Easterly’s pessimism on the MDGs

It’s not surprising that William Easterly has pronounced the Millennium Development Goals dead.  S-G Ban Ki-moon himself cautions that “progress has been too slow for most of the targets to be met by 2015.”  What might be more surprising is that Easterly calls the activism surrounding the MDGs “a success in global consciousness-raising.”  Yet not without flaws — his post on the subject concentrates on the inability of the MDG movement to identify an appropriate target, reason, and policy prescription (the WHO, WHY, and WHAT, in Easterly’s terms) for their activism.

Some of Easterly’s points are certainly well made — it is difficult, for instance, to pinpoint an actor to blame for the MDGs’ struggles, or who needs to be galvanized to action, when 189 countries have signed on to the agreement.  But how could the MDGs have emerged in any other way, least of all without attracting the label of “colonialism” had they been prerogatives solely of the developing world?  The MDGs were set up to be difficult to achieve — that they set specific goals should not be reason to qualify the campaign to reach them as a failure “on its own terms.”

Furthermore, the MDGs have not been utter failures.  They have achieved tangible benefits for millions of human beings, in alleviating poverty, reducing disease, increasing access to education, improving women’s health.  That they have not reached their intended milestones, or that the global economic crisis has put a further damper in their prospects, is not a reason to abandon them.  So while their certainly is reason to investigate aid agencies, and to ensure that funds all reach the poor whom they are supposed to reach, I disagree with Easterly that we shouldn’t “waste any more effort” in pushing countries to meet their commitments by 2015 and in coming as close to achieving the MDGs as possible.  To fall short of that would be unfair both to the poor and to our own principles.