Politics & Policy

U.N. Development Goals Don’t Drive Progress

Carrying drinking water in Bangladesh.
A new study finds that their impact has been negligible.

Since adopting the U.N. Millennium Declaration in September 2000, the U.N. has touted its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)  as the central pillar in the global effort to reduce poverty and drive progress in the developing world. But a recent study by one of the U.N.’s own employees indicates that there’s little evidence the MDGs have had much effect.

As reported by U.S. News and World Report, the study by Dr. Howard Steven Friedman, a statistician working at the U.N. Population Fund, concludes, “The general result was that there was no trend in statistically significant accelerations in the MDG indicators after 2000.”#ad#

This conclusion is at odds with the typical U.N. line, which ascribes great impact to the MDGs. According to the recent Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda:

After the MDGs were adopted, dozens of developing-country planning ministries, hundreds of international agencies and thousands of civil society organisations (CSOs) rallied behind them. Together, they have contributed to remarkable achievements; half a billion fewer people in extreme poverty; about three million children’s lives saved each year. Four out of five children now get vaccinated for a range of diseases. Maternal mortality gets the focused attention it deserves. Deaths from malaria have fallen by one-quarter. Contracting HIV is no longer an automatic death sentence. In 2011, 590 million children in developing countries — a record number — attended primary school. This unprecedented progress was driven by a combination of economic growth, government policies, civil society engagement and the global commitment to the MDGs. 

No one doubts that wonderful progress has been made in reducing poverty and improving standards of living around the world. But did the MDGs contribute to that progress? There are alternative explanations, most important the explosion of trade and investment that accompanied the widespread adoption of free-market policies at the end of the Cold War. The U.N. did not analyze the question rigorously, so Dr. Friedman conducted his own analysis while on sabbatical. His conclusion:

The data show clearly that the activities following the MDG Declaration did not provide an acceleration in most of the development goals. For the subset of MDG indicators that experienced an acceleration, the accelerations tended to occur before the MDG Declaration.

In other words, the MDGs didn’t do much to contribute to development progress.

The U.N. refused to publish Friedman’s paper, forcing him to do so independently. Why did the U.N. spurn this interesting study that directly relates to its work? After all, shouldn’t the organization be interested in whether its efforts are additive and positive? You would hope so, but the most useful aspect of the MDGs for the organization is not their impact on development, but rather the public-relations benefits of being able to claim a central role in the progress made in developing countries.

The study comes at a particularly sensitive time. The U.N. is currently paving the way for a post-2015 development agenda, broadly modeled on the MDGs, which will establish new goals to be achieved by 2030. A significant justification for advancing this effort is the purported success of the original MDGs. If the MDGs were found to be ineffective, the wisdom of developing a post-2015 development agenda based on the MDGS would be called into question.

Like everything else at the U.N., the development agenda comes with a price tag for U.S. taxpayers. Congress and the Obama administration should closely assess U.N. development efforts, which have a long history of grand aims and modest results, before approving more spending on ineffectual agendas. Turtle Bay’s not about to do it for them.

— Brett Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. Terry Miller is director of Heritage’s Center for International Trade and Economics.

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