Why the MDGs do more harm than good

Poverty - Inequality - Aid Effectiveness

In a recent letter to the editor, Kevin Watkins responded to my March 18 op-ed on aid coordination in the Financial Times. I had argued against the idea that all countries should have the same targets on the same goals. I also argued that the mechanisms to make development assistance compatible with the MDGs – with its Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, its consultative groups and roundtables – is an inconvenient hierarchical structure in a space that is too complex for hierarchies to work. Instead, I argued in favor of a more open architecture in which donors and recipients self-organize and goals emerge as a consequence, just as in the market and in democratic politics. To assess the quality of aid coordination and improve self-organizations Michele Coscia, César Hidalgo and I wrote a paper and developed the Aid Explorer website.

Kevin Watkins asks: “Is there anyone out there who doesn’t see eradicating extreme poverty, preventing child deaths, providing clear water and sanitation, and extending opportunities for education as goals that should figure in any list of priorities?” And then adds that the MDGs [do not] “limit the scope for priority setting at a national level.” As he says: “You can let a thousand flowers bloom under the MDG canopy.”

Kevin cannot have it both ways. Either the MDGs constrain resource allocation setting priorities and mobilizing resources away from other goals or they do not. My reading of the situation is that aid budgets are too small for many of the needs of developing countries. If the MDGs bind, they must have an adverse effect on projects with smaller obvious connections to the MDGs, such as housing, urban transport, personal security or export promotion. If the MDGs do not move resources away from polio eradication (not in the MDGs) in favor of HIV-AIDS, even in countries where the prevalence of first disease is high and the second is low, then the MDGs are just for show. If they are not for show, then you need to assess whether the effects on resource allocation are better than the alternative.

So here is where Kevin makes his second point. He says that the MDGs constrain national governments to do what is good for the weaker members of society. As he says: “The views of poor rural women in Nigeria or Pakistan, slum dwellers in Nairobi and child laborers in India do not have a great deal of traction with policy makers. The MDGs provide a set of agreed benchmarks against which to measure the commitment of governments and aid donors to poor people, and to hold them to account.”

So the idea is that the MDGs are a way to empower an international bureaucracy with the ability to constrain governments and donors in defense of their idea of what the priorities of the poor are. It is not about empowering the poor with the voice they need to set their own priorities.

Agendas, priorities and goals are what politics and social movements are about. It is about calling attention to issues such as hunger, HIV-AIDS, human trafficking, gender gaps, the digital divide, global warming, personal security or saving the whales. Political competition moves these topics dynamically as different constituencies compete to garner support for their agenda at the local, state and national levels. The MDG can be viewed as a way to eliminate the competition by freezing the agenda setting process worldwide in favor of those that had the upper hand at a certain point in time, in a particularly bureaucratic setting. It is a cartel of interests that tries to create barriers to entry to other priorities.


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