L'institut Nord-Sud



One Size Only, One Global Customer? Why universality and tiering should be part of the post-2015 MDG conversation

février 25, 2013

by JOHN SINCLAIR, NSI Distinguished Research Associate



MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) are the internationally recognized goals for the basic needs of the disadvantaged.  That global recognition is the key incentive driving substantial and effective programs to help meet those goals.  We know now, however, that their delivery has been flawed and for many countries outcomes have been below expectations.

As we move to MDG renewal in 2015, do we need to change the incentive framework?

Today’s MDGs are about low-income, developing countries.  Meeting their goals is an important incentive for donors, national governments, and CSOs (civil society organizations) to deliver better, more effective development to needy populations.  Regular monitoring has focused attention on uneven performance and delivery weaknesses in achieving these internationally endorsed standards. Even the most basic global goal, that of halving poverty, was only met due to advances in China.

An important Post-2015 topic will be whether to link targets to differing conditions of countries – to match goals with developmental status.  We cannot expect a fragile state such as Timor-Leste to overnight match the MDG status of Morocco.  At issue for Post-2015 is whether changing these MDG target “rules” will produce better incentives, hence more effective delivery. The recent United Nations high-level panel discussion focusing on equity as a standalone MDG seemed to overlook equity in the setting of actual goals.

There are two complementary, but on the surface possibly contradictory, issues:

Should the core goals become universal? In other words, should all developed countries (e.g., Canada) also subscribe to and monitor their own performance on the new MDGs?

Should these goals be tiered, designed with three or four levels and matched to country groupings with distinct developmental statuses? Would this involve next generation goals being potentially more achievable with a comparable “stretch” for each country grouping?  With tiering, the MDG targets would be higher and more demanding for richer countries than for so-called “fragile” or conflict-vulnerable countries.

The sides in this debate are several and sometimes confusing.

NGOs and CSOs, as well as academic organizations and think-tanks, tend to favour both universality and tiering.  Their shared focus is on ensuring that the next generation of goals is more strategic, better linked to rights, more explicitly pro-poor, and not least, doable with appropriate operational support.

The leaders in developing countries are split: there are those who worry that universality and even tiering may diffuse the focus on MDGs and thus aid levels could be diminished. Others argue that universality will serve to increase the attention of developed countries and their taxpayers on meeting the MDGs. Universality will also avoid the flawed message that internal equity is only an issue for a sub-class of poorest countries.

Many countries, developing and developed, favour tiering, even if worried by the added complexity, since it makes explicit a principle that in setting future targets we need to stretch each class of country equally, so that there will be fewer invidious and demoralizing scores for the poorest of countries. Under the current targeting approach, such negative signals has been almost unavoidable—even when low-income countries focused on achieving MDGs show better gains in improving the situation of their populations.

Above all, there is a new global power dynamic. Today’s world is no longer one where western donors and the World Bank can just set rules or goals.  It is the UN and G20, (not the fatigued G7), that are there to arbitrate global rules.  Emerging economies, notably the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), maybe more than OECD members, are already shaping the world economy and likely strongly influencing this next generation of global development targets.

So where does this leave developed country donors like Canada? So far they are keeping their heads down on such touchy topics, choosing to watch from the sidelines.  For some donors, universality is a simple issue of ego and national pride: how can there be targets for themselves, for developed countries? One suspects their citizens, often children and minorities, in the remaining persistent pockets of poverty and unemployment, would welcome such public targets.  If it is reasonable for the global community to set pro-poor targets for Chad, even China, why not for France and Canada?  Some somewhat disingenuously seem to argue that universality, could even reduce support for such aid to developing countries.

On tiering, the concerns of donors seem to be mainly technical. They accept that one might need some special targets for the newly formed grouping called the “’g7+”’ (or “fragile states”), Paul Collier’s “’bottom billion,”’, but worry that this will demand complicated data collection. This argument is then extrapolated to paternalistically dismiss any concern about demoralization in poorer countries, both of their poor and their governments.

There is an added complication, both political and technical: according to the Brookings Institution, 55 per cent of the world’s poor and vulnerable live in newly lower-middle-income countries such as India and Brazil, which could lead to a misdirection of aid to countries that have many MDG-poor citizens, but which also have growing middle and wealthy classes capable of helping them. The fix for this potential problem is relatively simple: to include key “equity” MDG targets linked to internal distribution indicators such as Gini coefficients and access to free health service for low-income households.

The debate on these topics may be lengthy, even distracting from the need for agreement on a more strategic and comprehensive second generation set of MDGs.  Ultimately, donors such as Canada should be guided by concerns of relevance, doability, intra-country equity, and pro-poor focus, rather than for their own egos and national pride.