Millennium Development Goals: Reality or Illusion?
The world’s leaders will gather next week at the United Nations in New York to review progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) first laid out a decade ago--eight goals, 20 targets, and more than 60 indicators. Not surprisingly, there will be a lot of self-congratulation on the part of a small group of aid donor countries that provide the lion’s share of foreign aid. There will be pats on the back and a flurry of statistics about how many people have been lifted above the poverty line, how many more children are getting vaccinated or are being enrolled in school, the number of people suffering from AIDS or malaria who are getting treatment today that didn’t receive it two decades ago. Among the statistics likely to be recited in New York to demonstrate progress will be that the number of people in the world living on less than $1.25 per day has fallen by more than 400 million since 1990, that 40 million more children are in school today than only five years ago, or that 1.6 billion more people have gained access to improved drinking water, putting us on target to meet the global goal of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water. But when all is said and done, the real question remains: Does this mean anything in the long run? Are downward ticks in poverty rates, school enrollments, or vaccinations sustainable? If anyone doubts that this question needs to be asked, they need only look at the recent news from the U.S. government about the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief. The Obama administration is suggesting that all countries with HIV/AIDS populations now being treated through this program should be prepared to shoulder the burden of continued treatment. The suggestion of shifting the program to recipient countries’ health budgets reflects a certain donor fatigue (or restlessness)—a desire to move on and experiment with different approaches to development. But even if donor fatigue is not evident, if foreign aid flows continue at a steady or even an increased rate, will measurable changes in the development outcomes result in sustainable changes in the lives of people in the less-developed countries? Are the goals, clustered as they are around functional and measurable indices, really a good measure of economic growth and prosperity? What really matters to people in developing countries is the trend line of economic growth. A continuous, steady improvement in prosperity is a more reliable measure of progress than school enrollment rates or vaccination rates. That doesn’t mean those are not important indices of health and social progress, but they are results that flow from the normal course of economic growth. South Korea provides a good illustration of this hypothesis. In 1960, the illiteracy rate in South Korea was over 50%, roughly the same as in Mali. Likewise, income levels were on par with the newly independent states of West Africa. Today, South Korea boasts one of the highest college graduation rates (above that of the United States) and has a per capita income level 20 times greater than Mali. Which is the chicken and which is the egg? Did growth lead to better education for the citizens of South Korea, or did improved education pull growth rates up by the boot straps? Of course, they go together in synergistic fashion, but the economic evidence is clear that growth will nearly always lead to improvements in indicators of personal well-being. One might add that it also leads to improved governance, which in turn fuels more economic growth. Perhaps, rather than counting new desks in new classrooms, the world’s leaders should concentrate on bolstering the underlying growth rates in developing countries. This suggests a different set of indicators that might be used: • Economic Growth rates over a five year period compared to other comparable developing countries; • Trade flows and their growth rates; • Foreign Direct Investment flows; • Regulatory Efficiency—what barriers confront business when they try to trade outside or inside a country, make investments, or establish entrepreneurial enterprises; • Tax Structure—fairness and equity, not just rates, and how it affects business investment; and finally, • Governance, which, from an economic growth point of view, means transparency, accountability, openness and fairness. It is readily apparent that these indicators provide an underpinning for sustained economic growth that does not depend on the largess of outside donors. Is this achievable? One only needs to look at the economic success stories that have been achieved in a number of emerging market countries to realize the benefit of focusing on growth. So, while those gathered in New York next week can take justifiable pride in the progress that has been made toward reaching the Millennium Development Goals, it should also be a time to take stock and figure out where we go next. The answer should be to emphasize plain, old-fashioned, economic growth above all other metrics. Jim Kolbe is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC, and is the co-chair of the Transatlantic Taskforce on Development.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.