The MDGs, easier said than measured

In September 2000, world leaders adopted the Millennium Declaration committing their nations to achieve a set of poverty reduction targets by 2015.

The Millennium Development Goals:

1.  Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2.  Achieve universal primary education
3.  Promote gender equality and empower women
4.  Reduce child mortality
5.  Improve maternal health
6.  Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
7.  Ensure environmental sustainability
8.  Develop a global partnership for development

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has highlighted that “the MDGs set time-bound targets, by which progress can be measured.”

The measurability of the MDGs is key to their success. Same as the Olympic Games (or any other tournament, for the matter) base their appeal in the simple notion that all players abide by the same rule and a set of impartial referees and scorekeepers guard the integrity of “fair play”, the MDGs derive their capacity to motivate decision-makers and mobilize public support in their being time-bound and measurable.

In order to monitor progress towards the MDGs at a global level and country by country, the 8 goals were subdivided in 48 indicators, ranging from the proportion of the population below USD 1 a day (adjusted by the purchasing power parity of their income) to the percentage of internet users. Since January 15, 2008 the list of indicators has been officially expanded to more than 60, so as to be able to include data on issues like employment that were not counted before.

In real life, though, for most of the developing countries there are no accurate or updated data for many, if not most, of those 60 indicators, and the set is too complicated for non-experts. Thus, the World Bank-defined poverty line of USD 1 a day became the de facto yardstick with which progress was being measured. In 2000 the figure of 1.2 billion people living in poverty was massively circulated and quoted indirectly by the heads of state themselves in the Millennium Declaration: “We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected.”

By October 2007 the number of people living in extreme poverty had been reduced substantially: “Nearly one billion people live on just USD 1 a day” said World Bank President Robert B. Zoelick in his address to the Board of Governors of his institution. By June 2008, the draft Accra Action Agenda on aid, authored mainly by donor governments and the secretariats of the World Bank and the OECD stated that “progress has been made. Fifteen years ago, one of every three people lived on less than one dollar a day; today, that figure has been reduced to one in five. Yet one billion people still live in extreme poverty”.

All of a sudden, in August 26, 2008 the World Bank announced that poverty estimates had been revised and the number of extremely poor people was actually 1.4 billion in 2005. An overnight increase of almost 50%! Yet, according to Martin Ravallion, director of the Bank’s Research Group, “the developing world is poorer than we thought but no less successful in the fight against poverty”. In order to substantiate such an optimistic view, the team led by Ravallion and Shaohua Chen revised the poverty figures all the way back to 1981 and claimed that previous estimates were mistaken, that the proportion of poor people has been cut to half in the last 25 years and that, therefore, it can still be reduced enough to meet the MDG number 1 by 2015.
Social Watch has argued repeatedly that the USD 1 a day indicator is the wrong indicator. But even if the concept behind that indicator had been right, we know now that the estimates were wrong. And even if the new estimates and their recalculated history are right, the trend of the last years is not a forecast of the future, among other things because, as the Bank itself recognizes,“the new estimates do not yet reflect the potentially large adverse effects on poor people of rising food and fuel prices since 2005”.

Using three simple indicators available for most countries in the world and averaging them in a way that any secondary school student can repeat, the national and international trends in the fight against poverty can easily and convincingly be assessed. The resulting picture is not rosy. Policy makers need to understand that the credibility of their commitments relies, like in the Olympic Games, in honest scorekeeping, independent referees and rules that do not change in the middle of the game. An adverse half time result might be bad news for the coach, but it allows to change strategies for the second half.