MDGs: Planning for failure

Over the coming seven years, if Zambia or Uganda or Bangladesh improves education and ends poverty faster than the most successful and lucky nations in the history of human civilization, we we will label them a failure.

Such is the implication of the UN’s much-lauded Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.

Well, sort of.

In a Brookings presentation this week (paper here), NYU economist Bill Easterly argued that the UN originally established the MDGs as a set of benchmarks to measure collective and global progress, not the gains by individual countries or regions. It was generally expected that the less poor countries would make more progress by the goal date of 2015, and hence make up for the relatively poorer progress of the least developed nations. Well, that was the idea.

To the chagrin of some,individual countries are being held to individual MDGs in the media, international organizations, and by their own government rhetoric. Easterly argues that we are setting such countries to fail before they begin.

“Africa has enough problems”, Easterly told IPS, “without international organizations and campaigners downplaying African progress when it happens.”

CGD fellows Michael Clemens and Todd Moss made a similar argument in a 2005 working paper. They argued that to meet the MDGs, developing countries would have to grow extremely rapidly, out-performing even the historical rates of progress of the rich countries today.

The vast majority of developing countries will miss most of the MDG targets in 2015. Nearly all African countries will miss most of them. But this will not be a sign that poor countries have failed, or that aid has been a waste. Nor will it primarily be because donors did not spend the right amount of money.

It would be a shame if the MDGs, in trying to make the case that the world can and should help the world’s poor, wound up undermining the cause by over-reaching on the targets and over-selling on the efficacy of aid.

I would add one further criticism to the MDG paradigm. These goals, while laudable, are humanitarian rather than development goals. To reach middle income status and a sustainable social safety net, the least developed countries will require manufacturing jobs, a growing servicec and technology sector, rising real wages, and a broadening tax base. Such transformation has been historically urban, and historically narrow and unequal, at least at first.

Universal literacy and minimal infant mortality are crucial goals, and are doubly important to ensure that growth is as equal and just as possible. But the supply-side argument that rural schooling increases drive up long term GDP growth has little evidence to support it. This is not to say that the argument is false. Undoubtedly some growth is encouraged by such programs.

In the absence of any good evidence, however, the argument for the MDGs is a humanitarian and ethical one, and not an instrumental development one. Once again, whatever humanitarian gains are achieved by 2015 risk being labeled as failures merely for failing to reach unrealistic and under-informed expectations.