Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Millennium Development Goals: The Economist on the Halfway Point

The Economist has a good essay on where we are with the Millennium Development Goals. These goals all have as their ultimate goal the reduction of extreme poverty by 2015. First, the good news, the MDG's have not become a forgotten political promise. To the contrary, they have become stronger with every year:

MAKE poverty history is a compelling slogan. Halve it by 2015, in contrast, is a measurable commitment. That is the logic behind the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a host of targets in the struggle against global deprivation, disease and illiteracy, set by the world's leaders at a United Nations jamboree in 2000.

The goals claim to convert campaign slogans into bankable pledges, complete with a number and a date. The world has, for example, resolved to cut the rate at which mothers die from childbirth by three-quarters from 1990 to 2015. The percentage of people without safe water will fall by half; infant mortality by a third. Quick to spot a resonant date in the calendar, the UN has declared July 7th (07/07/07, you understand) the official halfway point towards these 2015 deadlines.

The 2000 summit was unprecedented in its pulling power, attracting more bigwigs than ever before (even the reclusive North Koreans tried to make it, although they turned back in a huff after an undiplomatic airport search). But many of the targets were a bit old hat, recycled for the second or third time. The 1980s were supposed to bring water and sanitation to the great unwashed; the 1990s were supposed to provide “education for all”. Surely, then, no one would take the MDGs all that seriously? Surely, they would quietly fade in the memory like so many other turn-of-the millennium follies and fantasies?

In fact, they have remained surprisingly conspicuous, becoming a kind of secular scripture for the aid fraternity. The UN family, of course, cherishes them. But the goals have also converted the organisation's rivals in the aid business. The World Bank invoked the goals last month when pitching for an infusion of $32 billion from its richer members. Pascal Lamy, head of the World Trade Organisation, invoked them in his plea this week to save the Doha round of global trade talks. Even the IMF, which knows an inconvertible currency when it sees one, pays them solemn respect.

As a result, the MDGs can justly claim to generate a bit of buzz about duties a government might otherwise neglect. After all, ministers in poor countries have a lot on their plate—fending off rivals, putting down insurgencies, distributing the spoils of office. Saving mothers from eclampsia or children from diarrhoea does not always command their full attention. The goals ensure some international recognition for politicians who can make progress on such things.

But the Economist also presents some bad news--we are not accomplishing what we set out to accomplish with the MDGs in the first place:
Sadly, however, they cannot do what they purport to do, which is to provide credible benchmarks against which governments can be judged. Set for the world as a whole, the numerical targets do not fit any country in particular. China had all but met the target of halving poverty from its 1990 levels by the time it was set a decade later. Sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, will fall short of all of the goals, even though its economy is growing quicker than it has for a generation and it is putting children in school faster than any other region.

Some goals cannot be met, others cannot even be measured. Poor countries collect no reliable numbers on deaths from malaria or from childbirth—although the goals are helping to stir a welcome interest in generating better figures. And sometimes what is measured (number of children enrolled in school) is not what counts (the number who learn anything).

The goals are supposed to be everyone's responsibility, which means they are no one's. Poor countries can blame rich ones for not stumping up enough cash; rich governments can accuse poor ones of failing to deserve more money.

Some MDG zealots think the responsibility for achieving them is more clear-cut. They work out what needs to be done to meet the goals; add up the costs; then demand that the world's rich governments foot the bill. Only a lack of generosity separates poor countries from the 2015 targets, they argue.

But foreign cash does not always produce results; and some results do not require much money. Brazil is four times richer than Sri Lanka, but its children are more than twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday. Improving sanitation is about breaking habits as much as building latrines. And although aid money can send a doctor to the boondocks, it cannot make him show up to work. The social progress envisaged in the 2015 targets requires the kind of nationwide nannying that only an accountable domestic government, not a distant foreign donor, can sustain

Finally, the Economist offers an alternative approach:
Can the MDG exercise be salvaged? Researchers at the Centre for Global Development, a Washington think-tank, argue that donors should commit themselves to make “payments for progress”, giving a fixed sum of money to a poor country only after it has shown independently audited progress towards a goal. Donors could, for example, provide $100 for every child who completes primary school, or passes a literacy test, over and above a 2000 baseline. The payments would provide sharper incentives, as well as extra resources. No developing country could claim money was not on the table, and no donor could claim the results were not there to see.

The millennium bash secured global agreement on what matters. That is not nothing. But impoverished countries have to start where they are, not where summiteers might wish them to be. Aid money cannot bridge that gap, and the custodians of the MDGs should not pretend otherwise. But nor should a lack of foreign cash stop countries inching their way out of poverty by their own efforts—which is the only way any nation has ever done it. To make poverty history, you have to understand how history is made.

Read it all here.

The points that the Economist makes may be well-taken. We should have regional and national goals that are measurable as well. And we need to recognize the problems of poor governance and violence if we hope to achieve the MDGs (think Haiti, Congo and Sudan). Still, the MDGs do offer a focus, and it appears that focus can result in accomplishments when problems of governance and violence are addressed.

Indeed, Nicholas Kristof shows reason for hope in his column in this morning's New York Times:

In the early 1990s, Rwanda reinforced all the worst stereotypes of Africa: wretchedly poor, torn apart by war and seemingly destined to be an international basket case forever.

Yet now it has become the little nation that could. It is clean, safe and enjoying economic growth more than twice as fast as the U.S. or Europe. And Rwanda underscores something that is easy to forget: There are signs of a turnaround in Africa, and plenty of reason for optimism.

. . .

In the early 1960s, most of Africa was richer than Asia and many economists expected Africa to zoom far ahead of Asia. Back then, the World Bank named a group of African countries that it projected to grow at 7 percent annually.

Instead, Africa drove over a cliff. Of those countries with good data, one-third now have lower per capita incomes than they did at independence (typically about 1960), and the five worst-performing economies in the world from 1960 to 2001 were all in Africa.

What went wrong? The two most important reasons were that Africa was terribly governed and that it was torn apart by wars.

The problem of conflict is as bad as ever (Darfur sums it up), but governance is getting far better.

Increasingly there are new leaders like Paul Kagame here in Rwanda who are honest, intelligent and capable. President Kagame reads Harvard Business Review and is an African version of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. Both are authoritarian, repressive and quirky (Mr. Kagame banned plastic bags to curb litter). Both did wonders for their countries’ living standards. And both are blunt.

. . .

And when African countries have enjoyed stability and sound policies, they have often thrived. Indeed, the fastest-growing country in the world from 1960 to 2001 was Botswana (South Korea was second, and Singapore and China tied for third).

More and more African countries are now following the Botswana model of welcoming investors and obeying markets. Aside from Rwanda, countries like Mozambique, Benin, Tanzania, Liberia and Mauritius are among those trying to build a future on trade more than aid.

Read it all here (subscription required).

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