How Useful Are Millennium Development Goals And Sustainable Development Goals To The Developing World?
A fundamental principle that guides productive exchanges and relations amongst nations is a variant of the Kantian Moral Imperative that insists that nations treat each other as each would like to be treated. What is striking about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is that there was a goal for “ensuring environmental sustainability,” but that there wasn’t a goal for economic growth or increased productivity or prosperity—or even one aiming to achieve population-wide improvement in material wellbeing. In fact, economic growth wasn’t a goal, or even a target, but only an indicator of the MDGs. Instead, the MDGs focused on very specific and very low-bar goals. For example, the only goal for education was “completing primary school”—nothing about learning or school quality, nothing about secondary education, nothing about technical training or job skills, and nothing about university or research. This is because, in my view, the MDGs were an exercise in addressing the weak coalition for aid in rich countries by strengthening support among post-materialists in the aid coalition; the developing countries were simply seen as signatories to endorse the goals chosen and championed by international bureaucrats and rich countries.
In contrast, in the debate over the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the nexus moved into the UN General Assembly, beginning with the 67th Session. Given the priority that developing country citizens (and governments) themselves give to economic growth, the latest draft of the SDGs includes the following formulation: “Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all,” which includes a numerical target of seven percent per annum for the least developed. Moreover, the post-2015 agenda is being defined with much higher aspirations across the board; for instance, the education goal now includes quality of learning in primary school, secondary school, technical and vocational training, and university. This makes the SDGs less of an exercise in mobilizing and prioritizing development assistance for donors, and more an articulation of broad goals of development. This can be understood as serving as the basis of raising four critical points that will serve as benchmarks for how development assistance trends will be affected in the period ahead.
The first point is higher standards. For quite some time, the rich countries have been engaged in a political process of attempting to establish “dollar a day” as a relevant poverty standard. This is in part to make development assistance more attractive to the developing country post-materialist coalition, pitching income gains as a means to reduce “extreme poverty.” But the “dollar a day” standard for poverty is below nearly all developing countries’ own national poverty lines—and most countries that have revised their poverty lines over time have raised them. So the “dollar a day” standard actually attempts to define development down, which creates tensions with the agenda of developing country citizens and their governments—let me underline that in no country do people limit their aspirations to simply rising above “dollar a day.” Whereas the MDGs (and many development organizations) focused only on the artificial and arbitrary “dollar a day” definition of “extreme” poverty, the draft SDGs include goals on national poverty targets.
The second point has to do with the ‘safeguards versus infrastructure’ debate. With any big infrastructure project—like a dam or a highway or a power plant—there is a need for a review of its impact on the natural environment, on those displaced by land acquisition, and on society in general. Every major infrastructure project has such risks, and adequate consideration of them is essential to decision-making. However, there are also risks in not moving ahead with infrastructure, as this leaves people less connected into a productive economy—without access to safe water, electrical power, decent transport, and so on. Developing country governments are more cognizant of both risks and potential damage from infrastructure of the wrong kind versus the damage from too little infrastructure. This is why organizations that have been more able to avoid the impositions of the rich Western country post-materialist coalition (e.g. CAF, the regional development banks) have been able to expand their funding of infrastructure dramatically. This is also why countries are creating their own mechanisms for financing infrastructure. Yet any attempts at changes in “safeguards” policies in rich country-controlled organizations like the World Bank are resisted fiercely.
The third point relates to tensions inside multilateral development organizations. In October 2013 the World Bank adopted a new corporate strategy that, in effect, said ‘we don’t care about the well-being of the majority of the population in our “partner” countries.’ Of course, for public relations purposes, the goals were stated as, for instance, “eradicate extreme poverty” (defined as “dollar a day” and thus excluding five billion people) and “shared prosperity” (which includes only the bottom 40 percent), but the effect is the same: ‘we only care about improvements in the wellbeing of less than the majority.’
Why would a global development organization (especially one that already has an Articles of Agreement that already legally specifies its purposes) adopt a strategy that explicitly excludes the majority of people in the world as intended beneficiaries of its developmental actions? The World Bank’s governance structure is such that countries vote their shares of paid-in capital, and hence this new strategy formulation was a means of securing the interests of the rich country voters at the expense of the interests of developing country citizens. Perhaps this is a necessary compromise, but it is one to which there is increasing resistance from developing country governments. They are, not surprisingly, coming together to create organizations that don’t explicitly contradict their legitimate goal of trying to benefit all of their citizens.
The final point revolves around the difficult domestic politics of rich country bilateral development agencies. The shifting coalitions in rich country politics have made it harder to support free standing organizations for development assistance with broad national development agendas. Some countries, like Canada and Australia, have eliminated their free standing development assistance agencies by merging them into their foreign affairs or trade ministries. In the United States, the main expansion to development assistance was the creation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). While there is no question that addressing HIV/AIDS is a development priority, in 2012 this one program accounted for more spending than what USAID spent on infrastructure, agriculture, good governance, education, administration and oversight, environment, growth, conflict mitigation and reconciliation, and private sector competitiveness combined. If, as has been announced, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development withdraws from India and South Africa in 2015, then it will have operations in countries with only 1.1 billion of the developing world’s 5.8 billion people—and this from a country that has pledged to increase total aid to the 0.7 percent of GDP target set by the MDGs more than a decade ago.