A Decade of MDGs (OMG!)

The international development community is constantly debating whether aid works or not. As we near the impending MDG review summit, scheduled to take place this coming September in New York, the aid debate is likely to flare up again. The summit will evaluate countries’ progress towards achieving the 8 MDGs, measured by 20 targets and 60+ indicators.

Photo: the United Nations via St. Hilda's by the Sea


President of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Mark Suzman contends that yes, development aid is working, even though the UN Key Messages for the September 2010 MDG summit state that “no country in sub-Saharan Africa is on course to achieve all the Goals by 2015.” He acknowledges the developing worlds’ problems and the urgent need for development, but at the same time he holds that the UN misses the big picture, overlooking absolute improvements in health, wealth and education. For example, Rwanda doubled per capita income since 1990; school enrollment in Tanzania rose to 99 percent, from 49 percent in 1990; 15 percent of Ethiopia’s budget is invested in agriculture. Suzman claims that it is important to rectify the image and perception of Africa as a total failure, which may rekindle the aid effectiveness debate, resulting in calls for decreasing aid. He contends that the MDG ten-year anniversary summit should celebrate aid’s hard-earned successes. Would anybody like a glass of champagne?


Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. Does the age-old aphorism still hold true when applied to global development? In a dense and scathing blog post, Bill Easterly criticizes the arbitrariness and unfeasibility of MDG metrics, which are the main culprit behind the UN’s fatalistic statements. In fact, he goes one step further to argue that the UN—albeit unintentionally—selected MDG indicators that would ensure that Africa that fail the MDG test, despite the progress referred to by Suzman. With the caveat that analyzing the various ways to define metrics is “really boring,” Easterly explains that there are five different types of indicators: Level (e.g., level of primary enrollment in 2015 without regards to the 1990 baseline) and percent change and absolute change for the usual indicators as well as reverse indicators (e.g., percent not enrolled in primary school). As demonstrated by the table below, MDGs utilize four different types of metrics, denoted by yellow highlights. (Additionally, Easterly published an academic paper for those who want a more in-depth explanation.) The MDGs essentially force Africa to shoot for the moon, knowing that it will miss, resulting in Africa’s portrayal as a total disaster.

Source: Bill Easterly, via aidwatchers.com


Self-proclaimed MDG skeptic Todd Moss at CGD draws upon past research to corroborate Easterly’s claims. Misguided MDGs simply open up too many avenues for misunderstanding, resulting in successful countries being branded as total failures. Moss is pessimistic that the UN will adopt sensible and attainable goals by September, considering the incentives of the aid industry. Moss lists five starting points to improve MDGs. First, individual countries should set their goals. Second, set realistic goals. It is unreasonable to expect a country whose school enrollment rate hovers around 40 percent to achieve universal coverage. Third, aim for intermediate outcomes such as immunization rates, instead of child mortality rates. Fourth, the MDGs should be seen as warning markers rather than a comprehensive indicator used to determine funding levels. Fifth, identify and celebrate the successes. If only it were as simple as Remedial International Development Aid 101.


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