Is there any way the MDGs can fail?

I missed this 2013 working paper by Howard Steven Friedman, entitled “Causal Inference and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): Assessing Whether There Was an Acceleration in MDG Development Indicators Following the MDG Declaration.”  While the title could be snappier, it looks well worth checking out.x

Friedman makes the excellent point that “while monitoring mechanisms have reported the progress towards achieving these goals, there has been little effort to evaluate whether there was a change in the development outcomes associated with the activities initiated by the MDGs.”

The results are striking.  He demonstrates that “the activities following the MDG Declaration did not provide an acceleration in most of the development goals…[and that]…for the subset of MDG indicators that experienced an acceleration, the accelerations tended to occur before the MDG Declaration.”

So what should we make of the fact that the MDGs appear to have done little?  Well, we could say that the goals represented the general consensus of the development community and developing country governments and thus it’s not surprising that countries had already been making progress to improving those indicators.  That seems to be the reaction Friedman’s paper has received.  He notes that “when the results of this study have been demonstrated at different United Nations forums, the reaction from seasoned development professionals has consistently been that of affirmation, where the audience generally has indicated that intuitively they would have expected the observed results given their knowledge of how the MDG indicators had been identified.”

So, barring a development catastrophe, it seems like the MDG project cannot lose.  If the results had shown increased progress towards the goals, then officials could claim that the effort was successful.  If, as Friedman has demonstrated, there is little to show for the MDG effort, then officials can still claim victory by claiming that countries were already on board with the goals even before they were announced.  It’s a win-win situation.

h/t @JustinSandefur

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