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Indicators, but Not a Strategy: Assessing the MDGs and US Assistance Strategy September 23, 2010

Posted by Elizabeth Cutler in Analysis.
Tags: , , , , , ,

by Elizabeth Cutler and Laura A. Hall

International leaders flocked to New York City this week for the United Nations Summit on the Millennium Development Goals. Meeting Monday through Wednesday of this week, the summit served as an opportunity to “take stock” of the MDGs’ progress thus far on a global scale. The last review conference was in 2008.  Moreover, in anticipation of the summit, ample research and evaluation of the goals’ status worldwide was executed by numerous organizations, including the UNDP and the Overseas Development Institute (funded partly by the Gates Foundation) among others.

Established by the UN General Assembly in September 2000, the MDGs reflected an international commitment to approaching sustainable development, global health, and poverty reduction in ways that would be more tangible than before. Although much of the MDG language is still steeped in ambiguity—reaffirming commitment and expressing concern saturates the original resolution—more specific goals such as striving to cut maternal mortality rates by three quarters offer a more tangible goalpost. In doing so, as Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development articulated, the goals have succeeded in international fundraising:

“The MDGs evolved out of a set of goals created at the OECD in the mid-1990s …. By 2005 the level [of official development assistance] had doubled to around $120 billion and it has hovered around this level ever since.”

From a U.S. perspective, the MDGs have been indicators – not a strategy.   In this way, the MDGs have been successful and much like pledges at the G8 or annual OECD assessments of assistance levels.  They also show differences in approaches from primarily the US and Europe.  The United States has increased ODA substantially yet still is criticized for not hitting 0.07% GDP targets.  With the US paying the lion’s share of collective defense costs, this essentially makes it possible for some European countries to afford to contribute to foreign aid.  US and foreign publics maintain very different views of reasonable overseas spending with the US more willing to pay for defense than for aid and wanting to see direct linkages between aid given and development achieved.

Criticisms and concerns about the MDGs have abounded since their inception. As Moss and others have discussed, some of the MDGs have been misguidedly used as substitutes for regional goals, which is ineffective because for many of the areas of focus (Africa, in particular) the numbers laid out in some of the MDGs are simply not attainable by 2015.

In addition, the Bush administration was particularly vocal in noting the lack of attention to financial sector, to trade, and to private sector-led growth.  Ironically, most of the success in meeting the MDG goal to cut poverty is attributed to private sector economic growth in China and India.  The greatest threat to the MDG goals is the global recession.

Moreover, for all of the MDGs’ emphasis on enhancing accountability in foreign aid, there is a surprisingly low level of accountability within the goals themselves. This is a major flaw in their design, one that Bill Easterly cites as a primary reason why, ultimately, the MDGs will not succeed. There is also little emphasis in the MDG framework on what developing countries should do.  The Bush administration emphasized governance as a key to development.  Business climate is heavily influenced by whether there are property rights, an effective legal system, and some confidence that the government will not appropriate private investment.

Reflecting the emphasis of both the Bush and Obama administrations on locally-led development and partnership with host nations in the lead, the Millennium Challenge Corporation has the goal “play[ing] an integral role in the U.S. government’s pledge to assist countries in their efforts to achieve the MDGs The PEPFAR program – which with MCC accounts for much of the Bush era increase in assistance – also emphasized partnership and effective host country management.

The Obama administration has been less rhetorically hostile to the MDGs.  In July and (updated) in September, USAID released its formal strategy for meeting the MDGs. The document is fairly vague, naming four “imperatives” that are supposed to drive the U.S. approach to fulfilling the goals: leveraging innovation, investing in sustainability, tracking development outcomes and not just dollars, and enhancing the principle and the practice of mutual accountability between developing countries and those that contribute assistance.   These strategies are essentially the same as the Administration’s overall development strategy, demonstrating that MDGs are more a benchmark than a roadmap.  What is notable is the continuation of the trends championed in the Bush administration which are becoming more and more mainstream in the development community.

When the document does get more specific, it reveals that incredibly vast spread of avenues that the USG considers to be its roads to MDG success. The Global Health Initiative, Feed the Future, and the Global Climate Change Initiative all play a central role here. This is not surprising since the MDGs themselves are intentionally wide-reaching, but the USAID strategy document underscores the problem inherent in the MDGs themselves and any U.S. approach to them: all of these challenges are multi-faceted and require sustained commitment across a range of interrelated issues.  This is a serious management, budgeting, and evaluation problem.

Speaking of which, President Obama spoke today on his Administration’s new development strategy. Laura A. Hall has BFAD’s take on the speech here.



1. Continuity in Development Policy, but Implementation is Key « Budget Insight - September 23, 2010

[…] for development is apparent.  Too many “initiatives,” mandates, external demands (e.g. the MDGs), and the use of development assistance as goodies for strategic partners means there is little […]

2. Continuity in Development Policy, but Implementation is Key « The Will and the Wallet - September 23, 2010

[…] for development is apparent.  Too many “initiatives,” mandates, external demands (e.g. the MDGs), and the use of development assistance as goodies for strategic partners means there is little […]

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