Millennium development goals – a fever coup or a failed mega-project?

UN’s Millennium Development Goals have been one of the biggest talking points over the last fifteen years.

But a number of questions remain unanswered: Will the goals been met by 2015? Do these kinds of goals work? Do the MDGs draw attention from other more important issues? And what about the future, if we decide to set new goals, what should they include?

The guests we invited to this Global Bar included: Jan Vandemoortele – best described as the architect of the MDGs, Bodil Ceballos – a member of the Swedish parliament representing the Green party and Stefan Fölster – chief economist, Confederation of Swedish Enterprise. As usual, the discussion was lead by David Isaksson.

The discussion started with Vandemoortele’s story about how the MDGs actually came to exist: At the turn of the millennium, the UN felt that there was a need to set up some new goals and take some new directions, which is why a new summit, the Millennuim summit, was called for. The summit resulted in a declaration that soon threatened to start fading away unless somebody didn’t work with it more intensively. Jan Vandemoortele remembers: “UN Secretariat’s Michael Doyle and I sat together and said: What can we do to prevent the Millennium declaration from getting lost in oblivion? We said: Let’s lift out some of the big promises that are made in that text and set them in a separate category. Those promises became today’s MDGs.”

Stefan Fölster then took the word and talked about problems that arose with having such goals. He thought that there is a paradox, because the more goals one sets, the less effective those goals become. He also thought that sometimes the discussion about witch goals to set takes so much space in the public debate that people start caring about what actually works. He reiterates: “I wouldn’t say that it (necessarily) happened in this case but the discussion about results has taken a very surprising turn; two turns actually: the first turn happened when the goals were proposed. I think most people interpret them that they said: we need to invest much more in traditional development aid in order to reach these goals. At the same time, many researchers started pointing out to something slightly different. But most economists would anyway say that the traditional development aid may work a little bit, but really not much better than no development aid at all…. A few economists started to say that we need to work in an evidence-based manner, and development aid efforts should fulfil the same exacting requirements as medicine. When we test something new, we should really test it. We should have a control group and be able to say what the effect was.”

When asked whether she thought if the MDGs had been useful, Bodil Ceballos answered: “I think that the MDGs have been very useful, for us as politicians also. In my work as a parliamentarian I often go to other countries, development countries for example, I get to meet other parliamentarians, ministers and their staff, and everybody talks about the MDGs. And they want to tell us and explain to us about how they work to achieve the MDGs in their countries. So, Millennium Development Goals have been very successful as a tool for us politicians anyway…And I think that the development goals have been very successful on a global level as well.”

Jan Vandemoortele agreed that development aid needs to be evidence-based, but also added that there needs to be a better explanation about what is meant with the word “evidence-based”: “It truly needs to be evidence-based and what we have with some of the MDGs is that we make ideological assertions and we present them as if they were based on real evidence. Poverty is one of them. It doesn’t stand up to basic scientific scrutiny. You can go anywhere in the world, and face a child and you can objectively observe whether or not that child is undernourished or not. You take the height, you take the weight, you take the age and you do your aggregations. And you check if the child is above the curve or below the curve. That is a scientific measurement. But if that child stands in front of you, you’re not able to say based on direct observations whether that child is living below the poverty line or not. You can’t observe that. For that you need a whole lot of information, the income of the household, the size of the household, the composition of the household, the size of the consumption basket of the household… And all these things are based on assumptions, and the outcome is mostly as lousy as your wrong assumptions are. But there is of course a political ideological purpose behind it to make sure that the neoliberal narrative is showing what the so called solid scientific figures, robust and reliable, that are characteristic for the economic model are lifting people out of poverty. But it’s a bogus.”

Stefan Fölster also talked about the problem with contra productive goals. He mentioned how the Green party is propagating ethanol, so Swedfund goes an invests in an ethanol production in Tanzania. The problem that Fölster points out is that, ethanol is terrible for the environment. Once again he repeated that we should have one or a few goals and analyse properly how we should reach those goals.

Jan Vandemoortele agreed with Stefan and reiterated even further: “The lesson we have learnt is that we need fewer goals next time around. And the goals need to be conceptually defined. We should also remember that the goals are not just about mobilising us or inspiring us; The MDGs are about fundamental transformations in the society.”

David Isaksson pointed out to the fact that poor people have moved from poor countries to middle income countries. The majority of poor people now live in India, China, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, most of which are middle income countries and those countries are not recipients of aid.

Jan Vandemoortele took China as an interesting example: “(In China) We have met the goal, five years ahead of the deadline. 80 percent of the people who have been lifted out of poverty live in China. That’s why we can’t make ideological assertions when we work with MDGs because the place that reached the goal isn’t a democracy.”

A person from the audience returned to the often-discussed issue about result-based goals and compared it a bit with the story about a drunken man who lost his keys. The man started to look for his keys under a streetlight. When a passer by asked him if he had lost he key beside the street light, the man answered: “No, but the light is better here.” Bodil Ceballos picked up on the story and turned the question about measurable results in development aid around and asked: “Why don’t we ask for the same results when it comes to the private sector when they are acting in other countries? Why don’t we ask them for the same results as we do for Sida or the civil society or other actors? Everybody should play by the same rules. I think that the demands for measurable results are set too high on Sida and the civil society.”

And what about the future? David Isaksson pointed out that the Arab Spring has shown how important discussing future and job creation is . He asked the panellists to talk about what will happen after 2015?

Bodil Ceballos thought that we need an agreement for the planet: “This is our most important issue. And when we do this, we can create many of new jobs. We need to help developing countries to better work with us, so they don’t make the same mistakes that we did.” She also points out that in order to save the climate, we need much more than just declarations. She thought that we should come with more goals and targets while we adapt to a more sustainable way of life.

Stefan Fölster pointed out that post-2015 goals, he would like to see new goals that are focused and simple. He didn’t agree with Jan Vandemoortele about democracy and similar issues being immeasurable and said that it’s still good if we get evidence that is roughly right rather than no evidence at all.

In the end, Jan Vandemoortele pointed out that next time around there needs to be more talk about economic distribution. He said that three quarters of the world’s nations have seen deterioration in human rights and equality. Disrespect of human rights and inequality has grown all across the world even in Europe, in Sweden, in Denmark, in Germany and so on. Jan Vandemoortele concluded the discussion about measurable results by saying: ”I think it was Einstein who said that, not everything that comes can be counted. Very valid statement. I agree with it.”

Siavash Golzadeh


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