UN Soon to Ditch Millenium Development Goals?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/04/2010 03:26:00 AM
Well, not really. But, a report suggests the MDGs are, well, incomplete. A recent Associated Press article clued me to the release of a new UN Research for Social Development (UNRISD) report reviewing the UN's efforts in helping promote development, particularly regarding use of the Millennium Development Goals. As someone who's taught international organization, let me say that even my head spins trying to identify the countless UN agencies dealing with development and what they do specifically. To make a long story short, think of UNRISD as the UN's near-equivalent of the World Bank's Independent Evaluation Group that invites others not usually involved in day-to-day activities to critique ongoing activities.

William Easterly aside, the UNRISD critique of the Millennium Development Goals fall under three main categories from what I can tell: First, inequality is given short shrift. Again, this makes sense since x amount of additional income would benefit poverty alleviation efforts more if spread evenly throughout the population instead of going mostly to those in the top income tiers, leaving those below in a struggle to meet income thresholds. Second, social policy needs to be more systematically addressed, perhaps as opposed to being boiled down to a number of indicators. Third, and this should come as no shocker, politics matter in development.

While I'm not generally a fan of the MDGs, perhaps the UNRISD critics miss the point of the MDGs in that they were meant to present simple, relatively hard targets to compare development progress across nations. Setting inequality aside for now, UNRISD talks more about "soft" indicators such as governance quality. At any rate, what follows is the beginning of the AP article:
The United Nations is ignoring the critical role of jobs and income equality in its strategy to fight world poverty and hunger, to the detriment of developing nations, the world body's own researchers said in a critique Friday. The U.N. has said it is on track to halve the number of people living on less than $1 a day by 2015, and that the picture is mixed for other Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, in the fields of health, education and the environment.

But the 15-year antipoverty plan agreed to by governments in 2000 has serious failings, the Geneva-based U.N. Research Institute for Social Development said in its report. People need jobs to combat poverty, the report argued, calling for a shift in focus away from safety nets and welfare programs. It also urged new approaches to address rising income inequality.

"Despite an ambitious agenda, the MDGs nonetheless represent a cautious approach to social development," the 360-page report said. "A number of critical issues and obstacles to overcoming poverty have not been addressed." The criticism is surprising, given the U.N.'s decade-long advocacy of the goals as the greatest hope for eradicating extreme poverty, hunger and disease around the world.
And here are the policy implications identified in the policy brief for "Combating Poverty and Inequality." I will probably have more to say when I get the full report, but here's a taster:

Economic growth is important, but alone it does not necessarily reduce poverty and inequality. Employment represents an important channel through which additional income generated by growth can be widely distributed throughout a population. Where poverty has been reduced successfully and sustainably, governments used policy interventions to facilitate employment-centred structural transformations of their economies. They invested substantially in infrastructure; channelled credit to specific productive activities; and pursued well-managed industrial and agricultural policies, as well as social policies that improved the skill levels and welfare of the population.

Equality and redistribution matter for poverty reduction. The MDGs and PRSPs do not directly address inequality. It is often assumed that absolute poverty or income level, rather than distribution, matter. However, high levels of inequality make it difficult to reduce poverty even when economies are growing; and poor countries are generally more unequal than rich ones. Poverty and inequality are part of the same problem. Inequality manifests itself in relation to class or income status, gender and ethnicity, and also across various dimensions, such as employment, earnings and access to social services. There is a strong case for redistributive policies to address these dimensions of the poverty problem.

Social policy is an integral part of the development strategies of countries that have transformed their economies and reduced poverty relatively quickly. A number of welfare policies are feasible and affordable for countries at fairly low levels of income. For social policy to be effective as a transformative instrument against poverty and inequality, it must transcend its residual role of safety net and engage with broad public policy issues of distribution, protection, production and reproduction. Successful countries have tended to invest substantially in education and skills development, as well as in health and social protection. Social policies must also address the unpaid work that goes into sustaining families, households and societies by investing in infrastructure and basic services, and thus reducing the unpaid carework done largely by women.

The linkages between policies and institutions in the social, economic and political spheres must be recognized if poverty is to be fought effectively. Poverty reduction is not just about having the right economic policies; it is also about pursuing appropriate social policies and types of politics that elevate the interests of the poor in public policy. Similarly, policy coherence goes beyond effective implementation and coordination. Securing the benefits of potential synergies between policies requires conscious design of both economic and social policies, backed by sufficiently powerful coalitions to ensure their implementation.

Politics matters for poverty reduction. The protection of civic rights, active and organized citizens, well-organized and representative political parties, and effective states with redistributive agendas are all important for sustained progress towards poverty reduction. The participatory framework of the PRSPs (often “consultation” without the power to effect real change) is of limited effectiveness in the absence of these conditions. Strategies to reduce poverty and inequality require institutionalized rights that allow citizens to organize and contest public policies as autonomous actors; political parties that are embedded in broad social coalitions; social pacts that give a broad range of groups voice and influence in shaping development policies and outcomes; and democratic regimes that are sufficiently competitive to allow for periodic alternations in power and prevent ruling parties from becoming complacent.

There is no one right way to reduce poverty. Most countries that have successfully reduced poverty adopted heterodox policies that reflected their national conditions, rather than fully embracing market-conforming prescriptions. Countries and peoples must be allowed the policy space to adopt different models of development where aspects of livelihood and food security, land reform, cultural rights, gender equity, social policy and associative democracy figure prominently.

I should disclose that I've been asked to review some work for a UN publication, though I'm still free to say that I hope the full report is more substantial than some of the platitudes given above suggest. So institutions matters and so do politics. But what are the implications then for the framing of the MDGs, if any? Some like Easterly think they miss the point, while others think they need revamping. Hopefully, the UNRISD taps into this ongoing debate. 2015 is pretty near, after all.