the MDGs will not have been met by the end of 2015, but there have been striking successes in some areas. For example, the goal of halving extreme poverty (measured by the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day) will likely be achieved ahead of time, largely thanks to China’s phenomenal growth.

At the same time, there is little evidence to suggest that those successes were the result of the MDGs themselves. China implemented the policies that engineered history’s greatest poverty eradication program prior to, and independently from, the Millennium Declaration and the MDGs.

Clearly, however, the MDGs were a public-relations triumph, which is not to belittle their contribution. Like all worthwhile PR efforts, the MDGs served to raise awareness, galvanize attention, and mobilize action – all for a good cause. They amplified the global conversation about development and defined its terms. And there is evidence that they got advanced countries to pay more attention to poor nations.

Indeed, the MDGs possibly had their clearest impact on aid flows from rich to poor countries. A study by Charles Kenny and Andy Sumner for the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC, suggests that the MDGs not only boosted aid flows, but also redirected them toward smaller, poorer countries, and toward targeted areas like education and public health. However, aid was not directly linked to performance and results, and it is much more difficult to know whether it had the desired impact overall.

The MDGs encompass eight goals, 21 targets, and 60 indicators. Much criticism has focused on the use of these numerical targets and indicators, which, skeptics argue, are misspecified, mismeasured, and divert attention from equally important areas. But these complaints miss the point. Any effort that is concrete and implementable needs to monitor the results, and setting clear numerical targets is the best way to do so.

Still, a central paradox plagues the MDGs. The Millennium Declaration was meant to be a compact between the world’s rich and poor countries. Poor countries promised to refocus their development efforts while rich countries pledged to support them with finance, technology, and access to their markets. But, oddly, of the eight goals, only the last one deals with “global partnership,” or what rich countries can and should do.


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