Will the MDGs go - not with a bang but a whimper

by Amanda Harding


Will the MDGs expire - not with a bang but a whimper, a last unheard intake of air, a timid slipping away or will they go out on a high, a thrashing, boisterous denial of their inevitable demise?

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The development industry is certainly having a field day right now. Process upon process, report upon report, workshops, new dedicated websites, conferences, positioning, shuffling, edging forward and back and blog upon blog. New jargon starting with the now well established SDGs (sustainable development goals), fashionable discourse on equality, equity and the environment; confusing terms widely bandied about by the well versed - resilience, ecosystem services, metrics, historical narrative and southern providers. 

For the uninitiated 2015 is meant to present a watershed when we shift from fifteen years of a target-led, rather simplistic and unconnected global development agenda that aimed to stop poverty to an all inclusive, inclusive, equitable, planet-responsive, holistic new paradigm for global development. Still bound by goals, but ones that manage this time round to press the right buttons for everyone. Sounds great. 

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And there have been some brilliant initiatives, including an extraordinary consultation process led by the UN organized WorldWeWant.org bringing in a range of voices, creating some amazing infographics and leading us to believe that we really our part of the process (while also clogging up my inbox in my personal desire not to be left behind - in keeping with the High Level Panel  on the Post-2015 Development Agenda's catchy slogan that and first transformative shift to leave no one behind.) Others also, such as post2015.org bringing together development think tanks from the North and South with a critical eye, and wonderfully facilitated by ODI while somehow navigating between a Northern "look" that works and something possibly more risky and unpredictable. 

Yet, how much of this, so typical in our "development world" where we so quickly get labeled "policy wonks" and "humanitarians" at the drop of a hat, is simply about us talking to us? The circle is closed and comfortable. The debates impassioned but circular. And this despite efforts to open up.

However, we know that the MDGs have been significant (I like to think I do at least).  The Millennium Declaration itself a real inspiration and the implementation plans and all that has emerged  (the MDGs themselves, targets, mechanisms, national development plans, monitoring systems, donor compliance linkages, debt relief programs as well as the scrutiny on impact, transparency and inclusion, civil society watch dogs, …) have seen some significant changes. Much has been written on the real contribution of the MDGs over global economic growth during this period (particularly in the BRICs where large populations, high economic growth and big development achievements have come together) leaving more doors open for us to talk to ourselves about attribution vs. contribution or revert to the OECD -DAC's evaluation criteria that short cut and tend to banish too much discussion. 

Where does this leave us? Convinced that for all their warts (and I was vociferously anti-MDGs at their inception, contributing to papers on the absence of a human rights perspective, clear that they lacked any recognition of difference and inequity, that they fell into the trap of blanket un-nuanced solutions decided by the technicians and purchased in bulk by the politicians desperate to have impact at scale, and failed to face the indicate yet massively apparent issues of power … I could go on) we have been forced to move from small pilot drop-in-the-ocean projects to engage with change at scales that can make a real different, to dialogue with surprising partners and question our own pre-conceptions and practice, to listen, learn, innovate ... The MDGs have been a positive global lever for change, operating in a complex environment and never in isolation, but a lever none the less. Setting targets was a shock but forced us to pull up our socks and stop the sloppy work we were want to do. Not to say that counting kids in and out of schools, in and out of feeding centers, ticking national plan boxes, and submitting compliance reports only motivated by the next tranche of funding  doesn't maintain a sense of absurdity. The MDGs helped us lift our heads out of the minutiae and relate to a bigger picture of inter-related global interaction.

Where I am also convinced that fifteen years of action, debate and dialogue have been worth it the next fifteen years present many further challenges. We are no longer kicking a ball around in the grass hoping to score a few goals. We no longer have the excuse of inexperience or ignorance. The post-2015 debate is crucial. A real opportunity not only for the global conversation (sounds good but risks though doesn't have to be superficial, top line and irrelevant) but for local conversations to take place. These are the conversations that really matter and where information, social mobilization and influence can occur. Dialogue that links the local to the national. Decision makers who recognize that global dialogue must be well informed but is also dominated by the closed circle have more chance of seeing a change agenda for the future that is not only visionary but also spot on.