On September 20-22, world leaders will convene in New York for a United Nations summit to evaluate the progress of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In advance of the U.N. Summit, Johannes F. Linn, Daniel Kaufmann, Veronika Penciakova, Laurence Chandy, John Mutenyo and Emmanuel Asmah assess the progress that has been made toward achieving the MDGs, obstacles that hinder the U.N.’s efforts, and whether the initiative will ultimately be a success.
Many countries won’t achieve the MDG targets by 2015 if current trends continue. The common response is to argue for more aid and faster implementation of programs. This would certainly help, but more importantly governments and aid agencies need to focus much more systematically on scaling up successful development interventions.
Unfortunately, most aid-supported projects are very small and unconnected to each other given the fragmentation of donor agencies and programs, both official and private. Between 1999 and 2008, the median size of official donor projects as reported by the OECD-Development Assistance Committee dropped from a small $120,000 and an even smaller $70,000! Of course, small projects can be great. However, if they don’t systematically build on and learn from each other, and if every new intervention pilots a new idea rather than replicating, expanding and scaling up what has worked before, then we lose opportunities to have an impact on people’s lives in a way that is significant enough to tackle the global development challenge so well identified by the MDGs.
Traditionally, the development community has put a great premium on innovative interventions. Political, bureaucratic and individual incentives tend to be aligned to support the development of new ideas, experiments and pilots. The replication and scaling up of successful interventions are too often seen as politically unattractive, of little interest to the aid bureaucracies and boring for the individual expert. We urgently need a more balanced approach to ensure that scaling up receives the attention it deserves.
There are examples of deliberate scaling up. The Chinese development approach has been precisely that: experiment and replicate what works on a broad scale. The Mexican conditional cash transfer program Progresa-Oportunidades was specifically designed to scale up successful pilots to a national scale and has improved the lives of 5 million poor Mexican families. The Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was established in 2002 to substantially reduce the incidence of these three diseases and achieve MDG 4: “reduce child mortality” and MDG 6: “combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases” through scaling up proven interventions.
But these examples are the exceptions. If the international development community is serious about achieving the MDGs, all development agencies need to focus very explicitly and systematically on the scaling up opportunities and challenges by replicating their own successes, by drawing on pilots others have successfully developed, by collaborating with partners or by deliberately handing off to them those initiatives that have produced results.
Five years remain to meet the eight Millennium Development Goals. Though laudable progress has been made in some regions, like East Asia, and on some targets, such as access to clean water, various goals are likely to remain unmet by 2015.
While much of MDG data predates the economic crisis, such data and recent U.N. projections indicate very uneven progress. Recent updates (pdf) show evidence of setbacks due to the economic crisis. The United Nations estimates that the world may reduce poverty from 46 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2015, but this masks enormous variation across regions and countries. In 2005, 17 percent of the population in East Asia lived in extreme poverty compared to 51 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. Since the economic crisis, preliminary evidence suggests that an addition 64 million people will fall into poverty by 2010.
Other targets will also remain out of reach. Prior to the economic crisis and rising food prices Latin America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Eastern Asia (driven by China) were on their way to halving undernourishment. But, the dual crises have undermined progress worldwide. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates over a billion people may have been undernourished in 2009 compared to 817 million in 1990.
There are many explanations for slow and uneven progress on the MDGs, ranging from insufficient donor commitments to the choice of indicators. But, a big answer appears to lie in the highly variable quality of governance across countries.
Our research suggests that improving governance from the extremely low level of Afghanistan to the subpar level of countries like Kenya, or from the subpar level of Kenya to the higher level of Ghana, contributes significantly to major declines in infant mortality and increases in incomes. MDG progress is likely related to under-emphasized political dimensions (pdf) of governance such as freedom of the press and human rights. Research shows, for instance, that female empowerment, education and income help reduce child and maternal mortality rates.
Ultimately, aid alone is far from sufficient to ensure goals are met. Just as access to electricity is often cited as the missing MDG, governance has also been forgotten as a key pillar of achieving the MDGs. Aid becomes more effective when there is satisfactory or at least improving governance in recipient countries and when aid is efficiently and transparently allocated. Similarly, responsible governance and transparency in industrialized countries is critical for development effectiveness as demonstrated by the economic crisis.
An extended version of Daniel Kaufmann’s commentary can be found here.
The official message from next week’s United Nations MDG Summit will be that the goals are within reach, but only if we muster one, final, almighty, great push. There is some truth to this. Great strides have already been made at a global level on poverty reduction, primary and secondary education, preventable disease control and access to clean water, partly as a result of focused interventions. Meanwhile, obtaining results in other areas—women’s and children’s health, and sanitation—has proven much more difficult. It is here we will likely see the launch of new initiatives.
A more candid assessment of the MDGs, however, would highlight both good and bad news.
Among the good news is that developing country economies, as a whole, proved resilient through the crisis and are now driving global economic growth. While economic growth is conspicuously absent from the Millennium Declaration, it is absolutely pivotal to the achievement of the goals. Second, aid levels have remained strong, growing by 11.7 and 0.7 percent in 2008 and 2009—a result contrary to all expectations. Third, in contrast to the last MDG Summit five years ago when the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. attempted to strike out any mention of the goals in the draft resolution, the U.S. is expected to play a leading role this time around, referencing a new National Security Strategy (pdf) and U.S. MDG strategy (pdf) that fully embrace the global development agenda.
The bad news is that the fight for the MDGs is being lost in fragile states. No fragile country has yet achieved a single goal. Worse still, understanding of how to provide and secure basic living standards in these difficult environments remains very limited. Other worrying news is that MDG reporting is patchy, dated and often unreliable. This provides a weak evidence base on which to design more targeted efforts for the next five years.
Finally, at a time when budget pinches loom large, expect cries for value for money to outweigh those for more aid flows. Hopefully, this can help revitalize discussions on aid effectiveness in time for next year’s High Level Forum in Busan.
Among the eight Millennium Development Goals, eradicating poverty and hunger tackles one of the most basic human needs, the achievement of which can only have positive repercussions on the other MDGs. While many Asian and Latin American countries are on course toward achieving at least some of the targets, most sub-Saharan African countries are lagging behind in almost all areas. For instance, at the level of $1.25 a day, global poverty declined from 52 percent in 1981 to 25 percent in 2005, but the level remained at 50 percent for sub-Saharan Africa. The prevalence of hunger in the developing regions has fluctuated sharply over the years due to the rise and fall of global food prices and compounded by the global financial crisis. Hunger in sub-Saharan Africa is alarming, escalating from 28 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2008. According to the 2009 State of Uganda Population Report (pdf), about 40 percent of child deaths in Uganda are due to malnutrition, partly caused by food insecurity.
Research Analyst and Data Specialist, Development Assistance and Governance Initiative
Africa Research Fellow
The World Bank’s 2008 World Development Report advocates for increased investment in agriculture in developing countries because this sector is essential not only for food security but for overall growth and poverty reduction. According to the report, GDP growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in reducing poverty than GDP growth from non-agricultural sectors. However, barriers still exist to exporting and distributing crop yields. Several African countries such as Kenya, Malawi and Uganda have recently experienced bumper harvests of maize and other crops. But due to a lack of markets, famers have witnessed their harvests rot while neighboring countries like Sudan and Somalia experienced famine.
Studies on local and regional procurement of food aid in Uganda and Ethiopia have shown that it provides much greater net benefits for rural and urban populations than equivalent expenditure on tied food aid. Yet many developed countries still insist on shipping their home-grown food to developing economies, sometimes flooding local markets and injuring the livelihoods of local producers. With poor infrastructure and a lack of effective regional trading systems, countries cannot take advantage of the resources all around them.
At this MDG Summit, the U.S. and other development partners have an opportunity to work together with African governments to increase the direct purchase of agricultural commodities from African farmers and redistribute them in famine-stricken areas. Availability of ready markets will act as a safety net to poor farmers and will provide incentives for increased investment in the agriculture sector, which in turn could lead to multiplicative effects of increased employment, food production, savings, and even investment in other MDGs, such as education. What is lacking is political will in the U.S. for such a change.
It’s been over 10 years since the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals and it’s clear that progress toward achieving the 2015 targets has been very slow, especially in the developing world. According to a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report released in early 2010, if the world continues at the current pace, most developing countries will not be able to reach the MDG targets. Therefore, there is a serious need to step up the pace dramatically.
As far as the most influential factors in achieving the MDGs are concerned, there are literally thousands of studies, documents and blueprints on the best practices. Economic growth, investment in agriculture, good governance, political stability, internal peace, rule of law, rural infrastructure, agricultural research, better education for children in rural areas and improving the situation of women are some of the necessary and sufficient factors that have been researched and identified. However, what has been missing is a concerted effort and the political will to translate this knowledge and information into meaningful actions and results. A lot of time, effort and money are spent on summits, conferences and workshops from which excellent plans are drawn. But very little is done by way of putting these plans into action. The change required is for our political leaders and development partners to deliver on their commitments, from increasing investment in health care and agriculture to improving human rights and tackling corruption.
In the light of this, delegates participating in this year’s MDG Summit will bring with them country action plans for the next five years, which will serve as the basis for a global MDG development action plan. The greatest challenge rests with how to generate the political will for action. Even the most effective organizational reforms will prove insufficient if government leaders do not have the motivation to implement agreed plans. I have two recommendations for generating effective political action. First, harness the power of the media through communications vehicles, such as the TV, internet, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere and smart mobile devices. This can create new capacities to mobilize populations and coordinate mass action for political action on the MDGs.
Second, foster deeper cooperation among governments, academia, the nongovernmental sector and international organizations in the monitoring and implementation of the MDG-based development plans. This is based on the recognition that there are numerous areas where governments are ineffective because they lack the requisite human resources to implement plans. Everybody else has a role to play in this respect.