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Will the Sustainable Development Goals make a difference on the ground? Lessons from a 5 country case study on the MDGs

December 17, 2015
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I’ve long been baffled/appalled by the lack of decent research on the impact of the MDGs at national level. Sure correlation v causation cartoonthere’s lots of data gathering, and reports on how fast access to education or health is improving or poverty is falling, but that’s definitely not the same thing as finding out whether/how the MDGs in particular are responsible for the changes (rather than, say, economic growth, democracy or aid). That matters because the UN is now deciding how the successors to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals, are to be implemented, so it would be helpful to have some lessons from the MDGs in terms of how the SDGs could exert traction on decision-making at national or subnational level.

Now the ever-industrious ODI has had a go at filling the void, with a new paper ‘National MDG implementation: Lessons for the SDG era’ by Moizza Binat Sarwar. It studies MDG implementation in five low and middle income countries (Indonesia, Liberia, Mexico, Nigeria and Turkey), largely by interviewing staff of relevant ministries.

It concludes:

MDGs‘The response of all five countries to the MDGs unfolded in similar ways over the period 2000-2015. While the discursive effect of MDGs on policy language occurred fairly quickly after 2001, institutional commitments to the MDGs became more visible around the 10-year mark.

The 10-year gap could be attributed to a policy lag between international commitments and national adaptions, since countries were already working on targets they had set before 2000 and the MDGs only gained political traction once it was time for previous priorities to be renewed.

In the case of LIC governments, it is clear that their external relationships with international donors and development partners have led them to invest in making the political signals that show an overt (if not accurate) interest in furthering MDG objectives.

Similarly MIC governments have also invested in projecting commitment to MDGs internationally to further their regional standing.’

Five lessons for the post-2015 era

  1. Countries are more likely to succeed in those international goals where they already have priorities in place. MDGs in both low and middle-income countries have been used to reinforce existing policies. For the SDGs, more work will be needed in areas that are highly politically contentious (such as climate change) to ensure that international targets are echoed in national targets.
  2. Monitoring agencies will need to be realistic about how long it will be before SDG progress becomes visible. Given that the development of the SDGs has been a broadly consultative process and countries have already been implementing MDGs, it is possible that the post-2015 era will see a much quicker implementation response. However, civil society organisations will have a significant job to keep up the pressure on national government, particularly given that the SDGs cover a wider range of targets than the MDGs.
  3. Given how national priorities can and are often different from the needs of local areas, an important point of discussion is whether the MDGs would have had more political traction if engagement with the goals had been more localised. It is possible that poorer and more deprived regions could use political language around the MDGs to mobilise resources from the centre to address the targets they have done less well on.
  4. The motivations for MICs in adopting the MDGs is different from that of the LICs studied in this paper. MICs engaged with the MDGs to further strategic regional interests. Meanwhile LIC governments’ subscription to the language and process of the MDGs appears to be linked to accessing ODA [i.e. aid] linked to the MDG targets. For the SDGs this implies that international donors need to engage in different ways accordingly, and that national civil society organisations will be important in furthering the SDG agenda.
  5. There has been a dearth of research on the implementation of MDGs within national contexts.’

All really useful, but the report falls down on one very basic point – causality. As it acknowledges, in such a complex, messy and extended process, it is really hard to attribute changes in, say, poverty, to the MDGs rather than, for example, growth, good government, or aid.

The report returns regularly to this thorny issue, but I think it could have gone further in establishing causation in at least two ways:

  • Process tracing would have allowed a more informed discussion about the different possible explanations for progress, allowing a more informed degree of attribution to the MDGs relative to other potential causes
  • Alternatively, the research could have not mentioned the MDGs at all, but asked a) what were the factors behind your country’s progress on X and/or b) of all the international instruments your country has signed up to, which ones do you, working in the ministry, feel have exerted real pressure on your decision making?

Either approach would have got the paper further on the attribution question, although I’m sure it wouldn’t have finally nailed it. But I’m pretty rubbish at methodology, so would be interested to hear other suggestions about how to crack this problem.

So thanks to ODI and in particular to Moizza Binat Sarwar, we now know a bit more about the MDGs process, but huge doubts remain, and I still think that it is scandalous that we have such a thin evidence base when so much political and other capital has been invested in the SDGs. See here for one decent effort on this – a 50 country study that came to broadly similar conclusions to the ODI paper, and this more positive case study on Zambia. Here’s me on the SDGs (lack of) theory of change and a recent Claire Melamed piece on implementation.

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