I still find myself amazed that we have a thing called the Millennium Development Goals: that they were agreed to in the first place; that they embody the holy grail of campaigners in being SMART*; and that a decade on, they still hold policy and political resonance. Normatively, they remain an impressive commitment about what the world should be like and how we might be able to get there.
But will the fact of their existence be the most compelling aspect of their legacy? A litany of reports offers no shortage of diagnoses about progress made and who the leaders and laggers are, about emerging developments that need to be embedded (i.e. broadband and connectivity), and about what still remains to be done and to-do lists to complete the job.
But in the stock-taking that has gone on, looking ahead to the 2015 target date for the MDGs to be met, the context in 2010 is clearly not the same as it was in 2000. In this story of global development efforts, how contingent are commitments such as the MDGs – how much do they reflect a particular moral, political and economic climate (i.e. of the late 1990s)? The prevailing ‘temper’ of the international community seems to be a necessary part of the explanation: the confluence of an atmosphere of post-Cold War optimism, emerging attention to ‘new’ sources of insecurity (i.e. not just nuclear armageddon but grinding poverty; not just about the state but about individual livelihoods) and some sense of spreading the spoils of globalization amid rising discontent (like the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle)
So it is in this vein that Todd Moss (at Foreign Policy) argues that rather than ‘crying crisis’, a lot more needs to be done to tell the stories of the achievements made in the past decade:
“The natural reaction of the U.N., its member states, and much of the aid community will likely be to fall back on the desperate plea-of-the-millions: there are millions of poor people, millions of young mothers dying, and millions of children out of school. We’re going to hear that, despite best efforts and billions spent, that Africa is still off track on the MDGs. So we will all have to pay more. And the world will be warned not to allow the follies of the West — Lehman Brothers’ collapse, unaffordable European entitlements, or mistakes of the U.S. Federal Reserve — to come at the expense of the most vulnerable…
…What if the U.N. and the assembled “developmentistas” tried a different tack? Instead of crying crisis, what if they celebrated success? What if they highlighted that since 1990 Mali has more than quadrupled the percentage of kids finishing school, Ethiopia’s maternal mortality rate has plunged by 40 percent, and the ratio of Burkinabe with access to safe water has more than doubled to 72 percent?
In an age of fiscal rectitude and rightful demands for value-for-money, isn’t this the kind of success that donors — and taxpayers — might want to get behind?”
But if the subtext here is perhaps one of tactics, what can it suggest about ‘the next round’ of development assistance? This is a picture where most of the world’s poor no longer live in low-income countries (i.e. sub-Saharan Africa) but in middle-income countries like India and Indonesia – places that don’t quite fit traditional images of the recipients of development assistance.
One thought-provoking suggestion (by a UN official, hosted on the New York Times’ DotEarth blog) is that rather than a wishlist of new aid money and commitments, evolution in this story of global development comes in the form of the world’s wealthiest taking on new goals – for themselves. It is far too easy to reduce ‘development’ to aid flows – even if MDG8 about a ‘global partnership’ is essentially about this – and too easy to reduce the causal relationship implicit in aid flows to that of the developed world benevolently offering its spare change to the rest of the world without having to ask too many hard questions about itself.
“Looking beyond the next five years, wouldn’t it be interesting if the rich world — or the top billion if you wish — would commit to its own eight goals to strive towards, goals that could help us secure livable conditions for a growing world population for decades to come?”
Tackling the industrialised countries’ own greenhouse gas emissions; reducing average animal protein consumption; reforming intellectual property and toughening anti-corruption regulations – some of these are increasingly well-recognized chestnuts. Other suggestions are perhaps less well-known but are equally powerful reminders of the network of relationships – deliberately or structurally so – that we are all embedded in: regulating predatory capital; shifting the tax burden from work to the consumption of natural resources; transitioning half the world’s fishing fleet into alternative activities; and converting nearly half of agricultural land to more ecologically sustainable methods.
The MDGs of the early 21st century have their genesis in the first efforts to transfer resources from rich to poor in the 1970s – the ideas generated by the Pearson Commission on International Development, the Brandt Report, the now-totemic 0.7% target of a rich country’s GDP that should constitute international aid. The next phase of global development efforts that takes us towards midcentury builds on this legacy, and those of the MDGs – but cannot simply be more of the same.
*Smart, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound. You heard it here first.