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Regional themes > Poverty reduction frameworks and critiques Last update: 2020-11-27  

More than a numbers game?

Ensuring that the Millennium Development Goals address Structural Injustice


April 2005

SARPN acknowledges the Trуcaire website as the source of this report. Besides this report, Trуcaire has published a number of other policy papers on MDG issues. They, and other policy papers, can be accessed at:
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Executive Summary

In 2000, the member states of the United Nations signed the Millennium Declaration. In it, they committed themselves, among other things, to meeting certain development targets subsequently referred to as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Over the past four years, civil society organisations and governments alike have begun to re-evaluate their activities in the light of these global goals, and to realign policies in order to maximise the chances of meeting the MDGs. 2005 is a critical milestone. It offers a chance to assess the extent to which the ambitions set out in the Millennium Declaration have been achieved – and set out actions needed to achieve them.

The adoption of these goals by governments has been cautiously welcomed by civil society, which recognises this as a step towards a concrete, time-bound commitment to the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights and development goals, as set out in the UN Conventions and summits of the 1990s.

The MDGs represent an attempt to articulate at the highest political level and in a comprehensive fashion the priority areas of social, economic and environmental development that need to be pursued in order to reduce poverty and enable sustainable development. The multi-dimensional nature of the goals makes them an important step beyond the use of economic growth as an indirect measure of poverty reduction. The goals are not perfect, nor are they ambitious enough, but their achievement would mark a major step towards a more just world.

Particularly important is MDG 8, which recognises that the achievement of the other goals depends on a new global partnership, based on collective responsibility. This goal sets out some of the steps that the better off countries of the world need to take in order to create an enabling environment for development. These include: more and better aid, the cancellation of unsustainable debts, reform of the global trading system, and enabling poor countries to have a greater say in international institutions.

Above all, the MDGs provide a global framework that can be used to increase the accountability of governments in meeting commitments they have agreed at international forums. The fact that the goals were signed by Heads of State at the UN, and are attached to a timeline, provides an important link between global policy and national level decisionmaking: it enables citizens to scrutinise national decisions in the light of globally agreed targets.

However, acknowledgement of the positive nature of the goals is not the same as endorsing the processes and policy measures currently being pursued in their name. The adoption of the goals also brings some serious risks. The MDGs have been rapidly elevated to the status of ‘ultimate solution’ in international development policy-making. While such a focus on poverty eradication and development is welcome, there is a risk that other agendas not explicitly stipulated in the MDGs – especially human rights norms and standards – will be sidelined in the drive towards achieving the MDGs speedily and efficiently.

The MDG initiative, therefore, brings risks as well as opportunities. The field research for this report identified a number of interlinking risks associated with the current drive to reaching the MDGs:
  • Given the holistic nature of the goals, and their crosscutting dimensions, they encapsulate the breadth of development cooperation efforts that have been in existence for many years. Everybody can attribute elements of existing work to one or other of the MDGs. This has given rise to an elaborate ‘window dressing’ exercise over the past four years, with little substantive policy change. In this respect, it is possible that the only thing that the MDGs will change is the discourse of poverty and development (making it even more technical) and not the substance of policies. The main winners in that scenario would then be the army of development professionals dedicated to report-writing and intensive monitoring exercises; the poor would only benefit indirectly.

  • The targets-oriented approach pays little regard to process issues. The MDGs make no distinction between best practice and bad practice: within the terms of the goals, there is no distinction made between a totalitarian regime that ‘halves poverty’ on the basis of an ethnic divide and a state that enables poor people to participate actively in budget processes. Likewise, controversial policies, such as the privatisation of basic services, could be adopted in the name of the MDGs without regard for the long-term impact on the equitable distribution of national assets.

  • The MDGs tend to entrench a topdown approach to development that ignores local knowledge, participation and solutions in the name of a global agenda and global targets.

  • The MDGs tend to foster a ‘charity’ approach to development, focused on the volume of financial aid, while sidelining necessary reforms to the national and international financial, commercial and political systems. Through setting targets on the basis of quantifiable indicators, they promote a definition of poverty exclusively as a ‘lack’ of material things, which can be solved through ‘paying’ for those things.
In this respect, the MDGs, as currently pursued, run the risk of distracting attention from the causes of inequalities and injustice at national and international levels. The MDGs underscore the need to provide basic social services to the poor. However, this challenge cannot and should not be dissociated from the underlying contradictions within the processes of globalisation. It is plausible that the processes of privatisation and liberalisation that have undermined poverty reduction in many poor countries in the past decade could actually be accelerated in pursuit of the MDGs. Increased aid to achieve the MDGs without pro-poor reform could also bring increasingly centralised conditionality and dependence on the macro-economic policy prescriptions of the international financial institutions (IFIs): the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Many developing countries could find themselves locked in a paradoxical situation: forced to fulfil IMF conditions in order for MDG aid to be disbursed in the knowledge that those conditions limit the quantity of aid inflows allowed and undermine the poverty reducing impact of government expenditure, further increasing dependency on aid. Failure to accept these conditions, moreover, will be interpreted internationally as a failure to work towards the MDGs.

In order to avoid this scenario, three steps are essential in 2005:
Firstly, the MDGs must be set within the wider framework of values and principles encapsulated in UN conventions on economic, social and cultural rights. CIDSE and Caritas Internationalis, as networks of agencies rooted in the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, underscore the need for values such as participation, subsidiarity and ownership to be at the core of human development initiatives, rather than being regarded as adjuncts. It is only through putting greater emphasis on the quality of processes - and not just the quantity of outcomes - that poverty reduction can be adequately assessed. At present, such a vision is largely missing from the MDGs. On the ground, the MDGs must not become a new conditionality that binds governments to international goals and targets, regardless of their own national priorities. People must be allowed to exercise their right to participate so that solutions are fostered from the bottom up, leaving space for national and local responses.

Secondly, the MDGs must be set squarely within the context of macroeconomic policy-making and the power imbalances underpinning such policy formulation. Goal 8 addresses these issues to some extent, but is extremely weak in its breadth and scope. It does not go far enough to address imbalances in international structures and, unlike the other goals, has no timeline for implementation. It fails to acknowledge that this goal is, to a great extent, an enabler for all the others. The focus of discussions around the achievement of the MDGs must, therefore, shift from one of ‘window dressing’ and social service provision to substantive reforms of global financial and commercial institutions, taking Goal 8 as the starting point.

Finally, more and better finance is essential. Donor government must honour their funding commitments, and set out how and when they will be met.

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