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03 Sep 2015

Calling Time on the MDGs By Maggie Black

By Maggie Black, writer and editor on international social issues.

mdgFifteen years ago, the UN’s member states committed themselves to a dramatic reduction in global poverty by 2015, signing up to a set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The verdict is now in, and – surprise, surprise – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has announced that, despite a few glitches, the campaign has been a roaring success. A billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. The proportion of undernourished people has dropped from 24 to 13 per cent. And so on, through a carefully qualified list of MDG achievements.

The mainly full, slightly empty glass depicted as the MDG outcome was utterly predictable, and the statistics used to illustrate it were picked for that purpose. It would be easy to select others to show the outcome in less rosy hues. But it seems invidious to do so because the UN and its Game of Goals is the only vehicle for international commitment to improvements in the human condition, as opposed to neoliberal adulation of the market and economic growth. That is a powerful argument for letting the Goals soldier on – a classic example of illusion trumping reality in the murky business of international development.

But reality has to be addressed too. First is the serious doubt, especially if you count from the conveniently backdated MDG baseline of 1990, whether there really has been a significant reduction in the numbers of the very poor. Then there is the question of the measurement of this poverty – less whether the sums are right than whether measuring it has become a displacement activity for doing something about it. And finally comes the most important question. Why is this exercise rooted in a top-down, donor-driven vision, not in an analysis informed by the actual situation, views and opinions of those ‘poor’ the whole campaign is supposed to be about?

These are among the questions addressed in International Development: Illusions and Realities, one of the new titles in New Internationalist’s relaunched NoNonsense series.

In the last 15 or 25 years – is this a coincidence? – the development industry has undergone a process of professionalization and ‘academicization’. This has enabled large amounts of aid to be absorbed by university departments, research institutes and private consultancies created to expand donor influence and pay cheques. Even NGOs have been affected. The industry’s soul has been captured by quasi-corporate entities whose concern for the predicaments of the ‘global poor’ is synthetic. They have become data sets, anecdotal case illustrations or, simply, pawns.

Irrelevant goals

Meanwhile the ‘development’ experience of many of them has been negative. True, a significant number, especially in China, have joined the economic mainstream and climbed a rung or two up the economic ladder. In other cases, ‘development’ has stolen their resource base and destroyed their livelihoods. Dispossession has been accompanied by violence, not by reasonable compensation or a decent job. If your land has been grabbed or your community torched, Goals are irrelevant. This anti-poverty agenda was established by experts who have never familiarized themselves closely, or even at all, with the varied situations of the rural, urban, indigenous, female, child or ethnic minority poor.

Suppose you are one of the millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America who can only afford to eat five meals a week. The global percentage reduction in hunger will be immaterial. If you are drowning off the coast of Libya or watching a bulldozer flattening your home in slum-dog Mumbai, your child’s vaccination against measles or bed-net against malaria is irrelevant. In the Goals context, such deficits are only noticed as regrets that ‘inequalities’ are growing.

Visit a slum in Kinshasa, Dhaka or Port-au-Prince, or a mega-dam or mining site where communities are being erased, and the degradation and brutality of poverty is tangible. No statistics can do it justice. But statistics is what Goals are all about. And so, inevitably, the statistics mislead. The much-vaunted billion people lifted out of $1.25-a-day poverty were mostly in China during its economic miracle of the 1990s.[i] Since 2000 little has changed. Today, at least a billion people are still living on $1.25 a day. Is this really something to applaud?

The figures are constructs anyway, not head counts. They are derived from formulae based on population figures, purchasing power, dollar equivalents and other variables. Their assumptions are arbitrary: poverty thresholds in Europe and the US are five times as high. Recently, the development industry has made a fetish out of mathematical poverty, refining thresholds and methodologies and calling for an end to ‘extreme poverty’ by 2030. How on earth could attainment – even mathematically – be proved?

At the end of this month, the MDGs will be replaced with the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), consisting of a broader agenda with 169 targets compared to the MDGs’ modest 18. There is a full-scale debate about how they will be monitored and what this will cost: one estimate is $254 billion, twice the current annual global aid budget.[ii] ‘If we want to end poverty, we need to be able to measure it properly,’ says Sabina Alkire, Director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), busily promoting the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) her researchers have created – courtesy of aid.

The MPI has the merit of factoring into the definition of poverty ‘overlapping disadvantages’ faced by poor people, such as poor sanitation, hunger, and lack of education and healthcare, instead of only computing shortage of cash. This statement of the blindingly obvious takes one’s breath away, especially as many of the very poor live in an invisible, resource-based economy where cash transactions barely feature. You would expect poverty experts to know this.

The MPI will be like the Human Development Index (HDI), a breakthrough idea of 1990, whose variables the United Nations Development Programme has since spent several fortunes redefining. Measuring poverty has become more important ‘professionally’ than doing something about it. Data analysis is the development racket of our day. Who measures the anti-poverty contribution of the measurers?

Waving wands

 No global agenda can transform the lives of seriously poor people. The idea that it could is a confection. Improvements in the lives of the poor can only happen on the ground. Action at the global level is confined to a supporting role, providing funds and forums to carry on policy debates and other exercises connected, sometimes tenuously, to practical action. No global stratosphere exists where wands can be waved that will miraculously short-cut the frustrating, difficult, incremental process of poverty transformation where it has to take place.

Goals cannot tackle predicaments of exclusion, family breakdown, violence, exploitation, or the collapse of traditional protective systems and once-viable ways of life. Attempts to assist communities overcome the worst problems they face, besides providing healthcare and education, and to design their own targets and agendas, are eclipsed. What happened to democracy and ‘people-centred’? Why have we forgotten that no development process succeeds unless the people it targets actively participate?

Regrettably, the Game of Goals supports the gravitational pull of the idea that the macro-level is where it’s at and that we in the privileged world can fix up people’s lives in ways they have not envisaged or asked for. In this scenario, the third of humanity living in poverty are players with non-speaking parts in the drama of socio-economic transformation as written by ourselves.

There is another way. Activities carried out in development’s name should be grounded in existing economic and social realities, build bridges to the mainstream, and recognize that local idiosyncrasies have the strongest influence over whether programmes to assist people out of poverty succeed or fail. We need to rediscover ‘small-scale’ and ‘diverse’, and ensure that ‘participatory’, ‘equitable’ and ‘just’ are fully in the picture.

Never mind the Game of Goals. Let it go on. But make sure also to trump illusion with reality. Let, as well, a thousand flowers bloom.

This blog is heavily based on an article that first appeared in the New Internationalist Summer 2015, Issue 485, pp. 42-43. It is reproduced with consent.

Maggie Black is a writer and editor on international social issues and former editor of UNICEF Publications in New York. Maggie Black has written books for OUP, UNICEF, and Oxfam and has written for the Guardian, The Economist and BBC World Service. Her most recent publication is International Development: Illusions and Realities (New Internationalist, September 2015). Email:

[i] Jason Hickel, ‘The death of international development’, Red Pepper, February 2015.

[ii] Bjorn Lomborg, ‘Cost of gathering data on new development goals could be crippling’, Guardian Global Development, 25 September 2014.

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