Beyond the Millennium Development Goals

How can we ensure the targets that replace the Millennium Development Goals lead to a future that low-income groups want? David Satterthwaite outlines five points to consider.

Houses teeter on the edge of a river in Indonesia.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were set up to make governments and international agencies focus on actually meeting the needs and priorities of low-income groups – by reducing, for example, extreme hunger and poverty, infant and maternal mortality rates, and the proportion of people without safe water and basic sanitation. Most of the eight MDG targets are meant to be achieved by 2015, although many won’t be reached by then. Now, more attention is being paid to which targets will be met – and what should replace the MDGs. 

These discussions around the post 2015 development agenda are titled ‘The future we want’. It would be nice if it actually was the future that people currently suffering from hunger and other forms of deprivation want. Here are five points to consider to ensure that it is.

1: Don’t just set targets, be clear about how they can be met.

The MDGs and their various targets are clear about what they want to achieve (and by when) but say nothing about how. They don’t set out who is responsible and capable of meeting the targets and who needs their capacity to act enhanced to be able to do so effectively. 

The people whose needs the MDGs are meant to address are passive recipients to be targeted by governments and external agencies – there is no mention of their roles or rights. Nowhere is there any recognition of the agency and capacities of grassroots groups to address the MDGs themselves. Yet we know from experience that these groups are often the most effective agents for their own development and that this agency is essential for these targets are to be met effectively.

There is also no mention of local governments, yet meeting many of the MDGs falls within their statutory responsibilities. In many nations it is the increased competence, capacity and accountability of local governments that have contributed much to meeting many of the MDG targets.

2: Finance: where’s it needed, available and accountable to whom?

The MDGs, and the international development targets that preceded them, were set to generate support for aid agencies and development banks – not to ask tougher questions about whether these could deliver on the targets. If the post-MDG discussions on ‘the future we want’ just generate a new list of goals without considering the financial and other mechanisms that support their achievement (even if these are generated by a much broader consultation) it won’t take us very far. 

The crisis in aid/development assistance is the limited capacity of the large aid agencies and development banks to support the kinds of on-the-ground local initiatives that deliver on MDG targets through support for local governments and support for grassroots organizations. For example, the task is not only to install a water standpipe, it is to make sure that enough standpipes or other water connections are installed to allow everyone quick and easy access, and to ensure the water provided is fit to drink and available 24 hours a day.

In urban areas, we have models of how this can be done, as shown by the work of the many federations of slum/shack dwellers, the partnerships they have forged with local governments, and the funds they have set up and manage. The Asian Coalition for Community Action has spurred new relationships between low-income households, their communities and local governments and helped 185,000 households to improve their local infrastructure in the last two years.    

3: Have indicators that actually match goals and targets.

Measurements are needed to assess whether targets are met. But some of the indicators being used to measure progress on MDG achievements are flawed. The dollar-a-day poverty line is a completely inappropriate indicator of who is poor because the income needed to avoid deprivation is much more than a dollar a day in many places. The income needed to avoid poverty is usually particularly high in the informal settlements in urban areas in which around one billion people live. Here, the costs the residents face in getting accommodation (usually renting poor-quality, overcrowded accommodation), accessing water, toilets, employment and health care and keeping children at school are often far more than a dollar a day.  

Set a poverty line unrealistically low and poverty seemingly disappears even as hundreds of millions remain under-nourished and at risk. There are already claims that the MDG poverty reduction target has been met based on a $1.25 a day poverty line. But if poverty lines were set in each nation at levels that match the costs of food and non-food essentials and adjusted for where such costs are particularly high (for instance in larger and more prosperous cities) it is very unlikely that the poverty reduction target has been met – or will be met by 2015.

The indicators being used to measure progress on water and sanitation MDG targets also do not measure who has safe and sufficient water AND who has sanitation to a standard that really reduces health risks. For instance, for water, the indicators measure who has ‘improved’ provision, and this includes many forms of provision that often do not provide safe and sufficient water, such as public taps and standpipes. Again, set the standards for water and sanitation provision too low and it gives a false impression of progress.

4: Avoid vague and ambiguous statements.

Sadly, a commitment to sustainable development means nothing today unless it specifies what is meant. The term sustainable development is used to mean so many different things. It should always be used to highlight the two priorities emphasized by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 – meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

5: And what about climate change?

Somehow the issue of climate change got left out of the MDGs and their targets. Oddly enough, building resilience to the impacts of climate change is dependent on building resilience, which needs local competence and capacity, and partnerships between those most at risk and local governments (point 1). It also requires finance systems that support on-the-ground knowledge and the capacity to act (point 2).

Considering and addressing these points now, could lead to a future that everyone wants.

A book David Satterthwaite co-authored with Diana Mitlin, acting head of IIED’s Human Settlements Group, on Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature will be published by Routledge later this year.