International Development CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Andrew Dorward (Professor of Development Economics, SOAS, University of London), Elaine Unterhalter (Professor of Education and International Development, IoE, University of London) and Jeff Waage (OBE, Director of the LIDC and Professor, SOAS, University of London)

This submission focuses on four questions posed by the enquiry, regarding the effectiveness of the MDG process and of the target based approach, the process and voices heard, and the content of future goals. The MDGs have been effective, albeit patchily, in concentrating attention and resources on major global problems identified at the turn of the century, but have faced difficulties from a lack of emphasis on holism, equity and local ownership across and within goals. Any successors to the MDGs should both take account of changing international conditions and address these shortcomings. This will require processes for the development and ownership of goals with more participation that includes both people whom the goals most directly concern and middle ranking professionals most involved with implementing initiatives needed for goal achievement. The content of such goals, while being determined in more inclusive processes, should embody core principles of holism, sustainability and equity. This may be achieved with a hierarchy of overarching goals focussing on wellbeing supported by secondary goals integrating core elements of human, social and environmental development. Illustrative examples are provided.


This contribution comes from collaborative research conducted over four years by a team of academics from different specialist sectors represented by MDGs 1–7 (poverty and hunger, environment, education, gender, maternal and child health, HIV) who were convened under the leadership of Jeff Waage at the London International Development Centre (LIDC) to undertake cross-sectoral analysis of the performance and future direction of the MDGs. Participants in the team come from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Institute of Education, the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and research partners at institutions in China, Thailand, South Africa, Malawi and Chile.

The submission has been co-ordinated by LIDC and written by Andrew Dorward (Professor of Development Economics, SOAS, University of London), Elaine Unterhalter (Professor of Education and International Development, IoE, University of London) and Jeff Waage (OBE, Director of the LIDC and Professor, SOAS, University of London).


1. This submission focuses on four of the questions posed by the enquiry:

(1)Lessons learned—how effective has the MDG process been?

(2)The target based approach.

(3)The process and voices heard.

(4)Content of future goals.

Lessons learned: How effective has the MDG process been to date?

2. Analysis by the team indicates the MDGs have had success, albeit patchily, across goals and countries. However, they could have been more successful. Three general lessons have been learned from experience across MDGs:

(a)Goals and targets were defined narrowly and implemented by specialized interest groups operating in silos with little interaction. This created important gaps in coverage (eg agricultural development) and missed opportunities for synergy between interventions (eg education and health). A more holistic, integrated approach was needed.

(b)The ownership of goals was problematic at the international, national and sub-national levels. At the international level, MDGs which did not have powerful champions or constituencies, such as well positioned UN agencies, performed less well (eg gender, environment), while goals that fell across such constituencies experienced competition over ownership that reduced impact (eg maternal health). At a national level, goals were not well aligned to national priorities and were therefore either (eg by China) or forced countries to change national targets to take advantage of funding flowing for the MDGs. A process of development led from the national level might have been more effective.

(c)There was little attempt to build ownership at sub-national level, where results based management sometimes exacerbated social exclusion and relationships predicated on blaming the poor for their poverty. Most importantly, the goals as they were implemented, while improving average levels for particular targets (eg of survival, income or access to ecosystem services) were also associated at times with greater inequities. This exacerbated the general trend over the MDG period for poverty and disadvantage to be increasingly situated in emerging economies, hidden by improving average development scores, but where the gap between rich and poor is growing. For example larger numbers of children in school masked differences in what was learned, gender inequalities in outcomes, and different experience of education for children according to income quintile, ethnicity or location.

Was the MDG target-based approach a success?

3. Having relatively simple targets was good, although it did undervalue progress by those countries whose starting point was further from the desired level than others and which may have achieved larger absolute changes (for example much of sub-Saharan Africa). However, the design of many targets was flawed. Across goals and sectors, targets of proportionate reductions/improvements in some property tended in practice to focus attention on people and communities who could be easily “brought over the line”, eg of $1.25/day income, or maternal survival, or access to water. While moving towards the average national value desired, this increased the distance between those who were better and worse off. This increasing inequity was seen across goals in terms of progress relative to income quintile, but certainly went beyond that, to further disadvantage women, ethnic minorities and remote communities. A pro-poor approach should have been taken, with targets designed to reach those most disadvantaged, not those most easily helped.

4. A second problem with the target-based approach is the confusion in existing goals between ends and means. Some goals and their targets focused on the achievement of impact (eg poverty and health goals) whereas others focused on the achievement of inputs, that is they were implementation goals (eg completing primary school and access to water). Many of the impact goals (eg. MDG3, 4 & 5) had both impact and implementation targets. Under different goals different emphasis was given to impact and implementation targets and indicators—and while impact indicators could be criticised for failing to specify investments and actions for their achievements, implementation indicators could lead to emphasis on achievement of these targets without consideration of their wider impact (a process known as “goal displacement”). The confused relationships between impact goals, targets and indicators on the one hand and implementation goals, targets and indicators on the other, and the difficulties of the relationship of the latter with subsidiarity and the principle of ownership contributed to the target based approach not fulfilling its potential.

The process: are the right voices being heard? What are the opportunities for and constraints to global consensus?

5. A persistent critique of the MDGs was that the idea originated in the DAC, was pushed forward by the UN Secretary General to give substance to the Millennium Declaration, and, despite heads of state signing up to the MDGs, there was very little national consultation. Although, over the period of the MDGs, a wide range of organisations came on board (largely national governments, multilateral organisations, and some large international NGOs), there was very little attempt to popularise or expand ownership of the goals. The problem of having no mechanism to attend to voices from below meant that many important voices of those who had the closest experience of the areas identified by the goals were not heard.

6. In addition, inadequate attention was given to a middle level of practitioners, knowledge makers and brokers, who research showed were crucial to delivery of social development. Detailed case study research into implementation of MDG 1, 2 and 3 in Kenya and South Africa by a DFID/ESRC funded project indicated a culture of blaming the poor, evinced in the talk of government officials, teachers and some NGO workers, who are very publicly accountable for MDG linked targets. With limited insight into how and why change may be slow, their professional practice, has been documented as often coloured by hostility to the people they work with, widening social distance. This contributes to and sometimes amplifies difficulties in expanding education and health provision, and lessens opportunities to engage with poor communities. Furthermore, because of particular MDGs’ association with certain distinct government departments or NGOs, and limited experience in most countries of working in multi-disciplinary teams, the work of linking MDGs together is pushed downwards to district officers or teachers. These generally have limited resources of money or time to work cross-sectorally. Often they have a very limited knowledge base, because hardly any research has been done on linking various MDGs together. In addition they have little support with strategic planning or practice to make these links: understandably, they are unable to develop the kind of joined-up practice the MDGs required.

7. Projects like Beyond 2015 are working to build a global multi-stakeholder process for a legitimate post-2015 process, drawing on civil society networks. Their focus has been on influencing and mobilising work with constituencies, linked either to the World Social Forum or to UN institutions. Consultations in particular countries, if they are to be guided by the UNDG plan of August 2012, suggest that views should be taken from “academia, media, private sector, employers and trade unions, civil society, and decision makers”. What is missing from this list—possibly loosely covered as civil society—are the professional organisations, middle-ranking knowledge makers who translate ideas from top to bottom (not necessarily senior academics or leaders of media organisations), government officers working at sub-national levels, and teams who can work across sectors. This “absent middle” seems a crucial gap both to appreciate thinking for a post 2015 agenda, and to build buy-in about how it might be delivered.

8. There is a need, in nationally-led goal setting, to maintain a global perspective. The LIDC team, working with Karolinska Institute and partner institutions in Asia, Africa and Latin America, developed an approach to link together and support professionals in low and middle income countries, helping them to better support national goal development and share ideas and processes between countries and regions. The SIDA-funded EPI-4 project based in China, Vietnam, India and Indonesia is an ongoing example of such an integrated approach to support national goal development, albeit focused more narrowly on the different health goals and their development across Asian countries.

9. Optimism about reaching global consensus in 2000, building on the success of the conferences convened in the 1990s, has been battered by a number of shocks (eg, turmoil and wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, difficulties in ending the global financial crisis, failures in reaching consensus on climate change) each of which, in addition to local contextual features, entail failures of regulation of global structural power, inadequate processes for democratic deliberation that takes account of marginalised interests, and limited and often hostile connection between pressures for top-down regulation and bottom-up consultation. While opportunities for more consultation and engagement with “bottom-up” processes have increased, with more knowledge to support forms of “top-down” regulation more in tune with need, insufficient attention has been given to opportunities for connecting these levels.

The content of future goals. What would be a good set of global goals?

10. Examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the MDGs does not immediately identify a specific content for future goals, but we believe it does clearly identify a set of principles that should guide development of future goals. These can be used to evaluate new goals content proposed by different development constituencies. These principles are: holism (with synergies and an absence of gaps between goals), equity (equality that is fair both within and across generations), sustainability (the capacity to persist and to resist or recover from shocks or stresses), ownership (representation, participation, accountability, transparency for all), and global obligation (commitment to address inequities in relations between countries). All of these are relevant to discussion of content and to the choice of goals (and targets and indicators) and should determine:

the selection of topics to be addressed in goals (for example to promote holism by ensuring synergies and avoiding gaps across goals);

the definition of goals and targets (for example to promote equity and sustainability within goals); and

the hierarchy of relations between and across goals and targets.

11. In the light of this we suggest that

goals should be hierarchically structured with:

(i)“highest level goals” focussing on core elements of well-being and recognising the integral importance of human, social and environmental development; and

(ii)“second level goals” focusing on achievement of core elements needed for and part of wider human, social and environmental development.

Figure 1


Source: Waage et al. (2010)

Indicators and targets for most goals should be specified in terms of achievement of acceptable standards and the distribution of these within populations (to avoid unsustainable aspirations for growth and to allow common measures across all countries) not in terms of rates of change There should be prioritisation and contextualisation of national “second level goals” within a wider international framework

The design and presentation of goals should thus be more holistic in bringing achievements and failings together across different elements (for example linking livelihoods with nutrition, energy with climate stabilisation)

12. In the development of new goals and associated targets and indicators there should be an analysis of how each goal interacts, positively or negatively with other possible goals, targets and indicators. We have found this useful in examining a stunting target, as examination of the links between stunting and existing targets (for example poverty, education, gender and health) reveals strong, but often asymmetric relationships

13. To illustrate possibilities in content, we present candidate targets with regard to stunting and agricultural development, livelihoods and food security, targets which members of our team have been examining from an inter-sectoral perspective. These are associated with higher level goals, and linked, intentionally, to a number of second level goals. The examples are intended to show the possibilities of this approach, rather than to pre-empt design and choice of particular targets.

14. A maximum incidence of stunting could be set as part of a global goal for well-being. Stunting is affected by mothers’ and children’s access to health services, food, livelihoods and nutrition, as well as by maternal education, gender relations, and a wide range of livelihood (economic), service and infrastructural conditions. It also has strong impacts on future wellbeing and economic opportunities for individuals and communities and on equity within and across communities. Within this global goal different countries could commit to achievement of particular intermediate targets and rates of progress to achieve them. However, addressing this goal does not mean that all aspects of inequality, limited education or infrastructural needs would be addressed: the overall principle of holism would require attention to interlocking goals and targets to deliver fully on the connected areas of human, social and environmental development

15. With regard to agricultural development, livelihoods and food security, Dorward (2012) proposes two indicators which inter-relate human, social and environmental development:

(i)Productivity of Agricultural Labour (measured in cereal equivalents) provides a measure of the price of food relative to incomes and employment in economies with significant agricultural sectors—most of which are poorer countries. This is a critical driver of real income growth in most poorer economies. It could be combined and presented with, for example other indicators of productivity measured in cereal equivalents (yields of land, fertiliser and water) to show the sustainability of agricultural production.

(ii)Food Expenditure Ratios, are a theoretically sound and practicable measure of food prices relative to incomes of households in different income deciles. When evaluated for the lowest income decile this measure meets the holism and equity principles, in its linking of food prices to real incomes, its focus on the poor, and in the links between real incomes, economic growth, and households’ expenditures on and achievements in, for example, education, housing, and nutrition.

16. A radar diagram approach can be used to present integrated information on a large number of indicators, with a single central circle to show the target and achievement of a core wellbeing goal and with individual rays showing targets and achievements of different secondary targets. Such an approach might, for example, combine information on a goal such as “eliminating stunting” with information on aspects of agricultural development as outlined above. These indicators need to be linked with others on gender and on other elements in figure 1 to ensure holism, sustainability and equity across and within goals.


17. There should be successors to the MDGs that build on the MDG’s strengths but address their shortcomings while taking account of changing international conditions. Processes for the development and ownership of goals are needed, and these should involve more participation of both people whom the goals concern and middle ranking professionals most closely involved with implementing initiatives needed for goal achievement. The content of such goals, while being determined in more inclusive processes, should embody core principles of holism, sustainability and equity and should be hierarchically structured with “highest level goals” (focussing on core elements of well-being and integrating human, social and environmental development) supplemented by “second level goals” that focus on the achievement of core elements needed to achieve improved wellbeing. These should embody core principles of holism, sustainability and equity.

October 2012


Dorward A (2012) Agricultural labour productivity and food prices: fundamental development impacts and indicators. Policy Brief,. Future Agricultures Consortium, Brighton.

Unterhalter, E. (2012) “Silences, stereotypes and local selection: Negotiating policy and practice to implement the MDGs and EFA” In Antoni Verger, Hulya Kosar Altinyelken and Mario Novelli eds. Global Education Policy and International Development: New Agendas, Issues and Policies London: Continuum, 79–100.

Unterhalter, E, Yates, C, Makinda, H And North, A (2012) “Blaming the poor: Constructions of marginality and poverty in the Kenyan education sector” Compare 42, 2, 213–233.

Waage, J, Banerji, R, Campbell, O, Chirwa, E, Collender, G, Dieltiens, V, Dorward, A, Godfrey-Faussett, P, Hanvoravongchai, P, Kingdon, G, Little, A, Mills, A, Mulholland, K, Mwinga, A, North, A, Patcharanarumol, W, Poulton, C, Tangcharoensathien, V & Unterhalter, E (2010) The Millennium Development Goals: a cross-sectoral analysis and principles for goal setting after 2015 The Lancet, 376, 991–1023.

Prepared 21st January 2013