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The MDGs: Fit for Purpose?

August 29, 2013
Photo credit: @Samuel Jeffrey www.nomadicsamuel.com

Photo credit: @Samuel Jeffrey http://www.nomadicsamuel.com

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have helped switch on our collective consciousness to social and environmental issues affecting millions of the world’s population, and we should applaud this headline.

Since their establishment in 2000, the MDGs have played a catalytic role in shaping a new international development paradigm.  They’ve raised awareness about global issues in a profoundly effective way and led the charge for more collaboration – across countries and across sectors – to tackle these issues together.

However, one inevitability of setting ambitiously high targets is the unavoidable risk of falling short, hence the daily commentary about the impact the MDGs have actually had, in delivering positive change to people and to planet, predictably paints a mixed picture of both successes and failures.

For those unaware, the MDGs are a United Nation’s initiative, expiring in 2015, with all 193 UN member states (and at least 23 international organisations) signed up to achieve them.  They cover ‘themes’ including extreme hunger eradication, women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, and combating diseases such as HIV/Aids and malaria.

Much of the analysis of the MDGs, as the world now strategizes about the right type of post-2015 Goals, demonstrates how for each of the countries reporting back on positive trends within their contexts, there is equally compelling counter-data, highlighting the many underlying causes of poverty still at large.  Underlying causes which every single day and every single moment continue to affect millions of marginalized and vulnerable people, predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

As it stands, if the world was scaled down to 100 people, there are still as many as 48 people living on less than $2 a day.  Whilst economic wealth is only one means to monitor how society at large is evolving and developing, it is because of frameworks such as the MDGs that more awareness has been raised about the causes of poverty – eg lack of access to income, healthcare and education services, as well as discriminatory state policies which exclude citizens from actively participating in society.

Dropping this analysis to a project level better reveals the complex layers of MDG achievement.

In mid 2011, I visited a development project here in Vietnam – a country with a burgeoning middle-class, not far behind the emerging markets of the ‘BRICS’ (Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa) countries, in terms of recent economic growth rates.  I was deep in the Mekong Delta, in the southern province of Sóc Trăng, and met two rural tradeswomen, named Sà Bươl and Chị Sươl.  Each had similar stories to tell.  Both were born in the early 1970’s into large families, received no formal education as children and, when I met them, were selling sachets of soap, washing powder, fruit and vegetables, from impromptu stalls outside their houses, to subsidize income from their respective husband’s earnings from rice and catfish farming.

They were forced to borrow money from “middle men” in the village, who were operating in a black lending market and charging exorbitant (30%-50%) interest rates.  However, through enrolment in this project, the women learnt basic planning and financial management skills so as to support smarter entrepreneurship for their micro-businesses.  The project also provided them a local network of peers with whom to build friendships and support for carrying their new skills forward, as well as the chance to share practical ideas of how to look after their children, while also earning and investing their money.  They were able to access loans, and receive advice on investing this into new business enterprises.

Chị Sươl and her son

Chị Sươl and her son

As a result, Sà Bươl and Chị Sươl began to generate higher earnings, making more than $2 of profit each day as opposed to the $1 daily amounts they were earning previously.  As they told me, “we have more confidence now in our ability to save and manage our finances, and this new feeling of control makes us happy.”

Is this an example of progress?  Certainly – although with one new door opening, through projects like these, others remain closed.  Both women still faced daily challenges: worrying about the health of their families; ensuring access to good schools; and securing stable and dignified employment opportunities for their children in the future.

Perhaps one of the most compelling legacies of the MDGs comes from the inclusion of MDG 8: creating a “global partnership for development”.  A concept anchored in the fact that we are all in this together.

What comes to mind when hearing the term “partnership”?

For many in the development sector, just about anything and everything comes to mind.  “Partnership” can be an abused word, used to describe a multitude of relationships, more often than not, inaccurately.  The cornerstones of true partnerships (including things such as honesty, mutuality, shared objectives and long term planning) are not easy to pull off, particularly those partnerships which bring different sectors together.

Sà Bươl's shop

Sà Bươl’s shop

However, over recent years there has been a rise in the number of multi-stakeholder partnerships, which cut across different countries and tackle a variety of issues.  In large part this can be accredited back to how the MDGs have raised the bar on using the concept of partnerships as a sustainable tool for achieving development outcomes.

Large corporations, previously unusual suspects to rely on to do more than simply generate profit, have moved into this space.  Engaging with NGOs, public sector organisations, and academia, many companies are now exploring partnerships which force more thought and action into how the private sector impacts, directly and indirectly, on peoples’ lives.

Huge players such as Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Diageo are each currently implementing women’s empowerment initiatives, aimed at generating lasting benefits to women’s lives as a while, and improving the significant sphere of influence that women have on reducing poverty in their communities.  Through this focus, companies like these are growing their businesses whilst simultaneously supporting local producers, employees and consumers.

In spite of this progress, it is unlikely that complete poverty eradication will be solved by 2015, or by the time of completion of the next set of UN Goals.

That aside, the MDGs have helped ensure that the “aid” narrative has shifted.  No longer does development work sit as the sole trade of those within civil society.  The MDGs have helped support the notion of “global citizenship”, and a sense of responsibility in how we collectively tackle issues including inequality, gender equity, climate change, and the rights and opportunities of very man and woman.

Perhaps not yet a standing ovation, but applause and recognition of how “fit for purpose” the MDGs have been is well deserved.

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