Time to end the MDGs (Millenium Development Goals)

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Time to end the MDGs (Millenium Development Goals)

There is more illusion than reality in the strange world of international development, writes Maggie Black.

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‘Development’ should be based in real economic and social conditions if it is going to help people like this Ghanaian woman, forced to marry at 15. (DFID under a Creative Commons Licence)

Fifteen years ago, the UN promised to cut global poverty by 2015. All countries agreed on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has now said that there were a few problems, but in general the MDG have been a very big success. A billion people have come out of extreme poverty. 24% of the world did not have enough food – and now it is 13%. We knew they would say the MDGs were a success. They are choosing the statistics to show success. It’s easy to find other statistics that show they are not so successful.

But the UN and its Goals is the only international commitment to improvements for people – everything else is neoliberal worship of the market and economic growth. That is a very good argument for continuing with the Goals – a good example of there being more illusion than reality in the strange business of international development.

But we have to look at reality too.

First is the serious doubt (counting from the backdated MDG baseline of 1990) – are there really fewer very poor people now?

Then there is the question of how we measure this poverty – are there more people now measuring poverty than doing something about it?

And finally: the most important question. Why are the MDGs controlled by the powerful people who give money? – the MDGs should be analysed based on the real situation, views and opinions of the ‘poor’ the campaign is about.

In the last 15 or 25 years, the development industry has become more professional and academic. So a lot of aid money now goes to university departments, research institutes and private consultancies that get more money and give more power to people who give money.

Even NGOs have been affected. Business has taken over. They don’t care about the people. The ‘global poor’ are now only sets of data or stories.

Unimportant goals

The ‘development’ experience of many poor people has not been good. It is true that many eg. in China, have climbed a little up the economic ladder. In other cases, ‘development’ has taken away their resources and they can no longer survive doing the same work. If they have to leave their land, there is often violence, and they do not get enough money or work as compensation.

If people take your land or set fire to your community, Goals are not important. The plans to end poverty were made by experts who did not know very well the varied situations of the rural, urban, indigenous, female, child or ethnic minority poor.

Imagine you are one of the millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America who only has enough money to eat five meals a week. The global percentage reduction in hunger is not important. If you are drowning in the sea near Libya or watching machines destroy your home in a slum in Mumbai, your child’s measles vaccination or malaria net is not important. These points only show that ‘inequalities’ are growing.

If you visit a slum in Kinshasa, Dhaka or Port-au-Prince, or a big dam or mining site where they are destroying communities, you can feel the terrible poverty. Statistics cannot report this fairly. But the Goals only use statistics. So statistics do not show the real situation.

A billion people rose out of $1.25-a-day poverty. These were mostly in China in the economic miracle of the 1990s. Since 2000, little has changed. Today, at least a billion people are still living on $1.25 a day. Is this success?

And the numbers come from ideas, not counting real people. They come from maths – based on population, the money people spend, the dollar exchange and other ideas.

It is almost impossible to prove the end to poverty. For example, the level that we call poverty is five times higher in Europe and the US.

Later this year, the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) will replace the MDGs. There are more of these: 169 targets (the MDGs only had 18).

There is a big debate about how to monitor these new goals and how much this will cost. One estimate is $254 billion, twice as much as the yearly world aid at the moment. ‘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. Her researchers created the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) with aid money.

The good point about the MPI is that it includes many problems in the definition of poverty – not only lack of money. For example poor sanitation, hunger, and lack of education and healthcare.

But this is obvious. Many very poor people are invisible and use little cash. Poverty experts should know this.

The MPI will be like the Human Development Index, a new idea in 1990. Since then, the United Nations Development Programme has spent a lot of money developing it.

It is now more important to measure poverty than to do something about it.

Magic changes

No global plans can change the lives of very poor people. It is unreal to think that they can. Improvements in the lives of the poor can only happen on the ground.

Global action can support this practical action eg. get money, discuss policy. But there is no global magic which can make it easier to help people out of poverty.

Goals cannot help with the problems of exclusion, family breakdown, violence, exploitation, or the collapse of systems that protect traditional ways of life.

What happened to democracy and ‘people-centred’? Why have we forgotten that development is not successful if the people it wants to help are not an active part of it?

Sadly, having Goals gives everyone the idea that the richer world can improve people’s lives – in ways the poor people did not imagine and did not ask for. It’s like we are writing the play (of socio-economic change) and the poor third of humanity are actors in the play, but do not speak at all.

There is another way. Development activities should be based in existing economic and social realities. And make sure that local ideas have power to make programmes succeed. We need ‘small-scale’, ‘diverse’, ‘participatory’ and ‘just’.

So the Goals will continue. But we must make sure they are reality, not illusion.

For more information read: International Development: Illusions and Realities by Maggie Black, NoNonsense series, published by NI in September 2015.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/2015/09/01/millenium-development-goals-failure/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).