Wednesday 18 July 2012

UK MDG Inquiry: careful what you wish for

House of Commons, UK Parliament
The International Development Select Committee of the UK Parliament has announced a formal inquiry into the Millenium Development Goals.

It is asking questions about how well they have worked and what that might tell us about the sort of goals the world should commit to after the MDGs expire in 2015.

Pencils are being sharpened by lobbyists as we speak.

The Committee is a powerful one in the UK, and has recently been made even more powerful by the British Government, who ensured that a new body called the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) reports to it. The Government is required by law to respond to every recommendation the Committee makes, giving its reasons, which makes it a strong part of the checks and balances of the system.

Several members of the Committee have told me that this Inquiry was timed to coincide with the setting up of the High Level Panel announced by Ban Ki-Moon recently, which will be joint chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron and his counterparts from Liberia and Indonesia. Put that together with the leading role among donors that the British Department for International Development (DFID) occupies and you begin to see that this Inquiry may well end up being very influential indeed, way beyond the borders of the UK.

So it's important. That much we can all agree on. But what should we tell them about how well or otherwise the MDGs have done? That much, I suspect, we can't.

The MPs, in the questions they are asking for people's views on, are basically asking whether the system of MDGs works or not. In other words should we have another set of globally agreed targets that everyone has to follow by a deadline. Or, if they haven't worked, is there another way?

Surely the answer is that despite some remarkable strides forward in health and primary education, they have not worked, certainly not in the way and to the extent they were intended to. And that this is because a set of quantitative targets that you measure by counting things works when you are building hospitals, roads or schools but it does not work when you are trying to promote rights, political inclusion and an economy in which everyone has the opportunity to participate. That is why in those areas where rights, political inclusion and equity are in short supply or non-existent, the least progress has been made. The World Bank has found that no conflict affected country has met a single MDG, nor will they. Bad luck for the 1.5 billion people who live in them.

The problem is that civil society in the UK and apparently across the rest of the "Northern" world as well, has a schizophrenic approach to that conundrum. The dominant message coming out of NGOs in the UK at the moment is aimed at pressurising the UK Government to enshrine a committment to give a minimum of 0.7% GDP in overseas development assistance. Being polite this is not the most astute politics at a time when the UK has just entered a double dip recession and people are losing their jobs.

There is an argument to be had about whether you should really measure your effectiveness when it comes to aid against what you put in rather than what it actually delivers, but also consider for a moment what that advocacy message implies to the outside world: that the main priority of civil society is a measure that centres on GDP - precisely the approach which led to the definition of a set of economist-designed goals that address the things you can count and touch but ignore the things you can't - but which, in the long term, are essential to genuinely turning things around.

Oxfam, among others, now refute this approach and argue for a much wider concept of what "growth" actually means. When I last gave evidence to the Committee they were interested in exploring not only the new things we should be measuring but over what sort of timescales they should be measured - did we ever really expect to halve world poverty in 15 years? 

So isn't this actually an opportunity instead to have a more meaningful conversation about what really works?

That would mean publicly accepting that development is not an economists' project that can be measured in unit cost of input or GDP rate of output but rather a political intervention in the affairs of other people's countries, with their consent, with a view to changing those politics for the better. I just felt awkward even typing that sentence becasue of the colonial overtones to it, which is the same reason why donor countries have also been reluctant to talk about it too. But if you do accept that argument, the focus on 0.7% or GDP starts to look strange.

And with the global economy in flux, the emergence of very different power relationships between the old "North" and "South" than were in place at the time the MDGs were conceived in 2000 and the rise in concern over environmental issues means that what emerges after 2015 is wide open for debate. There are at the moment no limits as to where that conversation might go and in what forums it might take place, or even if it ends up with anything after 2015 at all. But if civil society can't move on from it's fixation with targets like 0.7% they won't be a part of the main conversation.

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