US gets a strategy to meet the Millennium Development Goals – please explain

UPDATE: UN Dispatch disagrees, we respond (see end of post). Although the eight goals that seek to reduce the global burden of hunger, poverty and disease were agreed upon by aid donors almost 10 years ago, and most of the goals come due in 2015, the world’s largest donor has never had a strategy to achieve them. Obama campaigned on the promise of making the MDGs “America’s goals,” but the first year and a half of his administration has not yet delivered on this promise.

On Friday, though, the US released a document written by USAID which declares that the US “fully embraces the MDGs” and “will put innovation, sustainability, tracking development outcomes, and mutual accountability at the heart of our approach to development, and, consequently, to the MDGs.” The administration is delivering this strategy just in time for the MDG summit in September.

I recently came across a paper by David Hulme that frames the fierce debate around the value of the MDGs nicely. According to Hulme, the viewpoints

… range from the high modernists, who take them at face value and are optimistic that they are a blueprint for the transformation of the human condition (Sachs,  2005); the strategic realists, who don’t believe the MDGs are a blueprint for action but believe they are essential to stretch ambitions and mobilise political commitment and public support (Fukuda-Parr, 2008); the critics, who see them as well-intentioned but poorly thought through – distracting attention from more appropriate targets (or nontargets) and more effective policies and actions (Clemens et al, 2007; Easterly, 2006);  through to the radical critics, who view them as a conspiracy obscuring the really important ‘millennial’ questions of growing global inequality, alternatives to capitalism and women’s empowerment (Antrobus, 2003; Eyben, 2006; Saith, 2006).

The US strategy is notable in that it is not internally coherent according to ANY of these alternative MDG world-views.

By doing a strategy at all, the US would seem to have placed itself firmly in the high modernist camp and to have rejected the critics’ view. But a curious feature of the new US strategy is its failure to mention the goals by name, or to strategize progress specifically towards any of the agreed-on indicators. From the critics’ point of view, this is certainly better than the UN Millennium Project’s strategy, which created a 449-step comprehensive strategy to reach the 8 goals and 18 targets. But with no concreteness on goals or indicators at all, one wonders what exactly was the point of the new US strategy according to the “high modernist” approach.

As far as “mobilizing political commitment,” it’s perhaps telling that the report is subtitled “Toward 2015 and Beyond,” which reads like an unintentional acknowledgement that the MDG exercise has already failed for 2015 – something on which this blog opined a year ago. But then again, we are a little confused why the US is now jumping on the MDG bandwagon when the band is starting to pack up their instruments.

Could it be that there should be a fifth Hulme category – the “PR view,” according to which the MDGs are a politically costless way for any given aid donor to create a positive image of benevolence towards the world’s poor, which is sadly unrelated to whether the goals are actually achieved?


UPDATE Monday August 2, 3:22 pm: Duncan Greene of Oxfam GB more optimistically reckons that this strategy shows “how quickly Shah and USAID have won back lost political ground from other government agencies;” UN Dispatch interviews Rajiv Shah;  Porter McConnell of Oxfam US says the development community is still waiting for the administration’s long-promised global development strategy.

UPDATE 2 Tuesday August 3, 11:36 am: Mark Leon Goldberg of UN Dispatch has responded to this blog post, arguing that The US MDG Strategy is More than a PR Ploy! and represents real progress:

….It was only five years ago that we had a freelancing UN ambassador [John Bolton] who thought he could get away with erasing the mere mention of the MDGs from a UN Summit…. Fast forward to 2010 and not only is the United States embracing the MDGs, but the administration has made it an organizing principal of US foreign policy.

Sure, the new US willingness to engage with the UN, and this new MDG strategy document, may represent progress in repairing the fractured relationship between the US and the UN. In the annals of UN bureaucratic infighting this does indeed sound like a revolutionary change.

But on the more important question of whether this change in orientation on the MDGs will make a real difference in the way that the US and other donors deliver development assistance to the world’s poor, we’re going to need more than just an official statement of intentions before we can conclude that real progress is being made.