Argument

Crying Crisis

The MDGs aimed too high, and millions will still be poor and suffering in five years' time. But screaming for billions more in aid money makes light of the significant gains that have been made.

The bad news out of the U.N. Summit that opens today on the Millennium Development Goals is, ironically, too much good news. As the presidential limos of some 100-plus heads of state jam Manhattan's east side, there is anxiety about the future -- not because the goals have failed, but rather because they have largely succeeded. Now, with the MDGs expiring in just five years and donor aid budgets under severe threat, many attendees arrive having already given up hope for new aid pledges. The aim is merely to extract promises that the main funders of the world's health, education, infrastructure, and other development projects will avert major cuts.

The natural reaction of the U.N., its member states, and much of the aid community will likely be to fall back on the desperate plea-of-the-millions: there are millions of poor people, millions of young mothers dying, and millions of children out of school. We're going to hear that, despite best efforts and billions spent, that Africa is still off track on the MDGs. So we will all have to pay more. And the world will be warned not to allow the follies of the West -- Lehman Brothers' collapse, unaffordable European entitlements, or mistakes of the U.S. Federal Reserve -- to come at the expense of the most vulnerable.

We know this will be the pitch, because we've heard it before. After the end of the Cold War, aid budgets were slashed, leaving the development community in a panic. The response was the MDGs -- global goals covering progress on poverty, health, education, and the environment that everyone could rally around. The goals were unanimously adopted by 189 countries at a 2000 U.N. summit. And if fundraising was the ultimate point, the MDGs worked wonderfully. Aid flows doubled within a few years and have remained around $120 billion per year ever since. With aid budgets today under pressure in nearly every donor capital, can the MDGs once again save the day?

The problem is that the old development emergency storyline no longer fits. The goal of halving global poverty (MDG No. 1) will be reached thanks to the giant fast-growing Asian economies. Yet the good news is not just India and China. Lots of smaller countries -- Honduras, Ghana, Mongolia, Nicaragua, and Uganda, among many -- are also seeing poverty rates plummet. Even in countries that are not growing very quickly, many are seeing dramatic progress in other areas. As Charles Kenny recently pointed out in Foreign Policy, the past decade has been the best ever for the world's poor.

Africa has its fair share of winners, even though the MDGs were always stacked against the continent. The targets were set impossibly high, for example asking countries to reach education goals in 15 years that took the United States more than a century to achieve. Instability in some of the big countries like Sudan, Nigeria, and Congo have also dragged down regional aggregates, making it a certainty that Africa would be declared an MDG failure.

Despite the high bar, many are succeeding or coming awfully close. My colleague Benjamin Leo looked at the specific targets for every country and he found some surprising results. Underneath the gloomy regional averages, lots of individual African countries are doing quite well, thank you very much. (See all of Ben's MDG country scorecards here.)

For the U.N. crowd, this presents a serious tactical dilemma. The old way would be to declare a crisis by pointing out, for instance, that barely half of Mali's children complete primary school, that more than one in 200 Ethiopian women die in childbirth, and that more than 4 million people in Burkina Faso lack access to safe drinking water.

All this is true, but even if this kind of appeal might raise a wave of new money this week (and it probably won't), there is no way that Mali, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso can reach the MDGs by 2015. There simply isn't the time, and money has never really been the binding constraint anyway -- thus ensuring failure no matter what anybody does.

What if the U.N. and the assembled "developmentistas" tried a different tack? Instead of crying crisis, what if they celebrated success? What if they highlighted that since 1990 Mali has more than quadrupled the percentage of kids finishing school, Ethiopia's maternal mortality rate has plunged by 40 percent, and the ratio of Burkinabe with access to safe water has more than doubled to 72 percent?

In an age of fiscal rectitude and rightful demands for value-for-money, isn't this the kind of success that donors -- and taxpayers -- might want to get behind? More importantly, wouldn't this approach strengthen the policymakers, teachers, and health workers in poor countries that are making great strides, instead of continually pointing out their shortcomings and just asking for more cash?

All of this seems relevant for this week's summit and beyond. The next international development goals -- and, yes, there will be another round -- should be set in a way that recognizes and supports success. Any new goals should be based not on pie-in-the-sky dreams of summiteers seeking simple messages, but on ambitious yet realistic targets for countries. If we are merely going to complain about how far we are from utopia and mindlessly fundraise, then we are already setting up for failure yet again.

EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images

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