Millennium Development Goals or own goals?

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Nikkei Weekly, April 8, 2013

The global fever for football (or soccer, as it may be called) is increasing as group stages unfold ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil next year.

So it is, I think, a little excusable to extend the metaphor to other events – notably the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that are due to come to fruition by 2015. The target date was agreed in 2000 by the world’s countries following a decade of meetings and discussions under the guidance of the United Nations.

There were eight agreed-upon goals, and they were reaffirmed under the 2010 Action Plan, “Keeping our promise.”

In announcing the MDGs in 2000, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “Eradicating extreme poverty continues to be one of the main challenges of our time, and is a major concern of the international community. Ending this scourge will require the combined efforts of all, governments, civil society organizations and the private sector, in the context of a stronger and more effective global partnership for development.”

“The Millennium Development Goals set timebound targets, by which progress in reducing income poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter and exclusion – while promoting gender equality, health, education and environmental sustainability – can be measured. They also embody basic human rights – the rights of each person on the planet to health, education, shelter and security. The Goals are ambitious but feasible and, together with the comprehensive United Nations development agenda, set the course for the world’s efforts to alleviate extreme poverty by 2015.”

I will review two interconnected goals – those of MDG2 (achieve universal primary education) and MDG3 (promote gender equality and empower women). Of course all the millennium goals are interconnected – better health promotes less child mortality and more capable learning; then in adulthood we hope the young adults will achieve better global sustainability.

Returning to MDG2 we find the 2010 review noted that primary education enrollment in developing regions is now 90% – but that still leaves 61 million children missing this education, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, the higher levels of primary education raise demand for secondary education. Sadly, 71 million youths (aged 12-15) were out of school in 2010. Yet the literacy discrepancy was narrowing: In 2010 there were 95 literate young women for every 100 young men, even though their access to secondary schooling remains limited. We have questions for MDG3 – in some regions a girl’s education remains elusive, or nonexistent, with continuing discrimination in access to work and in owning economic assets. Generally poverty is highly correlated to low female education participation; and females are relegated to the most vulnerable jobs while they suffer considerable violence.

Recently, tens of thousands of Britons called on the U.K. government to nominate Malala Yousafzai for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is a Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating girls’ education – she was hospitalized in the U.K. Unusually outspoken, she was well-known for her education and women’s rights activism in the Swat Valley, where the Taliban had at times banned girls from attending school.

Meanwhile, the fates of thousands like her go unnoticed, and often there is no route to emancipation because business ownership is concentrated in men’s hands throughout the developing world. The high aims of the MDGs are challenged by the Copenhagen Consensus led by Bjorn Lomborg, which in 2004 brought together a group of economists who, with input from focus groups, created a list of tasks. These were the framework for prioritizing explicitly the world’s big problems. Their goal was to achieve the most “good” for people and the planet based on evidence and with limited financial resources. In CC04, as the meeting was called, the four top-ranked projects included three related to health management and one on trade liberalization. The bottom four (of 17 projects) saw little benefit in advancing labor migration or climate change programs, including the Kyoto Protocol. They were seen as “not value for money.” Education did not feature, nor gender issues. However, hunger and malnutrition were top-ranked issues as well as trade. And we can appreciate that to make policies stick requires an educated developing-world workforce, and following a better health policy would yield a cohort of children better able to learn.

In CC08, reducing the cost of education rose to issue No. 6 and improving girls’ education was No. 8. By CC12, mitigating hunger to aid children’s education had risen to the first issue, and deworming children to offer better pathways to health and education rose to fourth.

Global game plan
One may see the economists’ hard-nosed views being expressed in terms of achievable outcomes in the Copenhagen meetings, whereas the MDG meetings espoused hopes and pressured underperformers.

David Griggs et al recently pleaded in the U.K. journal Nature (March 2013) for us to move quickly to a more sustainable society after the end of the MDG period in 2015. Griggs listed six new megagoals (the SDG framework) that seem to combine the aims of the Copenhagen Consensus economists with the aspirations of the U.N. experts. His top goal is expressed as: “Thriving lives and livelihoods. End poverty and improve well-being through access to education, employment and information, better health and housing, and reduced inequality while moving towards sustainable consumption and production.”

I think these are realistic, as improving lives and livelihoods would promote sustainable access to food, water and energy while protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services. Yet none of these are possible without changes to local and global economic playing fields. National policies should place a value on natural capital and place a cost on unsustainable actions.

We have seen over a couple of decades that world competition in terms of the MDGs can lift the performance of developing nations. But as the Copenhagen Consensus suggests, too much cash may be spent on aspirational issues and not enough on achievable ones. Thus there are “own goals” – goals we accidentally score against ourselves.

However, the new work of Griggs suggests we might turn national competitions and winning local goals into coordinated global goals that combine the U.N. aspirations with the Copenhagen cost-benefits. There is hope yet.

Frank-Jürgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.