Let’s get wonky. For a time there’s been a debate regarding the appropriateness and efficacy of the Millennium Development Goals, eight benchmarks created by the United Nations to track countries’ commitment in the fight against poverty, extreme hunger and diseases, along with the battle for better education, clean water and environmental sustainability.
Thus, eight benchmarks were ratified at a UN summit in 2000 and set targets that if met by 2015 could cut global poverty in half. Some have said the eight goals are already a success because they create a road map for donors and grantees to focus and coordinate aid policies on quantifiable targets. People fight smarter when know what they are fighting against.
The goals have also come under a considerable amount of criticism. More than a few have argued the guiding benchmarks of many health issues, like malaria and tuberculosis, have been created through unreliable data; many countries don’t adequately track these diseases (if they track them at all). Amir Attran of the University of Ottawa argues that without proper baseline figures, the UN is off on a fool’s errand to attempt to measure failure or success. AIDS prevalence rates is another example. This is a hotly debated topic among the development community, where the UNAIDS, the UN’s umbrella organization heading the fight against AIDS, has long been accused of overstating prevalence rates in many countries.
The detractors argue that relying on uncertain statistics could lessen the project’s worth because countries will be working towards vague results.
Supporters of the MGDs claim that while some of the data is indeed questionable, the baselines aren’t as bad as people like Attran claim. Also, the debate over statistics takes away from the MGDs’ merit number one: moving both rich and poor governments toward a political solution to lessen poverty.
The mid-term report is bleak
Today, in 2008, we stand past the half-way mark of the millennium development goals – and the picture is far from pretty. Some countries have made “notable progress” in fighting certain afflictions; yet the overall picture is relatively bleak. This is especially true for sub-Saharan Africa, the region that is predicted to fail every goal. This has lead to a certain amount of posturing and tsk-tsking, but this admission has raised a simple question: What’s the point of using the millennium development goals if Africa is only going to fail?
Before we answer that, I have to point that a lot of Africans take these MGDs very seriously. The progress in certain goals is often quoted in newspapers and throughout the press, and people talk about them at the umpteen million meetings and development conferences held around the continent. For Africans, the goals are a way, I guess, to keep their governments accountable.
Recently, the Brookings Institution hosted a panel discussion entitled “Are the Millennium Development Goals Unfair to Africa?” with famous development buster William Easterly. I’ll be honest and say that I shied (somewhat) away from woe on Africa portion of the debate, and concentrated on the effectiveness of the goals themselves.
“Africa is the only region that will miss all the Millennium Development Goals,” William Easterly began the day with. Everybody knows it, he says. The World Bank understands. So does the IMF. Ditto with the Blair Commission for Africa. Even Jeffrey Sachs recognizes the continent is failing.
Before Easterly went into his debate, he posited two things: The choices for MGDs were completely arbitrary; secondly, they were completely dumb. The first problem with these goals is their design. Setting goals is complicated, he says. First, one could look at how many people don’t have something, like clean water. If you want to institute change, you decide whether to use a level target (half the world’s population will have clean water) or a changes target, like countries will improve the amount by 20 percent the number of people with access to clean drinking water. When you talk about change, you have to look at percent change or absolute change.
Finally, he claims that the goals are more arbitrary than consistent, meaning some are level targets others are change targets. Some goals are difficult to meet; others, not so much. But his underlying argument is thus: Africa, the poorest region in the world, is being punished for its past and will fail miserably in all these goals. Instead of advertising this failure, people should laud the continent’s attempt to catch up to everyone else.
Anyway, Goal One: Reduce by half the proportion of people suffering from hunger and living on less than a dollar a day.
Because more low-income countries hail from Africa, they’re being punished because it forces them to work harder to get a higher percentage of the population out of absolute poverty. Easterly argues the arbitrary number – 50 percent – is not that significant; rather, the goal should concentrate on the total number of people rising out of poverty. Taking into account Africa’s (as a whole) high economic growth rate during this decade, it still won’t be enough to increase the wealth of half the number of poor people.
However, Danny Leipziger, who helps steer economic issues at the World Bank, argues that goal number one is not so much a bias against Africa, but a way to make poor countries – and donor countries – work harder to fight poverty. It’s the results that matter. Saying this goal is biased against poor countries (or African countries) is like saying a diet is biased against fat people, he points it. Countries like Haiti and Nepal will have to work just as hard as some countries in Africa, he said.
Goal Two: Achieve universal primary education by 2015.
Easterly points out that for some reason number two is a level target, full completion of primary education. However, Africa – with the world’s lowest education rates – must travel a further distance to make up for lost time. “It’s like a race in which Africa’s starting position is several hundred yards behind the other runners, and then Africa is blamed for losing the race,” he said.
Leipziger argues the goal is somewhat immaterial; the fact remains that countries should be working for full enrollment. Think of the life changes, he said, governments are making to people who can now go to school because of this goal. The differences between 80 percent enrollment and full enrollment have great consequences for the missing 20 percent.
However, he also argues that he would like to see this goal measuring other factors, such as quality of education, literacy and (my two cents) teacher-student ratios. Many countries have greatly increased education rates – South Africa, Uganda and Malawi – but has their quality of education fallen to get more students in the classroom?
GOAL Thee: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education.
Easterly claims that this goal is redundant because as school enrollment increases, the number of girls going to school will also increase. (He also argues that Africa will be penalized for missing two goals instead of just one.)
But Leipziger argues that gender parity (or “gender parody” if you read the debate transcript) is an important issue in many countries – North Africa comes to mind – that may have high overall enrollment levels, but the number of girls attending school still lag behind. Not to pick only on them, Leipziger points out countries as diverse as Sierra Leone, Lesotho and Ecuador also have similar issues with this. Thus, it’s an important issue to track.
Goal four: Reduce by two thirds the mortality rate of children under five
Easterly’s argument is similar to his previous complaints: African countries usually start off higher numbers, so governments must work harder to achieve the goal. Let’s say an African country has180 deaths per 100,000 births while most other countries average about 60 deaths in the same number of births. So, Africa must reduce child mortality by 60 deaths and the other country must reduce it by only 20.
Leipziger argues that it would be better to have specific targets for individual countries. However, the science behind the statistics is revealing. Countries that remain at nearly 220 deaths per 100,000 births often find it difficult to bring down this number. But once that number is reduced to about 120 deaths, he said, it begins dropping rapidly. He also pointed out that in Africa income plays a big role in child mortality. People in the highest 20 percent income bracket enjoy much lower child mortality rates than those in the lowest 20 percent. Thus, governments need to insure that services reach every income level. (That debate can be found here.)
Goal Five: Reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio
Easterly argues that this is the worst case of statistics gone bad because there is no reliable, comparable data on maternal mortality rates. He blasts the UN for setting a precise goal when there are absolutely no benchmarks.
Leipziger was getting rushed for time, and for whatever reason, ignored Easterly’s argument, instead, plowed ahead to Goal Six (halt the spread of AIDs and malaria and other major diseases). He claims that he’s not a big fan of fighting diseases globally (the exception may be avian flu) because it usually means that donors are putting a lot of money into the wrong diseases, like spending bucketfuls in Rwanda to fight AIDS while literally ignoring childhood diseases.
Goal Seven: Reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.
Easterly wondered why after six long goals, the UN decided to go with a reverse indicator: instead of proposing to increase the number of people with access to water, they want to reduce the number of people without. Leipziger says the goal may be odd, but clean water is a good thing because it leads to lower infant mortality. He brings up another point: Multiple interventions like simultaneously increasing electricity rates and sanitation alongside water are much more effective than only augmenting water access. However, perhaps those putting the goals together felt that only water could be quantified. Anyway, it’s not a big deal.
What about the donors?
That pretty much rounds out the debate on the individual goals. This was followed by a bit of discussion, which seemed a bit hurried. However, there was one interesting comment. A former development watchdog who now works for the U.S. Dept. of State (as deputy director for Africa) made a point to claim he is not speaking from his official position. However, he says the MGDs have contributed to the U.S. putting more resources (his term) into Africa, especially in the realm of social services. However, they’ve also reinforced the idea that Africa regards the West as a cash machine. Even as development aid has increased significantly, there seems to be the idea of a bottomless demand.