Despite UN's best intentions rich-poor paradox remains

As the deadline approaches for goals such as halving extreme property and halting the spread of HIV/Aids, development experts are debating a new question: what next?

Many of the Millennium Development Goals such as reducing extreme poverty will not be met by 2015. Manpreet Romana / AFP
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In 2000, 189 countries adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, which evolved into a set of concrete targets called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

These ambitious targets - ranging from halving extreme poverty and reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters to achieving universal primary schooling and halting the spread of HIV/Aids - are supposed to be met by 2015. As the deadline approaches, development experts are debating a new question: what next?

It is virtually certain that many MDGs will not have been met, but there have been striking successes. For example, the goal of halving extreme poverty, measured by the number of people living on less than US$1.25 (Dh4.6) a day, is likely to be achieved, largely thanks to China's phenomenal growth.

But there is little evidence to suggest those successes were the result of the MDGs.

Clearly, however, the MDGs were a public relations triumph, which is not to belittle their contribution. Like all worthwhile PR efforts, they served to raise awareness, galvanise attention and mobilise action - all for a good cause. And there is evidence that they convinced advanced countries to pay more attention to poor nations.

Indeed, MDGs possibly had their clearest impact on aid from rich to poor countries. A study by Charles Kenny and Andy Sumner for the Center for Global Development in Washington suggests that MDGs not only boosted aid flows but redirected them towards smaller, poorer countries, and towards targeted areas such as education and public health. However, it is difficult to know whether the aid had the desired impact.

The MDGs encompass eight goals, 21 targets and 60 indicators. Much criticism has focused on these targets and indicators which, sceptics argue, are misspecified, mismeasured and divert attention from equally important areas. But such complaints miss the point. Any effort needs to monitor results and setting clear numerical targets is the best way to do so.

Still, a central paradox plagues the MDGs. The Millennium Declaration was meant to be a compact between the world's rich and poor countries. Poor countries promised to refocus their development efforts while rich countries pledged to support them with finance, technology and access to their markets.

But, oddly, of the eight goals, only the last one deals with "global partnership," or what rich countries can and should do.

Even here, the MDGs contain no numerical targets for financial aid or rich countries' assistance, in contrast to the highly specific poverty-related targets set for developing countries.

Why we need a global effort to convince developing countries to do what is good for them is not clear. Poverty reduction and human development should be the first order of business for governments in these countries.

It is true these governments often pursue different goals, for political, military and other reasons. But it is wishful thinking to believe that they can be persuaded to act otherwise by international declarations that lack enforcement mechanisms.

Equally problematic, the MDGs implicitly assume we know how to achieve development targets, and only resources and political will are missing. But it is doubtful that even well-intentioned policy makers have a good handle on, say, how to reduce maternal mortality.

Many development economists would argue that significant improvements in governance and political institutions are required before such goals can be achieved. These considerations suggest an obvious direction for the next iteration of MDGs. First, a new global compact should focus more directly on rich countries' responsibilities. Second, it should emphasise policies beyond aid and trade that have an equal, if not greater, impact on development prospects.

This kind of reorientation will not be easy. But if the international community is going to invest in a bold new public-relations initiative, it might as well focus on areas where the potential payoffs are the greatest.

Dani Rodrik is professor of international political economy at Harvard University and the author of The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy

* Project Syndicate