The Millennium Development Goals: Rhetoric or Reality

Our October Chapter Event on the MDGS featured Bill Rigler from Millennium Promise and Charles Kenny from the Center for Global Development. The discussion focused on the progress, or lack thereof, in achieving the MDGs to date.

Most people agree that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been a powerful force in mobilizing the international community around set development targets. Many acknowledge that the goals have become the organizing principles of development programs in poor countries, assistance strategies of donor countries, and operational strategies of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) around the world. The goals also were developed at the turn of the Millennium with the belief they were would be eminently achievable because of the scientific, technological and financial capacity of our time.

Proponents of the MDGs claim that the various goals can be achieved through realistic investments and strategies. For example, free access to long-lasting insecticide-treated nets to reduce malaria transmission and community-based drug treatments when episodes of malaria occur have resulted in reductions in deaths caused by malaria. However, proponents of the MDGs also claim that although numerous plans and strategies exist to reach the outlined goals the biggest obstacle for achieving them is the availability of funding for implementing those plans along with the ways that those funds are dispersed. This has clearly been heightened in recent years with the advent and slow recovery from the world financial crisis.

Critics of the MDGs, however, argue that the MDGs are too narrow and they fail to capture critical aspects of human progress and development. For instance, they fail to capture indicators of human progress such as the development of political and societal institutions, human rights and empowerment. Another criticism of the MDGs is that they are too universal and its benchmarks are set up to measure global progress. This conflicts with the notion that implementation strategies often need to be mainly local and context-specific. Furthermore, this creates the dilemma of using the global MDGs to define and measure local progress, which results in a situation where results of individual countries’ development achievements are skewed when their progress is compared to global indicators. This also leaves room for overlooking indicators of success within countries because even if they achieve significant progress towards particular goals if they do not achieve the universal Millennium Development Goals’ outlined targets they are considered as having failed. Another frequently cited criticism of the MDGs is that they provide unrealistic expectations for particular regions or countries. This is rooted in the fact that MDG benchmarks represent greater challenges for poorer countries that have lower economic thresholds and lower development baselines than others. Another flaw of the MDGs that is brought forth is that they suffer from the lack of available, reliable and scientifically valid data. Without reliable and valid data it is impossible to track progress towards achieving the goals.

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