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The Millennium Development Goals and the Importance of Good

Abel Canchari de la Cruz
February, 2009

This paper discusses one of the issues that are at the heart of
the debate on development: whether the Millennium Development
Goals (MDGs) will be achieved or not. The first part touches on
the framework of the MDGs and has an overview of their not
optimistic performance. The second section addresses the gaps
and incoherence at national level that are playing a major role
for slowing down the MDGs attainment. In the third part, the
focus is on the other side of the coin: the politics at
international level, which influences on the MDGs, with special
emphasis on the failed promises and the role of international
organisations. The fourth part is a discussion of one of the
contemporary thinking on development theory: concepts such as
poverty trap, big push and take off, which have been proposed
by Jeffrey Sachs are analysed in the context of the MDGs in
developing countries.
I. Introduction: The Millennium Development Goals
The MDGs comprise eight goals and eighteen targets to be
achieved by 2015. The MDGs as part of the Millennium
Declaration, pledged by almost all the leaders worldwide, in the
Millennium Summit in September 2000, are the first agreement
with measurable 48 indicators for monitoring their progress
(United Nations, 2007).
Regarding the multidimensionality of the MDGs, Sachs mentions:
the MDGs wisely recognize that extreme poverty has many
dimensions, not only low income, but also vulnerability to
disease, exclusion from education, chronic hunger and
undernutrition, lack of access to basic amenities such as clean
water and sanitation, and environmental degradation such as
deforestation and land erosion that threatens lives and
livelihoods (2005: 213).
However, the failure to achieve all the MDGs seems to be a
concern highlighted by the United Nations (2007) in The

Millennium Development Goals Report 2007, and other studies

(Black and White, 2004). For instance, Vandemoortele (2004:124)
offers us an overview of the MDGs performance. He argues that
it is possible to see evidence of reduction in poverty, child
mortality, cases of polio, HIV/AIDS, and improvement in
education, and nutrition. Though, there have been setbacks in
some countries: increasing child mortality and malnutrition
rates, decreasing primary school enrolment, increasing HIV
cases, and wider gender gaps, which play a role against the
achievement of the MDGs worldwide.
II. Gaps and incoherence at national level
Taking into account the thoughts of Vandemoortele (2008) it
could be said that there are three political and technical
problems that undermine the attainment of the MDGs:
i) Adaptation instead of adoption
In some countries there was a mindless adoption of the global
objectives and targets, but unfortunately they were not adapted
and transformed into national objectives and targets. It appears
that there has been a process of acceptation of the MDGs as a
whole, including non-relevant targets. Adaptation is a process
that involves change and modification of the original
objectives in order to make them suitable for the
particularities of the country. Just as an example, in certain
countries Malaria is not a problem anymore. So, why those
countries have to maintain that target? An intelligent decision
would be to change that target for another health concern
according to the epidemiological profile of the country, as has
been suggested by the Interamerican Development Bank [IDB]
(2005: 28). How important is malaria for Latin America? Are
there other health problems that really matter? According to
the IDB, to attain the health-related MDGs, namely HIV, malaria
and tuberculosis, child and maternal mortality, would impact
only 17 percent of the regional burden of disease, compared with
95 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa (IDB, 2005: 28). The IDB
acknowledges the importance of the original health related
MDGs, but puts great stress on the significance of other
diseases that affect to the poor and socially excluded groups.
Consequently, it is important contextualise the global MDGs.
ii) Lack of intermediate targets
One of the criticisms to the MDGs is focused on its long-term
perspective without intermediate targets for every

government, which lead to the lack of political engagement.

Setting medium term targets, say four or five years, according
to the timeframe of an administration, is a key factor for the
accountability of the government regarding the MDGs. Again,
Vandemoortele (2008: 1) points out that The MDGs must be linked
to the political agenda of the government of the day. One of
the successful experiences reaching the MDGs (Thailand, labelled
as MDG-plus country) provides evidence of the importance of the
political willingness and enthusiasm. In Thailand, the MDGs
have been included into the political discourse of the
government (United Nations for Development Programme [UNDP], no
date). Political willingness from decision makers or leaders is
important in the policy-making process. Haynes (2008: 189)
remarks that development, development policies, and consequently
MDG-based policies necessarily require decisions in the
political arena. In the same direction, Leftwich has argued that
politics influences on development policies; thus, politics
matters (2005: 559).
There is no doubt that sound development policies spring from
engaged governments that take the MDGs as priorities. Otherwise,
the MDGs could be seen as targets that are beyond their
iii) Translate targets into specific programmes and policies
with their respective budget
Political engagement and discourse are not enough. The solely
existence of intermediate targets, is still too far from their
application in the real world. Their translation into projects,
programmes or policies for every single fiscal year is
important. Sachs (2005: 271) recognises that What is missing ...
are the practical linkages between the Millennium Development
Goals and the poverty reduction plans. In Sachs proposal this
translation fits perfectly in what he calls diagnosis which [is
a blueprint that] identifies the policies and investments that
the country needs to achieve the MDGs (273). This document is
important for tailoring the MDGs and elaborate home-grown
policies and programmes inspired in the MDGs.
Assuming that a specific government has targets without the
critical projects, programmes or policies (actions), that
condition could be seen as a sign of failure, because the
targets do not have instruments for their execution. In other
words, those ends lack of means. They become good political
intentions, just plans or utopian visions.

On the other hand, if the government executes projects or

programmes (actions) lacking comprehensive and relevant
targets, that is just more spending, but not necessarily better
Finally, the existence of MDG-oriented policies and goals do not
mean that the government already implements them. The logic of
public management is that every project, programme or policy
should have their respective budget. Sometimes there are wellelaborated programmes or policies which lack of specific budget.
In sum, at national level, good governance is what strongly
influences on the MDGs management. A broad definition of good
governance includes efficiency of institutions ... resource
management; respect for institutions, laws and interactions
among players in civil society, business and politics (World
Bank, no date: 3, 7; cited in Grindle, 2007: 556). That definition
highlights the role played by the government for setting sound
policies and implementing them making sure that priorities are
the outcomes of policy dialogue processes.
III. Failed promises at international level
The MDGs can be seen as another commitment signed by the
leaders of every country and at the same time neglected and
even forgotten. Sachs, remembers us that in the field of health,
education and foreign aid, there have been failed promises:
... one of the famous commitments of the past century was the
international communitys 1978 pledge of health for all by the
year 2000. Yet the world arrived in 2000 with the AIDS
pandemic, resurgent TB and malaria... At the World Summit for
Children in 1990, the world pledged universal access to

primary education by the year 2000, yet 130 million or more

primary-aged children were not in school by then. The rich
world had famously committed to the target of 0.7 percent of
GNP devoted to official development assistance ... yet the share
of financial aid as a proportion of rich-world GNP had actually
declined from 0.3 to 0.2 percent during the 1990s (Sachs, 213).
Perhaps for that reason, Sachs proposes the extension of the
MDGs deadline from 2015, until 2025. Sachs is right when
criticises the incoherence of the international community that
announces bold goals, however when it comes to put them into
practice the MDGs are expressed just as imprecise ambitions
rather than doable targets.
The Bretton Woods organisations, i.e. the International Monetary
Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and
Development (part of the World Bank Group) are seen as
institutions with their mandate focused on the outputs like
economic growth, reduction of fiscal deficit, reduction of
inflation, etc. Issues such as social development, equity, social
inclusion, etc. seem not to be constituent of their
institutional agenda, because they are out of the economic
prescriptions of the Washington Consensus.
It is acknowledged that the Washington Consensus policies have
been enthusiastically implemented in almost all the developing
countries, with a noticeable role played by the IMF and the
World Bank. The main goal of these policies was to achieve
sustained economic growth and macroeconomic stability. On the
other side, the United Nations (UNDP in particular) is the
organisation at the forefront of the MDGs, together with some
multilateral agencies such as the Interamerican Development
Bank (in the case of Latin America and the Caribbean) and
international Non Governmental Organisations (NGO).
IV. Poverty trap, "big push" and "take-off"
Sachs (2005) has suggested that many countries are struggling
to develop because they are in the poverty trap, which is a
condition of stagnation and lack of resources for governments
to deliver basic services, and for families in conditions of
severe poverty that cannot afford basic products or services.
Hence, the prescription is a big push through Official
Development Assistance (ODA) for breaking the poverty trap and
start a process of take-off for a sustained development. For the
take-off, or escaping from the

poverty trap, Sachs proposes five key interventions

interconnected with the MDGs: agriculture, basic health,
education, transport, and water and sanitation.
i) Poverty trap
Recent literature about poverty and development, for example
Colliers book The Bottom Billion, criticises the idea of poverty
trap. Collier (2008) argues that poverty is not a trap by itself.
His argument is backed with evidence from the actual developed
countries that have experimented poverty at specific points in
their history. Instead, Collier proposes other kinds of traps,
more suitable for explaining the condition of low-income
countries. Therefore, the conflict trap, the natural resources
trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbours, and the
trap of bad governance in a small country have been launched
as a model for enlightening the reason of stagnation of some
countries. This model seems to be functional for understanding
the factors behind the countries labelled as MDG-minus, because
of their poor performance attaining the MDGs (Vandemoortele,
ii) "Big push" and "take off"
Big push is understood as an ad-hoc effort of the international
community for overcoming the poverty trap. Sachs, talks about a
financial plan to fund the investment plan, including the
calculation of the MDG financing gap, the portion of financial
needs that the donors will have to fill, and a donor plan,
which gives the multiyear donor commitments for filling the
MDG financing fap (Sachs, 273). However, one of the weaknesses of
Sachs argument of big push is the great emphasis placed on
foreign aid. So the strategy for a low-income country that
struggles achieving the MDGs is to have the big push and
experiment a sustained development process after 2015 or 2025.
This argument is seriously criticised by Easterly (2006: 292-3),
who argues that rich countries emerged out of stagnation
without foreign aid, and the transition from zero to positive
growth was slower and more gradual than the abrupt and large
transition that the discussion on aid seems to expect.
Somehow Sachs proposal of take-off recalls the discourse of
modernisation theory proposed by Rostow (1960) in his seminal
work The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto.
The only difference is that this approach is used by Sachs as a
strategy for achieving the MDGs. But, as Easterly argues, some
"Asian tigers" have experienced a process of "takeoff" (sustained economic growth) without

having a "big push". Regarding this aspect, some argue that

particular cases of the Asian tigers experience were endogenous
processes fuelled by a developmental state (for instance the
outstanding developmental process of South Korea [Chang, 2007],
and this argument can be applied to Taiwan, as well). The
counter argument is that for geopolitical reasons there was a
big push from western countries, particularly from United
States, aiming to have a buffer anti-communist state near to
China, North Korea and Russia (Im, 2006).
However, Vandmoortele, from a technocratic point of view,
identifies serious methodological limitations for estimating
the cost of the MDGs, and therefore for calculating the size of
the international aid (big push). He recognises that the MDGs
can be monitored in quantitative terms, but they cannot be
estimated because of methodological restrictions it must be
accepted that ultimately the exact cost of achieving the MDG
targets is unknowable (2004: 3). Notwithstanding that,
estimating the overall budget of the MDGs could be helpful in
order to fix or match the national budget, the specific MDGbased programmes or projects, the foreign aid, and the targets
adapted by the country (Vandemoortele, 2004: 3).
Anyway, the best formula for achieving the MDGs seems to be a
two-pronged strategy: on one side national budget reoriented to
MDG-based projects, programmes or policies, and on the other side
Official Development Assistance for bridging the financial gap,
especially in low income countries. That big push should be
complemented with technical support. That way, the national
ownership of the MDGs might be enhanced.
V. Concluding Remarks
For bridging the gap between the global targets and national
tailor-made targets policies, programmes, projects and budget,
political variables, and particularly conditions of good
governance are sine-qua-non condition.
The concepts of poverty trap, big push and take off should be
taken cautiously, because of their criticism from different
perspectives. It is worth to mention that the international
context characterised by the economic downturn affecting
developed and developing countries alike, represents the
principal threat for the achievement of the MDGs. It it will
inevitably cause the reduction of the Official Development
Assistance from developed countries; and

on the other hand in the domestic level, in low and middleincome countries, it seems that the scarcity of public resources
for MDG-based programmes or projects will be the main
constraints during the following years. After 9-11, there has
been a considerable reduction of the United States foreign aid
for development owing to the shift in the priorities, economic
resources were reoriented to defence and counter terrorism
especially in the Middle East.
Evidence based policy could be used for speeding up the
achievement of the MDGs at local and intermediate levels. The
MDGs are seen firstly as an international agenda and lastly as
a national concern, but at the bottom level, where the poor and
the problems exist they are almost unknown. Further, the
achievement of the MDGs is seen as a responsibility of the
government, however, this process should be understood as a
process strengthened by actors from the civil society and the
private sector. One of the critical factors that helped to
Thailand to be considered as one of the MDG-plus countries is
the process of inclusion of academic institutions, think-tanks,
civil society organisations, and so on, yet with a strong
leadership of the government.
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