Was costing the MDGs a mistake?

Shanta Devarajan wrote a self-critical blog last week on why it was a mistake to try and cost the Millennium Development Goals way back in 2002. One by one, he picks on the motivation, method and philosophy of the exercise through which they concluded that it would take $50 billion in aid to reach the MDGs. Worth reading in full.

In this setting, approaching development as a problem of finance—the amount of money it will take to achieve the goals—can be counterproductive. From the donor’s side, a focus on raising the $50 billion in resources distracts from investing in the knowledge assistance needed to help unblock these political equilibria. And from the government’s perspective, many of the reforms that are needed to accelerate poverty reduction are politically difficult. Discussions of financing needs enables policymakers to avoid these difficult reforms, while giving them an excuse for missing the goals (“the money was not enough”).

However, can we wish away financing considerations? I guess not. The 0.7% movement reflects another financing push; so does fanciful ideas such as the Robin Hood Tax. It is important to not stop at the financing solution.

The effort to approach development as a financing question reflects the pitfalls of project-isation of development. Seen as discrete time-bound cycles, ever so often, we allow the funds available to guide intervention designs. Mostly, what this results in is the tendency of implementers to disown the processes and then, the results of projects they have not (or at best only partially) designed. As the blog points out, the availability (or the lack of) funds becomes an easy crutch for both donors and governments, if the desired outcomes are not realised. So while Devarajan and colleagues may not have thought of financing as the end, it is possible that governments and other implementers did…

Realistically, financing estimates will continue to play an important role in the planning process. So what are the lessons from the fifteen year of MDGs that can help expand the thinking process beyond just financing? One, as the blog points out, is the evidence that the countries that did well on the MDGs are not necessarily the ones that received the most aid, although it is true that the poorer countries have lagged behind.

A second consideration is the question of what matters more for international development itself – one that is implicit in the idea of aid that comes from developed countries. Surely, there are bigger issues that fall in the realm of international relations (terms of trade, technology transfer, climate negotiations, financial regulation, taxation, etc) that would have to be addressed if developed countries want to make a real dent on global poverty.

While talking about this, we have not even started considering the issue of local politics and policymaking. At least in middle income countries dealing with problems of significant income and wealth inequalities, it is not so much a question of aid, but of improving local implementation capacity and local resource mobilisation. We should learn all we can from our collective experience of the last decade.

All in all, a great blog to spur the debate as we head towards another set of shared global goals…

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