The Problem With the Millenium Development Goals

_The Pump Handle_ often addresses the same issues that I do, from a public health perspective and is one of my favorite reads. As the UN Convenes to evaluate progress on the Millenium Development Goals - designed to reduce poverty worldwide, Liz Borkowski has done an admirable job of describing exactly what these are and how they work.

At the same time, however, I think both Borkowski and most evaluators don't explore the ways that the Millenium Development Goals simply begin from assumptions that don't allow them to succeed. That's why many of them are simply failing. The most basic one is that we can depend on the trickle-down benefits of a growing economy that can be passed on to the Global poor without any real and fundamental reapprising of the idea of Development itself. But both limits on fossil fuel resources and the realities of climate change - the Stern Report documents the high economic costs of unchecked climate change (the only kind we've got) - mean that we have to find ways to address poverty that don't start from the assumption that if we all get a little richer, the poor might get a little less poor.

Emphasis on global agricultural productivity (something I don't have any real debate with) both assumes that food supplies are fundamentally global - that we'll be able to keep moving grain around the world as needed, and also fails to address problems of equity and allocation as an equal priority to increasing production.

Emphasis on women's rights and empowerment often focuses on bringing women out of the domestic economy and into the formal one - which may offer short-term economic gains but leaves families vulnerable to global economic cycles. Shifing people into cities in the name of development looked good in a growing economy - but the new landless and the emerging class of the urban hungry lack even the minimal security of land access that once sustained the poor. The vast mega-cities depend heavily on cheap energy supplies to sustain them/

Moreover, by placing environmental sustainability as just one of many goals, rather than the fundamental resource and ecological base on which all the other goals rest, they conceal the fact that even short term gains, say, in clean drinking water are likely to be undercut by rapidly progressing climate change.

It would be as much a failure to stick to investing in goals for eradicating poverty that depend on cheap energy, a growing and stable economy and a stable climate as it would be to throw up one's hands at hunger, poverty and suffering. Instead, we need a new set of Millenium Goals, ones that take energy depletion and climate change fully into account, and that can be accomplished in society grappling with climate change and depletion.

This is obviously not an easy goal. But we should not conceal the fact that many of the great advances in public health came to the Global North before the widespread advent of fossil fuels, and they aren't dependent on heavy energy investments. Education for women, primary education, access to clean drinking water, public health training, better seeds and support for local agricultures can be accomplished in either low or high input manners. We need to shift to ways that can truly be sustained, or there will be more and more conferences in which we attempt to conceal the fact that we are losing the battle. The only way to win is to be honest about what's at stake and where we are going.


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The author is a retired professor; with one of the best minds on the planet. He tends to lean on the analytical side; teasing out threads others pass or miss. His current posts are running on concerns parallel to the UN Millennia goals (actually, he probably helped write some of them- really.)

Sharon, thanks so much for the thoughtful response. You're absolutely right to emphasize that gains are empheral if they're built on energy sources, agricultural systems, and settlement patterns that are unsustainable.

In reading the UNDP's recent assessment of progress toward the MDGs, I got the sense that the authors were very aware that climate disruptions (and related natural disasters) are a huge threat to the reductions in poverty and hunger that have been achieved. The assessment emphasizes the need for adaptations like using more climate-resilient varieties of crops and livestock, rather than the question of what a completely different global energy future will look like, but they at least recognize that there's an issue that needs to be addressed. The authors do recommend that climate change and MDGs be addressed in a more integrated manner, but don't give a whole lot of details of what that would look like.

You bring up an interesting point about urbanization, and I have to admit that I don't know how much of that trend is driven by policies designed to support it vs. individuals deciding to move to cities because they figure that's where the jobs are. There's definitely an urban/rural divide in the achievement of some of the MDGs, and that's partly because it's often easier to provide basic healthcare and sanitation services to a large group of people if those people are clustered together.

I'm encouraged to see an acknowledgement of the need to develop locally focused solutions (both in the UNDP assessment and elsewhere in the international development community). There's a growing recognition that solutions will be most sustainable if members of the community in question have participated in designing and implementing them. Microcredit lending is a trend that's picked up in recent years, and it's been reported to empower women (and men) by allowing them to start home-based businesses selling food and household items - probably something of a middle point between the formal and informal economies. Given these trends, I think developing countries will be better positioned to respond to the coming challenges than they would've been 20 years ago, but it's still a challenge.

As you say, though, the fact remains that we need new goals that take into account our resource situation. The MDG period ends in 2015, and that would be a great time to announce new goals. Maybe we could agree on Global Sustainability Goals that involve all countries using resources appropriately.

..climate disruptions (and related natural disasters)

There's nothing "natural" about it. Humans extract reduced carbon from the Earth and oxidize it, thereby poisoning the atmosphere with high heat capacity gasses that raise mean temperatures, effecting weather patterns & climate. Nothing "natural" about that. Humans settle floodplains, log, graze & degrade the watershed, resulting in catastrophic flooding. Nothing "natural" about that either. People dam rivers & channelize them, causing sediment to be trapped behind dams or channeled into deep water, degrading deltas & coastal wetlands. Again, unnatural. And etc.

urbanization.. how much of that trend is driven by policies designed to support it vs. individuals deciding to move to cities because they figure that's where the jobs are.

The land only supports so many people. When the local carrying capacity is breached, young people are forced into the cities where food imports are available, lest they starve.

Microcredit lending is a trend that's picked up in recent years,

Rather than "empowering" people, saddling them with debt oppresses them, while enriching a raptorial class via usury. The last thing the developing nations need is for the stage to be set for usurious Western style capitalism to become established. "Microcredit lending" is the way macrocredit indebtedness gets it foot in the door and becomes endemic to a society.

Maybe people should listen to what Ahmadinejad was saying at the UN today.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 21 Sep 2010 #permalink

If you just let indigenous people keep their land and keep subsisting from it, instead of taking it from them and killing them or making them work to rape their own land, most of these problems would not happen in the first place. But that would be too simple.

Two-ton Gorilla in the room!

Overpopulation - do they give that the short shrift? Most politicians do not want to tackle the overpopulation problem head-on.

Exactly what are they proposing to deal with six-plus billion tool-using, hungry apex predators that want to eat several times a day?

The technology to support 9 or 10 billion people (by mid 22nd century or so), if it exists, is not being deployed.

Nobody wants to talk about how we might reduce the numbers of people, in a HUMANE way of course, over the next century or so.

The only way is by controlling birthrates, a subject that is uncomfortable for politicians even in the most westernized natiuons, and simply a religious taboo in many societies. Many taditional religions consider that having as many babies as possible is an advantage in life. The poor are doubly pressured - having kids that can help them through their elder years becomes paramount, and the more kids the better.

So while we are having our enlightened conversations about all this, who is going to control humanity's birthrate?

What are the consequences if we don't?

And how can we de-stigmatize and legitimize the conversation we need to be having about that issue?