The Power of Numbers: Why the MDGs were flawed (and post2015 goals look set to go the same way)

I’ve just been reading the findings of a research programme that concludes that the whole MDGs exercise has been plagued by negative (if unintended)

We owe it all to the MDGs.....
We owe it all to the MDGs…..

consequences, and that these are a result of the whole process of setting goals and targets (so the post2015/SDG process is likely to go the same way). Have I got your attention?

Given how much interest (and air miles) are being expended in the post2015 negotiations, it’s bizarre how little rigorous analysis there is of the impact of the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), on which they aim to build. In a classic confusion of correlation and causation, a lot of political leaders are happy to say ‘global poverty has halved, so the MDGs have been effective’. Really? So the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (largely responsible for hitting the poverty target) have been leaping out of bed every morning for the last 15 years saying ‘how can we achieve the MDGs today?’ Don’t think so.

One attempt to fill the void is the ‘Power of Numbers’ project, coordinated by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (The New School) and Alicia Ely Yamin (Harvard University). The papers will be published a special edition of the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities (gated), but I’ve been reading an ungated version of the synthesis paper. Drafts of the other ‘Power of Numbers’ papers are here, covering income poverty, hunger, education, full employment, gender rights, child mortality,  sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, the City, water and sanitation, and global partnership.

The synthesis paper is about the most damning thing I’ve read on the MDGs. Some highlights:

On the Intended Consequences (i.e. mobilizing funding and attention):

‘The eight goals, 21 targets, and 60 associated indicators did not all have the same effect. Some of the goals and targets garnered significant attention in terms of funding as well as programs and research, while others were “poor cousins” and made little difference.’

Water, child survival, sanitation and maternal health got more attention, while the global movement around HIV was largely responsible for increased funding, rather than its inclusion in the MDGs. Moreover ‘the narrowly circumscribed focus of the targets and indicators produced more limited and ambiguous impacts on complex social issues. For example, despite the great increases in primary school enrolment, critical dimensions such as quality, and both gender and class equity, were omitted from measurement—and therefore concern.’

post-2015‘Targets that made little difference’ include hunger, (action had to wait until the 2008 food price spike), employment and the global partnership goal.

Unintended Consequences:

The authors portray the MDGs as a throwback to the ‘basic needs’ focus of previous decades.  ‘This thinking led to strengthened financial support for vertical and technocratic strategies, which represented a reversion to 1980s thinking. This was a shift from the emergence during the 1990s of human development and human rights-based approaches to development, which focused on people not as the beneficiaries of specific programs but as active agents in changing the social relations and structures that perpetuate rights deprivations.’

MDG3 for example (on gender equality) was ‘highly reductionist, sidelining all but one of the 13 points of the Beijing Platform for Action. [and showing] the incoherence of reducing a goal of gender equality to targets and indicators focusing only on gender parity in education, informal-sector labor-force participation, and political participation of women. These narrow targets were a dramatic change from the more transformative understanding of “gender equality” that had emerged from the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women and the civil society movements of the 1990s.’

‘Across the goals and targets studied, inequality and discrimination were almost entirely neglected.’

‘The goals/targets encouraged implementation approaches that were conceptually narrow, vertically structured and relied heavily on technological solutions, neglecting the need for social change and the strengthening of national institutions.’

There are further impacts on the way we talk about development.

‘Once these numerical targets were set, they were perceived to be “value neutral.” As they were to be measured through outcomes, the MDGs displaced

Remind me, who is 'we'?
Remind me, who is ‘we’?

debates about policy alternatives both in global development broadly, as well as within specific fields. In fact, however, there were assumptions deeply embedded in the MDGs about the nature and purpose of development. The effect of the MDG framing was to marginalize ongoing strategic processes for empowerment of people and transformation of economies.’

Overall conclusion?

‘The findings of the Project do not contradict the consensus assessment of the positive effects of the MDGs in highlighting the importance of poverty reduction, and the focus on human well-being as urgent global priorities in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, the power of numbers inherent in these goals produced multiple indirect and often unintended consequences, which also deserve attention in light of the construction of a post-MDG development agenda. The collected studies in this issue show that some of the policy effects undermined intended consequences while the knowledge effects created a narrative of development that was strangely alien to the vision of the Millennium Declaration for a people-centered development motivated by universal values of equality, respect for nature, solidarity and freedom.

The unintended consequences revealed in the Project cannot merely be ascribed to the goals and targets having been selected or implemented badly, as is sometimes claimed. They are more fundamental structural issues arising from the nature of quantification.

Human rights approaches to development require targets and indicators that are both quantitative and qualitative, as many essential components of human rights cannot be reliably quantified. For example, the existence of legal and policy frameworks that proscribe discrimination along prohibited grounds is essential to ensuring development consistent with a human rights framework.

Goal-setting is a poor methodology for elaborating an international agenda.’

Ouch, are any of the politicians, lobbyists and technocrats listening in the post2015 circus? I really hope so.

Unfortunately, the project explicitly avoids the other gap, which I am more interested in – the gaping lack of evidence of the impact of the MDGs on national decision making. OK, so China may not have been influenced, but what was the real impact of the MDGs in shaping government policy and practice elsewhere in the developing world? What’s the best thing to read on that?

Update: In an exercise in synchronized transatlantic parade-raining, Charles Kenny over at CGD has an excellent piece lamenting the state of the draft SDGs

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13 Responses to “The Power of Numbers: Why the MDGs were flawed (and post2015 goals look set to go the same way)”
  1. Kate Raworth

    I’d ask that last question the other way round: what could be the influence of progressive national policy and practice on the success rate of future global goals? China’s policies may have not been influenced by the MDGs, but these are different times, and now it looks like China is reversing the influence, from national up to global. In 70 small Chinese cities, GDP has been dropped as a performance target, with officials now mandated to focus on targets for poverty reduction and tackling environmental degradation. If this initiative succeeds and gets scaled up across China, and adopted in other countries, then we stand a better chance than previous eras of pursuing global goals from national efforts up, rather than expecting the reverse. (See this news on china at – and if you get blocked, just google “FT small chinese cities steer away GDP”).

    • Duncan Green

      But if national policies are driving global goals rather than the other way around, what is the purpose of the goals? If they’re acting as a clearing house for new thinking and approaches, they are really badly designed for it!

  2. Kate Raworth

    I’m sure it’s iterative, with the influence running both ways. But the politics of key countries stepping up their ambition on social and environmental outcomes must have some influence in making greater global ambition possible.

    I’m just wary of dismissing the SDGs on the basis of historic limited success of the MDGs. Times have changed, and national ambition and metrics are changing – in China’s case, in the right direction. That has to a positive thing.

    If the Power of Numbers report concludes that ‘goal setting is a poor methodology for elaborating an international agenda’, what does it propose as a better method?

  3. Luc Lapointe

    Interesting article and definitely interesting research from Harvard University. A few months ago I was attending a meeting in New York (working on new indicators). We had a short presentation about the process (mostly for the new participant at the table that are not working in this sector). One interesting and maybe irrelevant piece of information about the MDGs is that they were written overnight by a group of people (I would imagine over a glass of wine). The MDGs did everything write to disconnect people from the process (execution) and the SDGs are heading in the same direction.

    So the world is there waiting for new marching order..what will the government do, where will we get all of this money without clear and useful indicators!! These goals are developed under the notion that we are a Society of Victims and at the same time Victims of Society.

    From poverty to climate change and health to education – we are the results of the sum of our economic activities that make these situations what they are! Poverty is not a disease …it’s the result of our daily activities. One person benefit…and a few will lose — and this repeats itself every day. So how could the SDGs help change this very simple situation? Well unfortunately, we have to look at the SDGs like the 10 commandments (in this case 17). Visionary and ambitious but when it comes to putting them into action…it’s definitely not the $7 trillion needed that will make it possible.

    Once again, SDGs are leaving people out of the equation…so the situation will remain the same. It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at the situation, if it doesn’t come with the right infrastructures…it will be wasted and it will just perpetuate the problem.

    Whatever happens in the next 15 years…someone will make it look good at the end and we will be blessed with more dots on the map, info-graphic and definitely new vocabulary.

    It’s not so complex after all!

  4. Mohga Kamal-Yanni

    Numbers are useful but they can hide the measures needed to ensure sustained achievements. For example unless there is proper attention to adequate financing and delivery of quality health care, any achievements on health specific targets cannot be sustained. And by the way no health system can function without access to medicines. How to get numeral target on developing the system?

    I would also like to know how the MDG process helped countries setting proper information systems . For example how many countries have we- functioning systems to record diseases prevalence and causes of death?

  5. Michelle

    National planning in South Africa has been influenced by the MDGs – here’s a note from the head of the National Planning Commission (authors of 2012’s National Development Plan: Vision 2030) to that effect:

    Note that our government stats agency does an annual report on progress against the MDGs – I am sure that in some cases this has necessitated setting up or improving measurement systems. As a development generalist, it is useful to see this data gathered into one report.

    MDGs also crop up in strategic thinking in South African corporate philanthropy, which is the field I work in. For this reason, we’ll be publishing a piece on the MDGs and SDGs in the 17th edition of our annual CSI Handbook (CSI here stands for corporate social investment). Keeping the audience in mind, it won’t be very wonky. It will look at the weaknesses, but focus on what the new goals are likely to be. For corporate grantmakers, there is something very appealing about high-level bullet points that can be referenced in board meetings in order to direct money as needed (referring to Kenny’s article, surely the SDGs SHOULD be weak on ‘how we get there’?)

  6. Deepa Joshi

    Duncan, it is heartening to read the hard facts. This is obviously difficult to digest for a whole community of actors and institutions who bring a very mixed set of intentions and priorities to what makes for development policy and practice. Reading your article, I am reminded of what David Satterthwaite at IIED recently blogged, ‘We need a little more honesty [in our intentions] and lot more rigour in monitoring what we claim as progress and achievement’. But its not really about the poor, isn’t it? Its alot more about ‘us’, the actors who stage the play, and we do need our plays, new agendas, new goals, new activities… nonetheless, a little honesty would indeed go a long way.

  7. William Hayes

    Trying to understand what’s being said here. Sounds to be a species of “we’ll look at evidence about what they’re doing, but we’re not going to be evidence-based ourselves.” Challenging for those of us in the peanut gallery.

  8. Elham Seyedsayamdost

    I recently conducted a study on the impact of the MDGs on national planning of 50 countries. I focused in particular on post 2005 national development plans in an attempt to assess whether the push that came with that summit and the international community’s call for implementing the MDGs within their national frameworks may have impacted planning. What I found is that in rhetoric, 32 of the 50 countries include some or all MDG targets and indicators in their national plans. In particular, I found that PRSP status and dependence on ODA are good indicators of which countries actively report on their progress in achieving the MDGs and use them for planning purposes. I then examined whether this rhetoric is translated into action in terms of increase or decline in budget allocation to social sectors, in particular health and education. Although this is an exercise in pre and post 2005 (and not necessarily pre and post MDGs), what I found is quite illuminating: there is no correlation in increased budget allocation to social sectors and MDG inclusion in national development plans. This is just preliminary work and in need of further investigation, but I thought I’d share this with you.

  9. kenneth Ayino

    Its interesting. people in high office within UNDP who sets up what they wont understand and achieve, for MDGS to work we will cannibalize the arrangement, industrialization with pollution, Give aid with 90% taken back to developed world. The poor pay the debts of cash borrowed in 1950 but the interested rate game makes borrowing 10 million $ paying back 40m and still owe world bank 45m. meanwhile the cash was given to a dictator who invested back in Europe. the game continues.Its fighting poverty which is a rocket science.