Have the MDGs affected developing country policies and spending? Findings of new 50 country study.

One of the many baffling aspects of the post-2015/Sustainable Development Goal process is how little research therecorrelation v causation cartoon has been on the impact of their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals. That may sound odd, given how often we hear ‘the MDGs are on/off track’ on poverty, health, education etc, but saying ‘the MDG for poverty reduction has been achieved five years ahead of schedule’ is not at all the same as saying ‘the MDGs caused that poverty reduction’ – a classic case of confusing correlation with causation.

So I gave heartfelt thanks when Columbia University’s Elham Seyedsayamdost got in touch after a previous whinge on this topic, and sent me her draft paper for UNDP which, as far as I know, is the first systematic attempt to look at the impact of the MDGs on national government policy. Here’s the abstract, with my commentary in brackets/italics. The full paper is here: MDG Assessment_ES, and Elham would welcome any feedback (es548[at]columbia[dot]edu):

‘This study reviews post‐2005 national development strategies of fifty countries from diverse income groups, geographical locations, human development tiers, and ODA (official aid) levels to assess the extent to which national plans have tailored the Millennium Development Goals to their local contexts. Reviewing PRSPs and non‐PRSP national strategies, it presents a mixed picture. [so it’s about plans and policies, rather than what actually happened in terms of implementation, but it’s still way ahead of anything else I’ve seen]

The encouraging finding is that thirty-two of the development plans under review have either adopted the MDGs as planning and monitoring tools or “localized” them in a meaningful way, using diverse adaptation strategies from changing the target date to setting additional goals, targets and indicators, all the way to integrating MDGs into subnational planning. [OK, so the MDGs have been reflected in national planning documents. That’s a start.]

MDGsA high correlation is detected between income group, PRSP status and ODA reliance of countries and their propensity to incorporate the MDGs in their planning instruments. A closer examination of the national plans indicates that PRSP countries are more likely to have aligned their national plans with the MDGs. On the other hand, all the countries that have not aligned their plans with the MDGs belong to the middle‐income countries and are least dependent on ODA. [Not surprising – the more poor/aid dependent a country is, the more it has to listen to donors banging on about the MDGs.]

The correlation between countries’ human development level and their propensity to adopt or adapt the MDGs is similarly quite strong, as the number of MDG‐based national strategies decreases as countries’ HDI increases. The discouraging findings include the dwindling attention national plans pay to the targets pertaining to reproductive health, environment, gender equality beyond education, and maternal health. [Richer countries pay less attention to MDGs, either because they are less aid dependent, or because they find them less relevant – doesn’t bode well for ‘universalism’ in the future]

More disconcerting is the lack of a connection between planning and implementation, as MDG alignment of national strategies is not coterminous with greater pro‐poor or MDG‐oriented policies. In fact, countries that have not integrated MDGs into their national plans are just as likely to allocate government funds to the social sectors as the MDG aligners.’ [Ouch – this is the killer para. Whether MDGs are reflected in plans or not, they do not have any apparent influence on how governments spend their money. She measured this by looking mainly at spending on health (the data was not great, but better than for education) before and after the relevant National Development Strategy and found: ‘the probability of a country increasing its health budget in the years after the publication of their national development plan was the same for countries that had aligned their reports with MDGs and those that had not aligned them.’]

If true (and there’s certainly a need for more research on this issue), the last paragraph is important for the SDG process currently under way – if a simpler, shorter list of MDGs, backed by huge donor resources cannot be SDG graphicshown to have influenced government spending decisions, what chance has the sprawl of the SDGs (current draft weighing in at 17 goals and 169 targets, see right) got?

I hate to say I told you so. Actually, screw that, I love saying I told you so. The post-2015 circus spent a ridiculous amount of time and energy arguing about which baubles to put on its Christmas Tree. It is only now getting to the interesting and important part – ensuring that whatever is agreed is designed to actually influencing the spending and policy decisions of developing country governments. At this point, it ought to have been able to draw on the lessons of the MDG experience; unfortunately, propaganda and wishful thinking seem to have squeezed out serious research on what those lessons actually are. Elham’s paper is at least a start in redressing that.

Oof. I feel better for that.

Please send comments to Elham. And here’s her bio in case you want to give her a job. ‘Elham Seyedsayamdost is a researcher and development professional specializing in the political economy of development. She was recently awarded a PhD in Political Science at Columbia University, where she was a Cordier Fellow at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Her PhD dissertation, titled “A World Without Poverty: Negotiating the Global Development Agenda,” examines the political processes, interests and preferences of international actors in creating the Millennium Development Goals. Previously, she worked for many years on development policy with UNDP and the World Bank. To learn more, visit http://elham.se.’

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4 Responses to “Have the MDGs affected developing country policies and spending? Findings of new 50 country study.”
  1. Daria

    Hi Duncan and Elham,

    thanks for a really interesting post. Drawing on my very recent experience in Tajikistan, I think when looking at the impact of MDG’s, in addition to looking at the public spending, it’s important to see how the donor spending in those countries have been changing in terms of volumes and sectors it is allocated to. In Tajikistan, the government spending on health, for example, is so limited that it mainly goes to cover salaries (and the situation almost hasn’t changed since mid 2000s), while all the rest is covered by donor money. So, essentially, the strategy does not have any public money whatsoever underpinning it, but many (actually most of activities under the strategy) are being implemented nevertheless in one way or another by donors. It clearly is a very unsustainable model, but that’s the topic for another research =)

  2. Elham Seyedsayamdost

    Hi Daria,

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I completely agree with your point that a disaggregated assessment of public health spending would shed further light on the extent to which governments align their national plans with globally agreed targets. If a government increasingly spends its money on personnel without allocating resources to material necessities (such as hospitals, medical equipment, medicine, etc.), does that necessarily indicate greater national alignment with MDG 4 and 5? I guess to some extent it does, but as you correctly highlight, dependence on donor resources is not sustainable and not in line with the spirit of the MDGs. My study examines overall trends in a sample of 50 countries without delving into a more detailed exploration of each government’s strategies. An analysis of donor expenditure in the various sectors would certainly add value to the broader assessment offered in this study.

  3. Samantha

    Hi Duncan and Elham,

    Thanks for sharing this important piece of research. As an optimist on both the MDGs and SDGs, I would flag two points. 1) It makes perfect sense that LDCs national plans would reflect MDGs more, given design and implementation of the goals. BUT is a an important point to bear in mind moving forward with a more universal agenda. And 2) national funding didn’t align because “we” (the development community) didn’t ask, at least not until later in the game. Think of the usual development logframes (UNDAF etc., project) and only rarely did they track government’s national allocations. Some UN agencies are just getting started on tracking public investments in the social sector. (http://blogs.unicef.org/2015/06/25/toward-better-investments-in-children-in-latin-america/). And in many countries relationships between social ministries and Ministries of Finance can be quite dysfunctional. Here’s looking to an SDG review process that includes governments’ allocations to children and women…

    Samantha Cocco-Klein
    Senior Adviser, Equity for Children
    PhD Student, Public and Urban Policy, New School NY

  4. Elham Seyedsayamdost

    Hi Samantha,

    Thanks for your feedback! I’d like to add to the two points you raised.

    On your first point, in addition to the design of the goals, the fact that they set the bar rather low (the development community has mostly viewed the MDGs – at least MDGs 1 through 6 – as the least common denominator goals) indicated that they addressed the challenges LDCs faced. Documents suggest that middle-income countries did not necessarily find the goals to apply to them and thus made less of an effort to integrate them into their planning. There are of course different phases to the roll-out of the MDGs, so this statement does not apply to all countries at all phases, but I think that on average it’s a fair assessment.

    On your second point, I think the process was more complicated. The Millennium Project and other entities, including the World Bank, spent quite a bit of energy and resources on costing exercises, both at national and international levels. The understanding was that knowing how much the implementation of the goals would cost could help governments plan their budgets accordingly and allocate funds to the social sectors that helped them achieve their localized MDG targets. One of the functions of the PRSPs was to track funding, and most national strategies that I have seen similarly track funding and budgetary allocations to various areas, including but not limited to social sectors.

    I think the key question is: how and to what extent do globally agreed goals impact national planning? What factors help us understand the variation between countries that translate such goals in their national contexts and those that don’t? The answers to these questions are important, in particular because of the lack of enforcement mechanisms. This study looks at some of the socioeconomic variables that help us understand the variation, but political variables (such as accountability mechanisms between citizens and state, government’s tendency to emphasize pro-poor policies, citizens’ access to government to demand policies that reduce poverty, etc.) are just as important and would shed further light on the questions raised.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and all my best,