So, it’s over, according to Bill Easterly, writing at his aidwatch blog. The Millennium Development Goals (still 6 years away from their 2015 target date) will not and can not be achieved. The source for his prophecy? The 2009 Millennium Development Goal progress report, which is available here (5mb pdf).
Sure enough, the report makes sobering reading for campaigners who have been calling on governments to “spare no effort” to achieve these 8 anti-poverty goals – as they promised to do. Very few of the goals are on track to be achieved at the global level, though there is progress on several – for example, increasing primary education (88% children of children worldwide enrolled in 2007, up from 83% in 2000), reducing child mortality, and halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water (which the world is on track to achieve).
Dishearteningly, the global financial crisis and food price rises already are reversing, or threaten to reverse, progress against the targets of Goal 1, to reduce extreme poverty and hunger.
Now Easterly makes some good points about accountability and the need for a clearly defined theory and strategy for change in policy advocacy and campaigning. All of this needs to be taken seriously. Refreshingly, he also makes his critique in a way that isn’t entirely negative. For example, he writes some nice things (albeit, in “silver lining” mode) about the global plan, and advocacy campaign, for large-scale poverty reduction…
The inspirational enthusiasm and increased efforts surrounding the MDGs probably did contribute to progress on specific efforts and some partial success stories (mainly in health and education), as pointed out in the UN MDG 2009 report. That can give some hope for the future and some solace to the hard-working and deeply committed participants.
But overall, his contention is that we should give up on the MDGs and focus on something else that may bring some good – he describes the (sure, still 6 years away but, to his mind, inevitable) failure of the MDGs as a “tragedy” for all who contributed to campaigns for the achievement, and a greater tragedy for the world’s poor.
I take issue with his analysis. First, there’s the principle of giving up on a project half-way through (doing a Palin?) because it appears likely that not all of the goals will be achieved in full. Clearly, on current progress, many of the goals won’t be achieved in full, though I don’t see that Easterly really makes a strong case that they can’t be. For example, his assertion that “the MDGs’ attainment depended all along on global and national economic growth” (and supporting assertion that this is beyond any government’s control) seems pretty bald. All of the goals were dependent entirely on global and national economic growth? In every region?
Second, his call for focused and strategic advocacy that identifies who is responsible for an injustice, why it is a problem that needs to be addressed, and what they should do about it, is a good one, but I don’t actually see it as a criticism of the Millennium Development Goals themselves. I certainly don’t see it as a criticism of the civil society campaigns that have developed around them.
Campaigns like Make Poverty History in Australia, and scores of other national campaigns around the world, have taken the shared vision and inspiration of the MDGs, they’ve used analysis and information from MDG efforts and they’ve heaved mightly on the strategic lever of a widely-publicised international commitment to seriously tackle global poverty. That is to say, MDG campaigners haven’t, as far as I can tell, remained vague and unfocused about who can deliver change, why they should and what they should do to deliver the change. In each national context, they’ve developed focused advocacy campaigns and asked their governments to act on things that were in their power. They broke the goals down, they got specific, they adapted their policy asks to their national contexts, and they applied pressure to get what they were asking for. These campaigns have, I would say, genuinely influenced discussion and action for pro-poor development at the international level and at the national level – in countries both rich and poor.
Third, there are more positives from the campaign than Easterly makes space to credit in his post. One story that he doesn’t mention is the unprecedented commitment (and investment) to increase aid among the world’s donor nations. Where aid flows from OECD countries had declined in the 1990s, last year they reached their highest ever level of USD 119.8 billion.
And as for debt, sure, there is still plenty of unfinished business to deal with the debt burden of the world’s poorest countries, but by the end of 2008, 35 countries had received USD 102.6 billion (400 kb pdf) of debt relief, and poverty-reducing expenditure was increasing among these countries as a group. I think it’s likely that these commitments, along with the new levels of public interest in and support for aid and debt cancellation, have been driven to a very large extent by campaigning around the Millennium Development Goals.
Finally, some of his reasonable points about accountability and the likelihood of being able to hold all governments accountable for the achievement (or not) of the MDGs, seem to build on the assumption that it is better for nations to wear their indifference to poverty on their sleeve rather than hypocritically hide it behind an international agreement they have no intention of honouring. It’s a fair point in a way, I guess…
But… what if 189 countries did sign up to an agreement to “spare no effort” to free a billion men, women and children from abject and dehumanising poverty… What if millions of people from across the world joined together in a global campaign to demand that those countries keep their promises…