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Recapturing the Narrative of International Development

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Though it is difficult to assess whether the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have contributed to poverty trends across the world, their impact on the discourse on international development has been powerful and unexpected.

By articulating the complex challenges of development in eight goals with concrete 2015 targets, the MDGs have had unprecedented success in drawing attention to poverty as an urgent global priority. But the narrow emphasis has also led to detracting attention from other important priorities—the complex strategic choices in economic policy—and has simplified development policy debates.

The MDGs have created a new narrative of international development centred on global poverty as a compelling moral concern. This narrative convincingly appeals to rich country “publics and parliaments” and to new global philanthropists.

But the simplification of development to eight goals has reduced the development agenda to meeting basic needs, stripped of the Millennium Declaration’s vision for development with social justice and human rights. The narrative leaves out any mention of equity, empowerment of people and building sustainable productive capacity for economic growth.

It has no room for understanding poverty as related to the underlying power relations within and between countries and the asymmetries in the global economy. It leaves out much of the broader policy agendas, including the systemic issues of the global economy that have long been priorities for developing countries in international economic negotiations, and impacts of liberalization and privatization on the poor that have been priorities for the critics of globalization.

Goals galvanize concern and action but quantification can oversimplify complex challenges with unintended consequences for the way these challenges are defined.

While there is widespread consensus on their importance in drawing attention to poverty as an urgent global priority, the MDG framework has generated some sharp criticisms. These include:

• composition of the targets—what was included and not included, the levels at which they were set or not set, the methodology for measuring implementation progress;

• reliability of the MDGs as a development framework given their narrow scope and oversimplification, and bias against African and other countries because of failure to take into account initial conditions, and the arbitrary and incoherent methodologies used to set the targets;

• non-participatory process by which they were formulated by bureaucrats without adequate intergovernmental negotiations nor open consultation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs); and

• inappropriate application of the goals as national planning targets.

The expiry of the goals in 2015 presents an opportunity to set new goals that would recapture the vision articulated in the Millennium Declaration for development in the twenty-first century that would achieve greater inclusion, sustainability and equity. This paper highlights the 10 most pressing issues to be considered in this redesign, and proposes directions for drawing up a new set of global goals.