Do global targets matter?

The first half of the 25-year period over which the millennium development goals are to be achieved can be summarised in three points: (a) global progress continued, (b) but it was slower than in the 1970s and 1980s, and (c) much of it bypassed the people and countries most in need. At mid-point, the world is not ‘on track’ for meeting the targets by 2015. Based on the most reliable indicators, the one-sentence summary of the various databases is that global progress should have been twice as fast since 1990.
By Jan Vandemoortele. At the time of writing, Jan Vandemoortele was Director of the Poverty Group of the United Nations Development Programme. He is now UN Resident Co-ordinator in Pakistan. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of UNDP.

After some false dawns and missed opportunities, it might be tempting to dismiss the millennium development goals as ‘easily set but never met’. That would be a mistake. Global targets do make a difference, mostly by mobilising actors and advocates at all levels – global and local alike.

In 1966, for instance, the objective was set to eliminate smallpox, a target that was achieved in 1977. In the 1990s, an estimated 1 billion people gaining access to improved drinking water sources. The global use of ozone-depleting substances – such as CFC – has been reduced to one-tenth of the 1990 level. These examples show that remarkable progress can be achieved within relatively short periods of time.

Target-driven approaches that have made a difference share seven key elements for success.

First, they express development in an inspiring and measurable way. Fuzzily formulated targets are as unhelpful as they are un-measurable. Targets must be specific; they cannot rely on vague assumptions, faulty indicators or inaccurate data.

Second, they make the targets well known. Targets must address presidents, prime ministers, parliamentarians, preachers, primary school teachers, parents and the public – i.e. they must reach the kitchen table. The public’s interest must be awakened and nurtured, its ambition stirred and expectations aroused. The media has a critical role to play in keeping the eyes of the public on the prize.

Third, they tailor the targets to the national context. Global targets are meant to encourage all countries to strive for accelerated progress but, ultimately, their applicability can only be tested and judged against what is realistically achievable under country-specific circumstances. To be meaningful, target setting must be about adaptation, not about mindless adoption of global targets because targets must strike a judicious balance between ambition and realism. Tailoring is also essential for generating a sense of national ownership of the millennium development goals. A country might meet a target but miss the point due to inadequate ownership. At the same time, tailoring cannot become a euphemism for reneging on the political commitment to tackle human poverty in earnest.

Fourth, they formulate intermediate targets. Long-term goals will not guarantee immediate action because the deadline will not be on the watch of today’s political leadership. They must be translated into targets to be achieved by the current government. Therefore, they must be broken down into actionable propositions and specific reforms for the next 2-3 years; ranging from immunising children to iodising salt, training teachers and building schools, drilling boreholes and planting trees, treating Aids patients and distributing bed nets, enforcing laws against gender discrimination and child labour, abolishing user fees for basic social services, enlarging equitable taxation, restructuring budgetary spending in favour of the poor, and sequencing homegrown economic, financial and trade policies.

Fifth, they constantly monitor progress. Statistics not only document progress but also mobilise people and help design propoor policies based on hard evidence – not only on economic theory. Monitoring must use a few easy-to-grasp indicators. It cannot be confined to specialists and experts alone; it must inform political leaders, parliamentarians, journalists, NGO activists and the general public. Monitoring must go beyond averages and aggregates by unbundling progress for women and men; for rural and urban residents; for young and old; for poor and non-poor families; and for districts and provinces.

Sixth, they are championed by strong leadership. Political, religious and community leaders must drive the society towards the agreed target. Celebrities and publicprivate partnership – such as the Rotary Club against polio and the Carter Center against guinea worm – must constantly nag policymakers – both globally and locally – to stay focused on the target.

Finally, they emphasise that nothing speaks louder than financial commitments. Results do not come for free; targets do carry a price tag. While domestic resources will cover the bulk of the extra investment in human development, rich countries can make a difference by increasing and improving their assistance. But progress on aid, trade and debt relief has been deplorable. The trading regime as envisaged in the Doha development round remains elusive. Pledges to raise the quantity and quality of official development assistance have not been kept, albeit that the decline in foreign aid has been reversed in recent years. Advancement on debt relief has been more about hype than about HIPC – an initiative focused on the heavily indebted poor countries.

The seventh step is deliberately listed last. In practice, however, it often comes first. This sequence is ineffectual because a partnership between the poor and the rich – be it local or global – that is focused on money will be inherently unequal, and therefore unstable and vulnerable. Experience shows that real change is ultimately an act of free will; it is seldom the result of compliance with conditionalities associated with foreign aid or domestic transfers. Change cannot be hurried for it is often the case that ‘haste makes waste’.

Achieving the global targets will require a radical overhaul of the partnership between poor and rich countries as well as between poor and rich people. Currently, the dimension of ‘money changing hands’ is dominant. Switching the partnership to the dimension of ‘ideas changing minds’ will demand that donors and domestic policymakers show an ability to listen and a readiness to unlearn and relearn.

As long as better-off people in developing and developed nations are unable or unwilling to change their theories, perceptions or preconceived notions, the global targets will remain elusive. Repeating standard recipes and defending entrenched views will only prolong the legacy of broken promises. Doing so with great confidence and subsequently complaining about poor implementation will do little to change the final outcome.

The promises can only be kept if economic growth and social progress are managed so that they yield the greatest benefit for the least advantaged. In other words, the real challenge is to maximise the impact of growth and progress on equity and poverty. However, progress since 1990 has not been sufficient and has not been pro-poor. Growing inequality is turning into the Achilles’ heel of global prosperity. The picture on the environmental front is no exception.

The fact that poor people benefit proportionately little from ‘average’ progress violates the spirit of the gradual realisation of human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights. At some point, the disadvantaged will no longer accept grossly inequitable outcomes. Nobody knows where the breaking point lies and it would be unwise to find its exact location.

A little equity and a touch of imagination will go a long way towards meeting the global targets by 2015. Without determined efforts to make progress pro-poor, it will be impossible to keep the promise, no matter how much money is invested in the millennium development goals.

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