- From symptoms to structural change
The MDGs have played a positive role in highlighting the need to combat poverty, hunger, illiteracy, diseases and gender inequality. They have also highlighted that the struggle against deprivation is a global responsibility. But there is a need to redefine the goals. To begin with, there are very few demands on rich country governments. The MDGs remain silent on sensitive issues such as the destructive agricultural policies in the North, or the right for low-income countries to protect their incipient markets for industrial goods.
Before the deadline for the present MDGs is reached in 2015 it might be appropriate to start a discussion about a new, complementary, set of goals which would direct the attention to issues and targets more related to underlying causes than to symptoms. Some of these goals can easily be formulated in terms of quantitative targets similar to the MDGs.
The MDGs have played a positive role in highlighting the need to combat poverty, hunger, illiteracy, diseases and gender inequality. They have also highlighted that the struggle against deprivation is a global responsibility.But there is, I think, a need to redefine the goals. To begin with, there are very few demands on rich country governments. Goal number 8 is exceedingly vague. There are no quantitative indicators at all, only rather vague commitments about creating “a global partnership for development”. And the MDGs remain silent on sensitive issues such as the destructive agricultural policies in the North, or the right for low-income countries to protect their incipient markets for industrial goods.A more fundamental criticism is that the MDGs are only quantitative goals which avoid all controversial issues about how to reach the targets.
A brief comparison could be made between the MDGs and the commitments set up at the Copenhagen Social Summit in 1995.
In the so-called Copenhagen Declaration adopted unanimously by the world´s leaders in 1995, the first of the ten commitments was to eradicate – not reduce by half – absolute poverty by a target date to be set by each country. The second commitment was to “support full employment as a basic policy goal”, and the third to “promote social integration based on the enhancement and protection of all human rights”. Among other commitments can be mentioned to “achieve equality and equity between women and men” and to “accelerate the development of Africa and the least developed countries” and to “ensure that structural adjustment programmes include social development goals”.
There are striking differences between the MDGs and the “ten commitments” from 1995, differences which can be interpreted as a step backwards in terms of political commitments. Since many of the MDGs’ quantitative indicators are related to economic growth in general, countries such as China are able to show very good results, despite terrible policies in areas such as income distribution, social protection and human rights.
The ten 1995 commitments are more demanding than the completely apolitical MDGs. The Social Summit declaration addressed issues such as full employment, equality and human rights, which the MDGs by and large avoid. The declaration also talks about development, which the MDGs don´t. The ten commitments demand that individual countries and the international community take action in a number of crucial areas, whereas the MDGs largely limit themselves to setting up goals related to results.
The emphasis on poverty-related social indicators rather than on employment creation, industrialisation and economic development has made the Norwegian economist Erik Reinhart interpret the MDGs as a form of “welfare colonialism”. Reinhart argues that ”the MDGs are far too biased towards palliative economics rather than structural change, i.e. towards treating the symptoms of poverty rather than its causes.”  Strong words, but I think there is a grain of truth in his analysis.
I have no objection against goals related to poverty reduction and social protection, of course. But it is not enough. Before the deadline for the present MDGs is reached in 2015 it might be appropriate to start a discussion about a new – and complementary – set of goals which would direct the attention to issues and targets more related to underlying causes than to symptoms. Some of these goals can easily be formulated in terms of quantitative targets similar to the MDGs.
A far from exhaustive list could include targets related to
- Income distribution. It is perfectly possible to define a target related to equality. For example, to decrease the Gini coefficient with a certain percentage, or to reduce the ratio of income between the richest 20 and the poorest 20 per cent of the population.
- Targets related to domestic resource mobilisation, for example tax collection as a percentage of GDP, and indicators related to whether tax systems have become more or less progressive.
- Democratic development and respect for human rights. To avoid relying only on trivial and sometimes misleading indicators, various different aspects would need to be defined.
- Corruption. There are numerous indicators from institutions such as Transparency International, the World Bank and Global Integrity.
- Prevalence and trends as regards crime and violence, not least gender-based sexual violence.
- Employment, unemployment and underemployment. Changes in formal employment. Labour standards and respect for the core ILO conventions.
A number of other, perhaps more relevant, indicators could be set up. While it may not be possible to reach consensus among all political leaders on certain targets such as respect for human rights, it would be a challenge for researchers, NGOs, UN organisations and all other interested parties to develop a number of “shadow” development goals that could be monitored along with the more official goals that are likely to be established when today´s MDGs expire in 2015.
This brief comment is a modest invitation to such a discussion.
 ”Development and Social Goals: Balancing Aid and Development to Prevent `Welfare Colonialism`”, mimeo, Oslo 2010