Why the MDGs are an Own Goal for Development

This week the world’s leaders meet in New York to discuss progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were agreed ten years ago as time-bound targets for achievable reductions in poverty. The spin masters of global policy have already been busy framing this milestone in the media. But aside from the spin, the reality is very different and poses significantly different implications for the future of cooperation for poverty reduction everywhere, North and South. Working on the real causes of poverty might not win a round of applause at a charity night, but is the only moral and practical answer to the evidence mounting up before us.

Commenting on progress on the MDGs in the New York Times on Saturday, the Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote that “a great deal has been achieved” and how “cynicism has been replaced by hope, born of experience, commitment and breakthroughs.”[1] He bases that on piecing together a few examples of success, mostly on communicable disease. It is relieving that the rates of infection of HIV/AIDS have declined in Africa, but it is wrong to imply this gets anywhere near meeting the MDG 6 on disease reduction, which includes halting its spread and achieving universal treatment.[2]

The United Nations now acknowledges that only two of the many targets might actually be met: cutting in half the number of people who lack safe drinking water and halving the number of people who live on $1.25 or less daily.[3] The first of these is not cause for celebration if we remember that much of this advance in clean water access comes from wells that are likely to run dry in the near future due to climate change and intensive agriculture. The second of these targets is largely meaningless, when one realises that China accounts for the majority of the increase, and thus exchange rates explain a significant part of the progress, while the cost of meeting basic needs have been increasing worldwide.

One of the goals is for universal primary education, yet according to research by the Global Campaign for Education, 48% of children in sub-Saharan Africa still do not complete primary education.[4] Another of the goals is halving world hunger. With global food prices peaking in the summer of 2008, and climbing rapidly again, over one billion people were undernourished in 2009, an all-time high.[5] 925 million people across the world are still classed as hungry.[6] A child dies every six seconds due to hunger related diseases. Despite this shocking daily disaster, the proportion of the world’s hungry has gone down by only half a percentage point since 2000 – from 14 to 13.5 percent.[7]

As halving world hunger is the target, that would mean 14% having reduced to 11.6% by now. I make that 130,185,186 people who are hungry this very day, as living examples of us missing the target. It is a massive missing of a target that was not meant as a pie-in-sky ideal, such as ending poverty, but as a practical one of halving hunger. If this was a match, the goal is so far off, we are still trying to work the ball out of own penalty area. To move forward the poor need more than the cult of ‘positive thinking’ from people who want to keep the MDG show on the road so as to keep the focus on charity not real change, and receive more fame and funds for their projects as a result.

Poverty is an interconnected reality and challenge, and so even hitting the targets can still miss the point. The education commissioner of Nigeria’s Kwara state has revealed that nearly 20,000 of the state’s teachers were made to sit tests in English and Maths that were designed for 9- and 10-year-olds, but only 7 of the teachers reached the minimum attainment level.[8] As targets are usually about quantities of input, not qualitative outcomes, then situations like that in Nigeria can arise. In addition, a focus on just one issue can ignore the interconnected nature of poverty. For instance, some HIV antiretroviral medications require a minimum caloric intake to work. The government of Zambia has had trouble containing the spread of HIV after expanding the production and distribution of antiretrovirals; they realised the problem was that children were not eating enough.[9]

Likewise a focus on just one issue can lead to other important concerns being sidestepped or made worse. Amnesty International has found that a focus on meeting the MDGs has led to matters of accountability and rights being sidelined at times.[10]

The reason progress is so slow is known to many international development experts. They just don’t share it much in press releases, as it doesn’t help generate funding. The simplest and most important insight here is that, on a large scale, the poor are not helped by targeting them in particular. Instead, poverty is reduced by helping enterprises generate decent work that create not only the products and services but also the wages for people to buy them. Therefore the creation of decent work opportunities with fair wages is key to all poverty reduction and social development, no matter how the poverty is then manifested.[11]

The percentage of corporate revenues that are paid out as wages has been going down worldwide for decades.[12] This happens as a result of the balance of power between government, business and workforces shifting with economic globalisation. Consequently workers have less in their pockets to buy the products and services that generate the jobs, that employ the workers. To get out of this situation, workers in some countries have been going into debt, speculating on property, or releasing equity from their homes. It is a situation that has led to financial volatility and concerns about financial collapse. In other parts of the world, and for the poor, there is not the same escape through debt and mortgaging assets. Meanwhile their employers have continued to receive a small share of the revenues of the value chains they trade in, with the profits accruing to the top of the chain, such as the famous brands, retailers, related professional services and in turn the financial services sector. This squeezes the sum available to workers and entrepreneurs in poorer countries, as well as limiting the potential tax revenues of such countries. The percentage of corporate profits that are taxed has also been decreasing around the world, therefore meaning governments have less to invest in social services and promoting enterprise.

The key to achieving development is the promotion of enterprise, with the ability of entrepreneurs in lower income countries to receive a larger share of income from their value chains, the ability of their workers to receive a larger share of the generated revenues, and the ability of governments to generate taxes and use them efficiently and accountably. Some within the international development community have been making this analysis clear, but they are drowned out by those who seek to keep the focus on a simpler message of charity, positivity, and coming together for another push towards meeting targets with new donations, often to their own organisations. The alternative would be to work on matters of economic governance and challenge existing power relations in societies and economies – not such an easy sell to large donors, or individual supporters watching the latest disaster appeal on TV. Deluded and self-serving people in the development profession prefer to see the people who criticise the MDGs as negative or cynical, and so dismiss the reality of the situation they describe. As a result, as I found in a study for the UN last year, the funding of economic justice campaigning is limited, and so the relationships with between Western NGOs and civil society in the global South are not often sufficient for them to have a legitimate and effective voice in policy making.[13]

Many of the issues the MDGs focus on are the symptoms and not the causes of poverty. The cause of poverty is generally a lack of decent work in a thriving enterprise economy governed by an state that is held accountable for its regulation and provision of services. A superficial focus on the symptoms not causes of poverty has been promoted in recent years by the new billionaire philanthropists, engaged in charismatic charity. Huge donors like Bill Gates focus mostly on the surface of problems, as that is what is visible. The visibility of a public problem is important as it makes it more understandable to people without insight into how problems arise, and visible problems can be explained in ways that generate public support and congratulation. The experts that the non expert philanthropists rely on are those who have made themselves acceptable to elites in the business and government, thereby perpetuating a superficial agenda. “Take the huge investments in global health, micro-credit and environmental services that Bill Gates and others are making,” says Michael Edwards who has authored a book on the topic. “The available evidence from these investments so far suggests that it is perfectly possible to use the market to extend access to useful goods and services, but far harder to have any substantial impact on social transformation. The reason is pretty obvious: systemic change involves social movements, politics and the state, which these experiments generally ignore.” He laments that the rise of the “philanthrocapitalists” is undermining the power of independent civil society to frame and act on systemic causes of social problems.[14]

As we look back on the last 10 years of action and inaction on international development it is now clear that the MDGs have scored an own goal for the development community by keeping systemic issues off the agenda. At best the MDGs acted as a defence mechanism in difficult times, maintaining interest in poverty when the international community became engulfed in the anti-terrorism agenda and the related US-led wars.

As I witness business, UN, governments and NGOs coming together this week to call for a another push to meet the MDGs, I am left wondering what will help unravel this great delusion. Where will the movement to embrace a serious sustainable development agenda come from? Will we have to wait another 5 years for a more honest stock take? Five years is a lot of 6 seconds. Over 26 million more children will have died from hunger and related illnesses.

In my last book I described the emergence of a movement mentality within people in the corporate responsibility, social enterprise and responsible investment space, where professionals are pushing forward transformative agendas from within their commercial organisations.[15] Yet I wonder whether the contradictions between short term profit and long term value generation may mean that an authentic development agenda will be difficult to place at the heart of corporate strategy. In reflecting on this I recall that 15 years ago a BP executive said that if Greenpeace did not exist he would have had to invent it. Chris Marsden was explaining about how he needed the external spotlight to make his case from within the company. We could debate whether it was an effective spotlight, given the BP record, but at least there was some pressure. It seems we need a development NGO that can apply pressure like Greenpeace has done on the environment, and encourage investors and companies to engage seriously with development issues. In the early Noughties the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement applied pressure to governments and international organisations without there being one central organisation, but its visibility has waned in recent years as the usefulness of street protest was questioned and attention moved to celebrity events like Live 8 and Live Earth. There seems to be a gap in the NGO market for a direct action development group, and so perhaps a financier could invent one. I hear of some friends of friends with a half a million from their banker bonuses now wondering what the meaning of their life really is.

If you know someone like that, send them this link.

[the references for this blog are in the pdf copy –Download PDF of ‘Own Goal’

On my company website I talk about the implications for corporate and investor strategy… Lifeworth Consulting

14 thoughts on “Why the MDGs are an Own Goal for Development”

  1. As MDGs become the flavor of the month, I am reminded of when I first heard about them – sitting in a little office in a small town of Kenya, the MDG poster was stuck on the wall behind my colleague, faded and slightly ripped on one edge. In our discussion of poverty reduction and what was going on with the community, the MDGs were never mentioned. It was only later, when I asked what they were, that my colleague laughed, and said, that’s something the global community thinks is important. I asked what he thought. He shrugged. You’ve gotta know how to get funding, he said with a small smile. No one ever asked us.
    So I agree with your basic sentiments The basic way the MDGs were created made them inherently useless and they do indeed look at symptoms not causes. Indeed, IDS and CAFOD have done some excellent work recently looking at some of the problems -and of what might be possible post-MDGs, http://www.chronicpoverty.org/uploads/publication_files/sumner_et_al_mdg_2015_panel.pdf and http://www.ids.ac.uk/go/idspublication/the-mdgs-and-beyond
    and there is some agreement with many of your points. They also point out that having something, even if its more about symptoms than core issues, for people to rally around has been very useful for the international community, even if it has largely failed.
    But your emphasis on enterprise strikes me as simplistic, and assumes a particular thrust of development. Is it just about jobs? Do you mean livelihoods as well as jobs? that doesn’t sound like it gives potential for alternative types of development – sounds like big corporations moving in with half-way decent wages (which would be better than the current wage structure) and not about ownership. Though I do agree that more watchdogs need to turn their eyes on corps and development – but that only works if enough people care. orgs like CorporateWatch are struggling at the moment.

  2. This is good, and one of the best things of yours I’ve read.

    There is a tension in what you write between the promotion of ‘enterprise’ and the other structural (i.e. governance) reforms you point to, however. Most people, like Sachs, believe that the enterprise you seek is a result of the FDI that MDGs and the philanthrocapitalists aim to engineer.

    As for the movement, I think again there is a tension – or rather a lacuna – in what you write about NGOs, and gaps in markets, and so forth. You come from a ‘movement’ which believes in lobbying, and ‘engagement’, of a sometimes-confrontational (marching) and sometimes placatory (reports) approach. Indeed, you work in the governance world also that receives and deals with such, e.g. the UN.

    But the problem here is the erosion of the historical concepts of good governance, i.e. institutions that per se have an insight into the problems facing their peoples, and indeed are run and led by the ‘change agents’. The problem with what you write, and a vast amount of the stuff that seems to go on in your sphere, is the lack of old-school political intent. The movements you speak are post-political, but in a way that is self-defeating. If you want to change society, but you don’t want to ‘take power’, you’ll run out of energy, and resources, and legitimacy in the end.

    The reason why Chomsky, Michael Moore, and eventually people like Naomi Klein, don’t give a fuck about CSR and ‘movements’ is because, unless the want to create policy and take power, they are trying to reinvent the wheel of human social progress. CSR and non-politicised reform movements suck ass, and are easy to deflect towards infighting and depletion and illegitimacy. I mean this in the empirical sense of losers, with appalling records, like Jeff Sachs having ‘legitimacy’ because he has ‘mandates’ on his side.

    Nowadays, the goal of movements is scaring a marauding horse and rider down a certain alternative track. No-one thinks, what would it be to dislodge this rider, and get into the saddle? Chomsky and such believe in regime change, and that seems a long haul.

  3. Sara, thanks for the comments and the useful link. Its tough spanning the divides of management and development, as well as research and practice, so I miss some things, and the IDS output was one thing I missed and is very relevant indeed! However, two things come up from yr post.

    The IDS document opens up with “Do the MDGs still reflect what is important about how development happens and how policy influences that process? The MDGs were an approach born of a benign era of relative stability, stronger economic growth and fairly buoyant aid budgets. We now face a very different world.” I think that is a mistaken or dishonest statement. It gives the impression that the MDGs were a useful framework and that we should think again because the world has changed. The world hasnt changed, and if we pretend we got it right then but now things changed, we overlook a more important insight. That insight is that as experts we have been participating in a great delusion about how development happens and does not happen, and therefore we have been part of the problem. We need insight into why we have done that, either collectively or individually. The reasons I think are the same reasons why the IDS document starts with that statement… its to seek to sound reasonable to power. Why? some will say because thats how you get heard so its a practical and moral approach. Others might say thats just convenient to think that, where’s your proof that approach to framing your ideas gets more change? Instead, isnt there more proof about where your funding, or that of your institution, or that of your epistemic and professional community comes from?

    Your second key point re enterprise has been mentioned by other people, and has really stunned me.. That people think that by talking about enterprise Im talking about large businesses, or foreign busineses… Huh?!! The most enterprising people are the self employed. A subsistence farmer is much more enterprising than a bureaucrat in BP. But… many people even in the informal sector are effectively employees of others, and so development depends on them getting a bigger share of the value their employer gets, as well as their employer getting a bigger share in the value chain that those with controlling power in that chain, and so on up and up, til we question the great big “alien sucker” on the face of the real economy that is the financial disservice sector.

    1. Jem –
      None of us can read everything! I agree with your basic argument about MDGs. Saying ‘the world has changed’ does not give voice to the historical truth that the MDGs were flawed when they were created, and did not, in the beginning, address the symptoms of poverty. I’ll be sure to bring it up at a meeting today. Not to mention how much they were global-ideas by a few elites that did not go into the depth of what and who needs to be doing what. That said, I’ve been surprised by how meaningful they have been for many people at the global/international level, how they have given many good initiatives a stronger leg to stand on and acted as some level of coallescing for an otherwise highly disorganised system. Why does IDS do this? We are always thinking about how to make our message heard. often that means saying some kind of ‘yes’ to ‘power’. is that useful? I am torn. capitalism is very good at incorporating different ideas. how much concilatory to be heard and how much resistance? resistance is what got NGOs their moral authority. are we loosing it by ‘trying to be heard’?
      the global system is increasingly uncoordinated and haphazard. as joblessness increases in the west, people will start wanting to have saviours, and wanting global-coordination (and a global monetary system) may become part of that.

      1. saying “yes” to “power” is important sometimes, but not when one is offering insights on ones sense of the truth of problems and their causes and thus where solutions might lie.

        for instance, in my luxury work, im engaging elites. i focus on the truths i think are palatable to that field, and indeed, that might excite and enthuse people in that field. however, i dont lie about my view of causes of problems or what is the ultimate goal of a sustainable fair firm, if ever that comes up.

        i object to the ids bulletin intro because i see it as either an analysis i disagree with and wish to point out to the author and reader, or, potentially, see that it could be a self-serving fib about other realities that are perceived by the author, whether or not that fibbing process is that surfaced in the consciousness of the author (a lot of our conceptual alignment with power goes on at such deep and subtle levels it needs people to point it out to us.). if its the latter, then we have more to learn about how we as development experts participate in grand delusions. and that part of the world hasnt changed and never will.. its an eternal “struggle” of self awareness and courage

  4. John, thx for yr comment. You make some assumptions about both social movements and work on corporate responsibility which dont relate to my own experience. ‘Social movement’ is defined in Encyclopaedia Britannica (2003) as a ‘loosely organized but sustained campaign in support of a social goal, typically either the implementation or the prevention of a change in society’s structure or values’. The people that worked together, or do today, in ways that we chose to describe as a “social movement” are involved in visioning what success means, and cocreating shared identities of people working toward shared goals, and building structures to mobilise and resource participants, and do relate to political opportunities that present themselves and do seek to insert themselves into political structures at times. However, seizing power, or knocking off people in power, is not an essential part of a social movement.

    So, i think a lot of people who say they are working on corporate responsibility, corporate sustainability, social enterprise and responsible finance are values-led and are seeking to create wider changes than to their own company i.e. do sense themselves as part of a movement.

    From my book “The Corporate Responsibility Movement”
    “I argue that during the five years reviewed in this book, we witnessed the emergence of the corporate responsibility movement as a loosely organised but sustained effort by individuals both inside and outside the private sector, who seek to use or change specific corporate practices, whole corporations, or entire systems of corporate activity, in accordance with their personal commitment to public goals and the
    expectations of wider society. Moreover, I argue this movement is working in diverse ways on a common agenda to democratise economic activity and conclude by offering a conceptual framework for an overarching goal of ‘capital democracy’ to help inform both movement adherents and analysts.”

    so, i decided to use the movement framework as a mechanism to start visioning what success is.

    and i dont think the environmental movement is much of a movement.. we have people to ecoliberals wanting to help banks own our freedom to emit carbon, so they are ok with a vision of where pensioners be damned if they cant afford to heat their homes while carbon traders become millionaires. im not part of that “movement”… im interested in a fairer society to cope with climate change, that would create more legitimacy and sensitivity in coping with the tough mitigation and adaptation measures ahead. i discuss that in my book too. if u will read, ill send u a copy.

    “The Corporate Responsibility Movement”, available from. http://www.greenleaf-publishing.com/productdetail.kmod?productid=2767

  5. The MDG effort is one that makes the UN seem to be useful beyond its abilities to actually do anything. The charade of last September proved that those who are involved in talking, but not practiced in the act of doing move backwards, not forwards. Jeff Sachs, a smart and concerned university professor is much too much a part of the system to see beyond it. He makes far too much money to divest himself from it and he makes his funders and supporters feel as if they are part of the solution, not actually a part of the problem.
    Certainly there is a need to deal with the root causes of things…but there is also a need to use bandaids in the short term so that people have an opportunity to get on their feet and participate in that process. The answers for all of this rest, in one way or another, in carrying out the mandates enscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If we addressed each one of the human rights spelled out we would address the root problems facing us in development, security, peace, the environment, equality and more. The problem is that too many of us neither know or truly care about human rights (all of them) to begin the grueling process of addressing them. In addition too many NGOs (like business and government) protect our respective silos at the cost of doing what is right for the people they were designed to serve. Tear down the silo walls and we can begin the process to address the problems we face.

  6. Thanks Robert. I agree that the silos are a problem. This is the key loss of the growth of NGOs in the past decades – that citizens who could dedicate their professional lives to public goals end up with a career in the NGO sector where they are encouraged to focus on a single issue and simplify it for donors. Huge efforts go into trying to get NGO management to accept cross cutting issues, root causes, and the need to work on those. Or to consider the values from which the NGOs mandate comes from and how those values suggest a broader approach. But the logics of the institution i.e. funding, branding, niche, technocratic specialisms, etc, mean that such efforts are swimming against the stream. Thus we see progressives in NGOs creating networks of NGOs to work on deeper issues. e.g. CORE, PWYP, TJN. However, my UN study on those networks shows how marginal they are to the participant NGOs. (google “Noble Networks”). Given its moderate criticisms, that study was not that well received by the NGO staff themselves, but the implication of the study is that senior NGO management and boards need to support their organisatiosn to do much more on root causes of problems. The other problem with the single issue focus is that when the NGOs club together for massive campaigns like MPH, then we see policy proposals becoming a wish list stitched together from different single issue agendas, and they dont get to the root causes of problems. Perhaps the rise of peer to peer networks of concerned citizens will provide new means for advocacy, activism and lobbying on root causes. However, that will require some more conscious support from donors to help support and inform such emergent networks. I dont buy the naive idea that such networks are simply the sum of the views of the crowd – the crowd’s view is shaped by organised nodes.

  7. Jem, I am not sure if any organizational structures themselves are strong enough to break the bonds of self preservation. The NGO structure is one, like business and government that works to save itself. I have seen nonprofits, working towards the same goal, spend a good deal of time working against each other rather than work together. They won’t share research, dollars or ideas, making the efforts more costly and the benefits few and far between. What we see now in Egypt and in other parts of the world might help break down some silos and barriers, but as we say with the crisis in Haiti or even in New Orleans, the silos and organizational structures are harder to change than the crisis needs to be solved. Who knows how long ago cancer could have been cured, poverty eradicated and obesity be put to rest? As long as the organizations work to save themselves at all costs we will not likely see the world we want and until we change the way we operate that day will never come.

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