How I Learned to Love the Millennium Development Goals

Once upon a time, I hated the MDGs. I thought they were a cruel joke on poor countries, setting the entire developing world up for demoralizing failure. Let’s set impossibly high standards and demand that resource-strapped nations achieve them!

I was also concerned about their one-size-fits all nature. Can we really set common standards for the whole planet?  That didn’t seem practical or effective or like the basis for good policy-making. Finally, I was afraid of the massive scope for failure. Word a single Millennium Development Goal wrong and you can damage, say, education throughout the developing world. And for that matter, why set goals and not designate any way to achieve those goals?

All in all, I thought that the MDGs were a terrible mistake being committed on a global scale. I agreed with Bill Easterly’s assessment of the MDGs as a utopian nightmare.

Turns out, I was wrong. The Millennium Development Goals are not perfect. All the goals are treated with equal weight, even though some are clearly more important than others. Some of them are badly worded, and the targets vary between overly optimistic and far too easy to achieve. The methodology behind them is opaque.

But the more often I encounter the MDGs in my work, the more I like them. None of the theoretical problems with the MDGs matter that much in practice. Yes, some of them are overly optimistic and unlikely to be reached, especially in Africa. But governments are actually accustomed to not meeting targets. It’s not discouraging; it’s just business as usual.

For all the methodological weaknesses of the MDGs, what really matters is that they are measurable goals directly related to human development. They’re about making people’s lives better, and we get to hold governments to them. That is very, very useful.

My favorite thing about the MDGs, though, is that they are comprehensive and already agreed upon. Any time you are working with a government to set policy goals, you can use the MDGs as a guide. Their ubiquitous, motherhood-and-apple-pie acceptability makes them impossible to argue against. Have a country that is reluctant to invest in basic education? Remind them of their MDG commitment. Don’t know how to measure progress in the fight against AIDS? Use the MDGs.

The Millennium Development goals have permanently altered the policy discussion and the way that governments set their goals. Despite their imperfections, the government decision-making they influence is almost always better than it would be without them.