A few years ago a senior official of the Australian government aid agency asked me my view of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). My response was that I had not thought much about them. I am not proud of that. As a person who claims to have a strong interest in human flourishing I should have shown more interest in the MDGs, even if only to be able to articulate why I didn’t think their existence made a significant contribution to reducing world poverty.
If I did not have a strong interest in issues relating to human flourishing, there is a good chance that I would not even have been aware of the existence of the MDGs. World Values Survey data (for 2005-2009) shows that only 12 percent of Australians had actually heard of the MDGs. The relevant percentages varied widely among the 43 countries included in the surveys - from 64 percent in Ethiopia to 5 percent in the United States.
If asked about the MDGs now I would say that providing poor people with better opportunities should be the most important goal. That is mainly about opportunities to earn income. Poverty has some multidimensional aspects that are not adequately reflected in conventional measures of income. For example, it is important to recognize that people with disabilities can have greater needs than others with similar incomes and that income measures do not normally take account of such things as availability of safe drinking water. But when people have opportunities to earn income they are in a better position to help family members and to contribute to provision of public goods.
Nevertheless, I would still struggle to list all the MDGs. The problem is that there are 8 to remember – including four goals relating to health issues. One of the goals that sticks in my mind is “Develop a Global Partnership for Development”, which seems to be mainly about flying bureaucrats to international conferences.
The most important thing to know about the MDGs is that good progress has been made to achieving many of them. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has halved since 1990. Unfortunately, that still leaves about 700 million people in the world who are living on less than US $1.25 a day.
Much of that progress toward achieving the MDGs has to do with increases in economic freedom in China and India, and would have occurred if the MDGs did not exist. Nevertheless, the monitoring and reporting process associated with the MDGs has served a useful function.
Meanwhile, a sub-committee of the Global Partnership for Frequent Flying – sometimes referred to as the UN General Assembly's Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals - has held meetings where it:
“ reaffirmed the commitment to fully implement all the principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, including, inter alia, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, as set out in principle 7 thereof”.
“It also reaffirmed the commitment to fully implement the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21, the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg Plan of Implementation) and the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (Barbados Programme of Action) and the Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States. It also reaffirmed the commitment to the full implementation of the Programme of Action for the Least Developed Countries for the Decade 2011–2020 (Istanbul Programme of Action), the Almaty Programme of Action: Addressing the Special Needs of Landlocked Developing Countries within a New Global Framework for Transit Transport Cooperation for Landlocked and Transit Developing Countries, the political declaration on Africa’s development needs and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. It reaffirmed the commitments in the outcomes of all the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and environmental fields, including the United Nations Millennium Declaration, the 2005 World Summit Outcome, the Monterrey Consensus of the International Conference on Financing for Development, the Doha Declaration on Financing for Development, the outcome document of the High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly on the Millennium Development Goals, the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, the key actions for the further implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the outcome documents of their review conferences. The Outcome document of the September 2013 special event to follow up efforts made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals reaffirmed, inter alia, the determination to craft a strong post-2015 development agenda. The commitment to migration and development was reaffirmed in the Declaration of the High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development”.
I hope no-one tried to read all that. The reasons I included that passage should be obvious, so I will resist the temptation to try to explain.
Actually, as well as reaffirming their commitment to fully implement the outcome of their previous frequent flying activities, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals managed to suggest 17 sustainable development goals to succeed the Millennial Development Goals.
I don’t object to any of the goals specified. If anything I would like to add to the list. For example, I would like to see a specific reference to ending slavery and intergenerational debt bondage. As more people emerge from poverty there is also a case for greater recognition of the importance of reducing vulnerabilities and building resilience (but without the welfare state ideology being advocated by UNDP - see my last post for comment).
However, if 8 goals is too many for me to remember, there is not much hope that I will be able to remember 17. Following the recommendations of Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus group, Matt Ridley has suggested 5 goals:
1. reduce malnutrition;
2. tackle malaria and tuberculosis;
3. boost preprimary education;
4. provide universal access to sexual and reproductive health; and
5. expand free trade.
Those seem to me to be worthy goals, but my views are no more relevant than those of the bureaucrats, diplomats and development experts who attend UN conferences.
In using any top-down approach to determine the development agenda, bureaucrats and development experts are telling the world’s poor what their priorities should be in order to live happier lives. That is highly impertinent in my view.
As I see it, the best way to determine the development agenda would be by using surveys to ask the world’s poor about their priorities. Those priorities might not meet the approval of all members of the global partnership of frequent flyers, because they may differ for people living in different circumstances in different parts of the world. If that is what emerges, then so be it.
The over-arching goal should be to ensure more widespread opportunities for individuals to live happy lives, rather than to produce a uniform development agenda that conforms to the ideals of bureaucrats and development experts.