The Power of Numbers: Why the MDGs were flawed (and post2015 goals look set to go the same way)

August 14, 2014 13 By Duncan Green

I’ve just been reading the findings of a research programme that concludes that the whole MDGs exercise has been plagued by negative (if unintended)

We owe it all to the MDGs.....

We owe it all to the MDGs…..

consequences, and that these are a result of the whole process of setting goals and targets (so the post2015/SDG process is likely to go the same way). Have I got your attention?

Given how much interest (and air miles) are being expended in the post2015 negotiations, it’s bizarre how little rigorous analysis there is of the impact of the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), on which they aim to build. In a classic confusion of correlation and causation, a lot of political leaders are happy to say ‘global poverty has halved, so the MDGs have been effective’. Really? So the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (largely responsible for hitting the poverty target) have been leaping out of bed every morning for the last 15 years saying ‘how can we achieve the MDGs today?’ Don’t think so.

One attempt to fill the void is the ‘Power of Numbers’ project, coordinated by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (The New School) and Alicia Ely Yamin (Harvard University). The papers will be published a special edition of the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities (gated), but I’ve been reading an ungated version of the synthesis paper. Drafts of the other ‘Power of Numbers’ papers are here, covering income poverty, hunger, education, full employment, gender rights, child mortality,  sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, the City, water and sanitation, and global partnership.

The synthesis paper is about the most damning thing I’ve read on the MDGs. Some highlights:

On the Intended Consequences (i.e. mobilizing funding and attention):

‘The eight goals, 21 targets, and 60 associated indicators did not all have the same effect. Some of the goals and targets garnered significant attention in terms of funding as well as programs and research, while others were “poor cousins” and made little difference.’

Water, child survival, sanitation and maternal health got more attention, while the global movement around HIV was largely responsible for increased funding, rather than its inclusion in the MDGs. Moreover ‘the narrowly circumscribed focus of the targets and indicators produced more limited and ambiguous impacts on complex social issues. For example, despite the great increases in primary school enrolment, critical dimensions such as quality, and both gender and class equity, were omitted from measurement—and therefore concern.’

post-2015‘Targets that made little difference’ include hunger, (action had to wait until the 2008 food price spike), employment and the global partnership goal.

Unintended Consequences:

The authors portray the MDGs as a throwback to the ‘basic needs’ focus of previous decades.  ‘This thinking led to strengthened financial support for vertical and technocratic strategies, which represented a reversion to 1980s thinking. This was a shift from the emergence during the 1990s of human development and human rights-based approaches to development, which focused on people not as the beneficiaries of specific programs but as active agents in changing the social relations and structures that perpetuate rights deprivations.’

MDG3 for example (on gender equality) was ‘highly reductionist, sidelining all but one of the 13 points of the Beijing Platform for Action. [and showing] the incoherence of reducing a goal of gender equality to targets and indicators focusing only on gender parity in education, informal-sector labor-force participation, and political participation of women. These narrow targets were a dramatic change from the more transformative understanding of “gender equality” that had emerged from the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women and the civil society movements of the 1990s.’

‘Across the goals and targets studied, inequality and discrimination were almost entirely neglected.’

‘The goals/targets encouraged implementation approaches that were conceptually narrow, vertically structured and relied heavily on technological solutions, neglecting the need for social change and the strengthening of national institutions.’

There are further impacts on the way we talk about development.

‘Once these numerical targets were set, they were perceived to be “value neutral.” As they were to be measured through outcomes, the MDGs displaced

Remind me, who is 'we'?

Remind me, who is ‘we’?

debates about policy alternatives both in global development broadly, as well as within specific fields. In fact, however, there were assumptions deeply embedded in the MDGs about the nature and purpose of development. The effect of the MDG framing was to marginalize ongoing strategic processes for empowerment of people and transformation of economies.’

Overall conclusion?

‘The findings of the Project do not contradict the consensus assessment of the positive effects of the MDGs in highlighting the importance of poverty reduction, and the focus on human well-being as urgent global priorities in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, the power of numbers inherent in these goals produced multiple indirect and often unintended consequences, which also deserve attention in light of the construction of a post-MDG development agenda. The collected studies in this issue show that some of the policy effects undermined intended consequences while the knowledge effects created a narrative of development that was strangely alien to the vision of the Millennium Declaration for a people-centered development motivated by universal values of equality, respect for nature, solidarity and freedom.

The unintended consequences revealed in the Project cannot merely be ascribed to the goals and targets having been selected or implemented badly, as is sometimes claimed. They are more fundamental structural issues arising from the nature of quantification.

Human rights approaches to development require targets and indicators that are both quantitative and qualitative, as many essential components of human rights cannot be reliably quantified. For example, the existence of legal and policy frameworks that proscribe discrimination along prohibited grounds is essential to ensuring development consistent with a human rights framework.

Goal-setting is a poor methodology for elaborating an international agenda.’

Ouch, are any of the politicians, lobbyists and technocrats listening in the post2015 circus? I really hope so.

Unfortunately, the project explicitly avoids the other gap, which I am more interested in – the gaping lack of evidence of the impact of the MDGs on national decision making. OK, so China may not have been influenced, but what was the real impact of the MDGs in shaping government policy and practice elsewhere in the developing world? What’s the best thing to read on that?

Update: In an exercise in synchronized transatlantic parade-raining, Charles Kenny over at CGD has an excellent piece lamenting the state of the draft SDGs