The world is standing at a cross-road. Climate change, growing inequality, food insecurity, demographic change, resource constraint and the financial crisis are complex and interrelated challenges that need to be dealt with to realise the sustainable development agenda set twenty years ago in Rio. Building on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ has been put forward as the instrument to fulfil this need. Yet there are important lessons to be learned from the MDGs to ensure that a future framework effectively delivers on the ambition to secure well-being for all human beings and nature.
Process and outcomes are equally important
The MDGs shifted the focus of development orientation from inputs to outcomes. The targets and indicators that are rightly lauded for providing valuable development data and evidence of progress, have crucial downsides that cannot be ignored. They have been criticized for oversimplifying processes and skewing priorities , encouraging a reductionist approach to complex problems, privileging quantitative indicators at the expense of qualitative ones, distorting research allocation, undermining professional motivation and responsibility (Maxwell, 2003). The ‘dollar a day’ poverty line used to monitor progress on MDG 1 (halving global poverty) stands out as an example of this reductionist approach. The outcome orientation of the MDGs has also led to a preference of interventions whose impacts can be adequately measured, neglecting development aspects where impacts are not easily measured, such as more accountable local governance, protection of poorer or minority groups’ civil and political rights, and enhanced possibilities for community-designed and managed initiatives. The prioritisation of certain areas over others also had indirect impacts on aid, which thanks to the MDGs has visibly gone towards particular social sectors.
The gender-blindness of the targets and indicators is another example of the failure of the MDGs to address the complexity of development. Gender-sensitive measures of progress including access to and control of land, equality before law, incidence of domestic violence and rape, and access to health services are prominently absent among the MDG indicators.
Integrate international human rights norms and standards
The MDGs do have some links to the human rights framework, particularly Articles 25 and 26 (the right to health, food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. MDG 8 implicitly reflects Article 28 of the UNDHR (an international order supportive of the implementation of Human Rights). Yet the sum total of over-emphasising certain outcomes alongside the voluntary nature of the MDG framework- unlinked to any institutional framework to ensure accountability, has seriously undershot universally held human rights norms and standards in their totality.
Placing goals and processes in a rights framework is essential to establish clear links between citizens’ rights and governments’ responsibilities. This is well illustrated by the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. When a state ratifies the Protocol, it would put it in a state of breach of international law for failure to deliver on the goals within the framework and could be pursued as such once national remedies have been exhausted.
Informed local ownership is crucial
The process of setting the MDGs has been rightly criticised for not involving civil society or, largely southern governments. It was driven by donor governments, building on the OECD’s compact: Shaping the 21st Century: the contribution of development cooperation (DAC-OECD, 1996). Their implementation, as already discussed above, has also been largely top-down. This has resulted in great cynicism and suspicion of the goals by many development organisations in the south (100 Voices: Southern Perspectives on What Should Come After the Millennium Development Goals, CAFOD 2011). As pointed out by John Batten from the Poverty Eradication Network in Kenya: “When civil society is disempowered, country processes are very suspect; local processes only work if you have empowered societies. There is a big difference between just putting a structure in place and really going through a process to develop informed, engaged participation. You can’t just go to communities that have been oppressed for 100 years and expect them to drive development agendas.’
A process which is centred on informed local ownership may be slow, messy and unpredictable but it is the best way to ensure relevance, effectiveness and sustainability.