Two Views of the Millennium Development Goals

Stephen DeAngelis

October 15, 2010

An editorial in the New York Times last month noted that “ten years ago, leaders of rich and poor countries pledged to build a better world by 2015. Among their vital goals: halving extreme poverty and hunger from 1990 levels, reducing by two-thirds the child-mortality rate and slashing maternal mortality by three-quarters and achieving universal primary education.” The editorial staff lamented that there has been “meager progress on the so-called Millennium Development Goals” and insists that this lack of progress “underscores why more effective aid is so important but also why more money is needed.” [“Missed Goals,” 23 September 2010] I think the editorial is far too pessimistic about progress that has been made considering all that has transpired over the past decade including costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a severe global recession. Admittedly, there remains much to be done to help relieve the plight of the world’s poor; but, we should celebrate what progress has been made. To learn more about some of that progress, read my post entitled A Little Good News Concerning the World’s Poor. Even the New York Times‘ editorial staff admits that some progress has been made, it doesn’t think that it is happening fast enough.

“The best news is that the share of people living on less than $1.25 a day seems on track to meet the goal of halving the extreme poverty rate. But most of those gains have occurred in China and other East Asian countries. Poverty rates in sub-Saharan Africa remain way too high. The world is far behind on many other goals. Between 1990 and 2008, the mortality rate of children under 5 in developing countries declined only from 10 percent to 7.2 percent — far from the target of a two-thirds reduction by 2015. Maternal mortality declined only from 480 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 450 deaths in 2005. The 2015 goal is closer to 120. Enrollment in primary education reached only 89 percent in 2008, up from 80 percent in 1991.”

Two columnists, one from the liberal-leaning New York Times (Nicholas Kristof) and the other from the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal (Rupa Subramanya Dehejia), offer their thoughts on the Millennium Development Goals. Let’s begin with what Kristof has to say [“Boast, Build and Sell,” 23 September 2010]. He writes:

“The U.N. set eight landmark antipoverty objectives in 2000, so this year’s General Assembly is reviewing how we’re doing after a decade. We’re off-track on most of these Millennium Development Goals, so let me offer three suggestions for how the humanitarian world might do better in framing the fight against poverty: First, boast more. Humanitarians have tended to guilt-trip people and governments into generosity by peddling emaciated children with flies on their eyes. But relentless negativity leaves the inaccurate impression that Africa is an abyss of failure and hopelessness. And who wants to invest in a failure? In fact, here’s the record: antipoverty work saves around 32,000 children’s lives each day. That’s my calculation based on the number of children who died in 1960 (about 20 million) and the number dying now (about 8 million a year). Twelve million lives saved annually — roughly one every three seconds — is a reminder that global poverty needn’t be a depressing topic but can be a hopeful one. Ancient scourges like Guinea worm, river blindness and polio are on their way out. Modern contraception is more common than a generation ago. The average Indian woman has 2.6 children now, compared with 5.5 in 1970. That doesn’t mean overselling how easy it is to defeat poverty. In their zeal to raise money, activists sometimes elide the challenges of corruption and dependency — and mind-boggling complexity. Helping people in truth is far harder than it looks.”

I agree with Kristof’s advice that more of the good news needs to get out. Americans like to think that problems have solutions and they are more likely to contribute to a cause when they see a light at the end of the tunnel. Kristof is also right that people don’t like taking guilt trips. He continues:

“My second suggestion is to focus not just on poverty relief but also on wealth creation. The best way to overcome poverty isn’t charity but economic growth, trade rather than aid. That’s why East Asia has raised its living standards so much. There, too, there’s progress. We’re seeing economic engines revving up from Africa to India. For the last decade, per capita G.D.P. growth in Africa has averaged more than 3 percent per year — faster than in America or Europe. Wealthy countries could encourage prosperity creation by opening their markets wider to exports from poor countries. The United States has a program, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, that is an important step in that direction and should be expanded.”

I agree with Kristof that some African nations are making promising economic progress. Unfortunately, that progress is uneven across the continent. To learn more about what’s happening on that front, read my posts entitled An Update on Africa, Part 1: Agriculture, Banking, Consumer Goods, and Infrastructure and An Update on Africa, Part 2: Mining, Oil and Gas, and Telecommunications. Kristof continues:

“My third suggestion: punchier marketing. Humanitarians tend to flinch at the idea of marketing, thinking that’s what you do with toothpaste. But it’s all the more important when lives are at stake. This United Nations summit meeting is marked by the publication of tedious reports on poverty that almost no one will read, when it might gain more support with, say, a music video. After all, one of the most powerful tools to spread the word about educating girls was a ‘Girl Effect’ video designed by the marketing geniuses at Nike. The first Girl Effect video went viral and has been watched by about 10 million people; its successor was released this week.”

Below is the “Girl Effect” video. Its successor can be found here.

Kristof concludes:

“My hunch is that the most effective way to market antipoverty work in coming years will be by rebranding it, in part, as a security issue. Rich country budgets are so strained that it’s unrealistic to think that governments will approve much new money — or endorse the excellent suggestion of a financial transactions tax to pay for global health programs — just to ease suffering. But hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent fighting terrorism and bolstering fragile countries like Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. We should note that schools have a better record of fighting terrorism than missiles do and that wobbly governments can be buttressed not just with helicopter gunships but also with school lunch programs (at 25 cents per kid per day). International security is where the money is, but fighting poverty is where the success is.”

It might have surprised some readers that Kristof wrote, “The best way to overcome poverty isn’t charity but economic growth, trade rather than aid”; especially since his newspaper wrote that “more effective aid” is required as well as “more money.” It should come as no surprise, however, that the Wall Street Journal‘s Rupa Subramanya Dehejia agrees with him on that point [“Achtung Bono! Economics Beats Goals,” 22 September 2010]. She writes:

“That many of the world’s poorest countries are behind on achieving the goals can’t be a surprise to anyone. The least developed countries are mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and are dealing with multiple crises including civil war, genocide and an HIV pandemic. Getting rid of poverty and eradicating deadly diseases is challenging even at the best of times, let alone when all hell is breaking loose. Countries without a well-functioning government and sometimes no government or rule of law are somehow expected to be on track in fulfilling the goals? Go figure. In other places, the goals are culturally tricky. Everyone would accept the goal of reducing poverty but empowerment of women won’t be on the national agenda of some of the goals’ signatories.”

Living and writing in India, Dehejia’s focus is naturally on reducing poverty there. She continues:

“India, despite its fast economic growth, also fares poorly in meeting the goals. Why is this? One reason is simply the way they goals are measured. For example, about a third of the population in India lives in extreme poverty, a rate that is comparable to other poor countries. However, in a country of a billion people, that means a large share of the world’s poor live in India and this becomes a headline number. This is not to imply that the goals are not applicable to India, just that they’re not a useful way to frame our thinking about India’s development policy because they put the emphases on specific targets rather than what’s needed to reach those targets – economic development. Chris Blattman of Yale University makes the very pertinent observation that the MDG’s are fundamentally humanitarian and not instrumental to economic development.”

Dehejia argues that MDGs might be useful as targets, but they are not useful as road maps. She also sides with those who believe that development rather than aid is the only way to meet those goals. She continues:

“The only sure way of pulling people out of poverty and at the same time making progress on the other goals is employment-intensive development. In India, we’ve learned this lesson the hard way. Forty years of central planning with a stated goal of reducing poverty achieved almost nothing because the economy stagnated. In the last 20 years, in which the economy has taken off, we’ve seen considerable progress in reducing poverty and achieving the other goals as a direct consequence of economic development. To make further progress towards achieving the goals, we’re going to have to continue on our present trajectory of focusing on economic growth and in addition ensuring that more people benefit from this growth, especially the rural poor who have been largely left out of the growth ‘miracle.’ Not surprisingly, this is where the social indicators are the worst. This situation will only improve when India develops a large-scale, labor-intensive manufacturing sector, as has been the case in every other development success story, most recently China.”

When Dehejia looks beyond India’s borders to other developing nations, she believes that too many people confuse goals with means. She particularly takes a stab at celebrities. She writes:

“And what about Ghana? This sub-Saharan African country has grown rapidly, making excellent progress in reducing poverty and the other MDGs. But if you read Bono’s recent column in the New York Times he would have you believe that Ghana’s progress is because of the goals! He further suggests that poor performance in the Congo is due to the financial crises and food shortages. Gasp! Where is my oxygen mask? Have you not heard that Ghana is growing rapidly because of smart economic policies and that Congo is the center of a war zone which barely has an economy? Achtung Bono! While your intentions are good and your music even better, it’s distracting when celebrities like you with the platform that you command end up muddling cause and effect and then miss an important piece of the puzzle. A poor showing in the MDG’s reflects poverty and only economic growth can turn this around. If I were you, I would throw your weight behind concluding the Doha Development Round of global trade talks and show up at less glamorous trade summits. The prosperity that increased trade will bring the developing world including India will do way more good.”

I have insisted for some time that development, not aid, is what is going to bring millions more people out of poverty. In the first of the two update posts on Africa mentioned above, I included a graphic that shows how dependent some African governments are on aid. I wrote that those countries most dependent on aid “represent the very bottom of the economic pyramid and will likely linger in that position for decades to come. As a result, they will remain wards of the international community and reliant on the charity of others to remain afloat even at current levels.” Aid will not rid them of poverty and, unfortunately, most of those states lack sufficient resources to be able to sustain a standalone economy. That’s why a combination of aid and development is required — with the emphasis on development for most of the impoverished world. On that point, most liberals and conservatives seem to agree.