With Millennium Development Goals, world learns that setting targets works

Behind the Millennium Development Goals’ remarkable though incomplete success is a combination of a competitive spirit, a desire to achieve universally recognized progress, and a growing demand for government accountability, experts say.

Chip East/Reuters
Vietnam's then-President Nguyen Minh Triet (c.) speaks during the Millennium Development Goals Summit at United Nations headquarters in New York, September 20, 2010.

Nobody likes to come in last, or do the poorest, or occupy the bottom rung of the ladder.

That’s true of kids in a classroom – and apparently it’s true of countries and their leaders, too.

The 193 countries of the United Nations are about to reach the finish line of a 15-year race to achieve a challenging set of development targets ranging from the eradication of extreme poverty to reducing child mortality and achieving universal primary education.

What the world has learned is that setting goals works.

There may be no exact science to explain the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the UN in 2000. There is no checklist of reasons to elucidate how a set of eight goals was able to help pull a billion people up from extreme poverty, boost the primary education rate in sub-Saharan Africa from about 50 percent to almost 8 in 10 children, and cut the global infant mortality rate almost in half.

Some argue such progress would have happened even without the goals. But others see the “nobody likes to come in last” factor at work.

Development experts say that behind the goals’ quiet – and incomplete – but remarkable success is a combination of a competitive spirit, a desire to achieve universally recognized progress, and a growing demand for government accountability as democracy has expanded in developing countries.

“What the MDGs proved is that people wanted to come together around something that had no legal implications, but yet the moral imperative that drove advocacy, that drove parliamentary election promises based on the goals, that drove a desire to achieve them,” says Amina Mohammed, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special adviser on post-MDG development planning.

What the MDG process revealed, she adds, is that “people like goal setting because it gives a sense of responsibility, you’re not alone, [and] they motivate people toward a specific result that one can measure.”

No one should discount the importance of “peer pressure” as countries in a multilateral system tackle a set of goals together, says David Donoghue, Ireland’s ambassador to the UN and one of the officials who helped negotiate the next set of goals that world leaders will adopt at the UN in September.

Noting that leaders are aware if their country is not keeping up, especially with neighbors, on a goal like reducing infant mortality, Ambassador Donoghue says, “There is a degree of political embarrassment or discomfort if a government is moving more slowly in a particular area.”

Salo Coslovsky, an expert in development and governance at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, puts it this way: “It resonates with people when a politician or [nongovernmental groups] in the area say, ‘Our neighbors are moving up, and we have to catch up.’ ”

Recent talk of “success” of the MDGs does not mean the goals were fully achieved. In fact, only a few of them were, such as reducing malaria mortality by half. “For all the remarkable gains, I am keenly aware that inequalities persist and that progress has been uneven,” Mr. Ban said last month even as he declared the MDG initiative “the most successful anti-poverty movement in history.”

Yet development experts say the 15-year effort to end extreme poverty revealed some of the elements crucial to making progress – particularly in the case of countries that were democratizing at the same time they were tackling the development goals.

For Ms. Mohammed, a Nigerian development specialist who worked on achieving the MDGs in her own country before moving to the UN, expanding civil societies, increasingly demanding publics, and elected representatives intent on delivering results were all elements in Nigeria’s advances on the goals.

Mohammed says she based her work on Nigeria’s federal system, helping states that were still developing their own institutions and democratic practices to integrate the goals into their development programs.

“We came up with an agreement with each state in which they understood that governance was an issue, [and] they put down the checks and balances to address the leaky pipeline of corruption,” she says.

Holding the purse strings to a billion-dollar fund that the president had put in her control to address the MDGs, Mohammed says, “We focused on leveraging [the states’] money: For every dollar of my money, they would put in their dollar for health, for education, for water, and then suddenly it was, ‘Aha, my goodness this is working!’ ”

What the MDG process did was to provide a set of universal measurements for countries and local jurisdictions to evaluate their own performance and compare it to others, says Dr. Coslovsky of New York University.

“What happens is that something set at the international level becomes a standardized language of what can be achieved and how to do it,” he says.

He notes that in Brazil, a country he studies, states used the goals to measure how they were doing compared to their neighbors. In the Amazon region, the think tank Imazon used the MDGs to create a “scorecard” to evaluate the region’s performance compared to Brazil as a whole.

“What a scorecard like this does is provide a set of easily understood facts to take to governments and say, ‘You need to get on the bandwagon, and here’s where we’re lagging behind,’ ” Coslovsky says.

Setting goals to be met over a period of 15 years also allows for course corrections and midstream assessments – something like the high school midterm.

At a development conference in New York last month, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, noted that a 2012 evaluation of the goal to reduce child mortality revealed “we were not making sufficient progress.” That wake-up call led to an “action plan,” she added, under which the United States “doubled down on its efforts in 24 of the most affected countries” and local governments recharged their commitments.

The result? “In the next two years,” Ambassador Power said, “it is estimated that some 500,000 children’s lives were saved.”

Some experts play down the impact of international goals, saying they end up taking credit for what was likely to happen – and in some countries was already happening – anyway. Skeptics note, for example, that a majority of the billion people who rose out of extreme poverty were in China, which almost certainly would have undergone its colossal economic development of the past two decades irrespective of the MDGs.

But even some development experts who acknowledge the truth in this say setting goals like the MDGs has played a key role in motivating action – especially in a period of expanding democratization.

“A cynical way of looking at it is that these [goals] were the low-hanging fruit ... that some of the progress may have happened anyway without the MDGs,” says Glenn Denning, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York and an expert in development and nutrition.  

But Professor Denning, who lived in Kenya over the first decade of the MDG campaign, says he saw “firsthand how many African governments and some Asian governments used the MDGs to set development targets, mobilize stakeholders, allocate funds, and hold their ministries accountable.”

Like others, he says it was to no small degree the simplicity and undebatable nature of the goals that helped them work.

“Having goals made a difference,” he says. “The MDGs were relatively easy to communicate and had a strong moral basis: ending extreme poverty in a world of plenty.”

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