What Next for the Millennium Development Goals?

It is just about time for yet another round of international development goals. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the eight goals, 20 targets and 60+ indicators that came out of the United Nations in 2000 – are coming to the end of their natural life. Although the official end date is not until 2015, if your country is not close to reaching the MDGs now, there is simply not much time to catch up. (Helpfully, the UN's MDG Monitor website counts down to 2015 by the second.)

As 2015 ticks ever closer, international bureaucrats (and I use that term affectionately since I have been one) are deciding how to cook up the next round of goals. We can be assured that there will be another round of MDG-like goals sometime fairly soon because this has been the consistent pattern for much of the last century. My colleague Michael Clemens documents how global universal primary education has been repeatedly promised by grand international summits since at least 1934, even if their actual impact has been questionable (Clemens, 2004).

So what should MDGs redux look like if we want them to be constructive and not merely more of the same? A good place to start is to consider the pluses and minuses of the current set. On the positive side, the MDGs have been hugely successful at fundraising. The MDGs evolved out of a set of goals created at the OECD in the mid-1990s as a direct attempt to try to reverse the steep cuts in foreign aid after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Total aid plummeted by more than 20 per cent between 1992 and 1997, prompting waves of panic within the aid community. At the time of the September 2000 UN Summit when the MDGs were adopted unanimously by the largest-ever gathering of heads of state, total aid was around $60 billion per year. By 2005 the level had doubled to around $120 billion and it has hovered around this level ever since. Coincidentally, a series of 'MDG costing studies' suggested that just such a doubling was necessary for those goals to be achieved (Devarajan et al., 2002; Zedillo, 2001).

Finding out what is actually happening on the ground not only helps to establish if money and effort are reaching their intended objectives, but also helps to make critical efficiency decisions.

A link between the MDGs and this spike in aid seems highly plausible. Nearly all donor countries justified their increases on the basis of, if not directly meeting the MDGs, helping to reach MDG-like goals, such as fighting poverty, educating children or stemming the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

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