The North-South Institute

Français

Opinion

MDGs and Fragile States: A Red Herring?

May 2, 2013

by JENNIFER ERIN SALAHUB

The Ottawa Citizen

Some time ago, Paul Harvey, director of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, made a very important point about fragile states and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Harvey took issue with the oft-quoted line from the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report on conflict, security, and development that, “No low-income, fragile state has achieved a single MDG, and few are expected to meet targets by 2015.” Harvey points out that, using more recent data, several countries within the WDR’s definition of low-income, fragile state are on track to meet some MDGs. Moreover, that several conflict-affected countries that fall outside of the WDR definition are on track to meet or very likely to achieve several MDGs.

Harvey makes several excellent points and reminds us that definitional issues – Who is fragile? Who is conflict-affected? – have important and lasting consequences for how we see the world. But, in some ways, Harvey misses a crucial point: the Millennium Development Goals were never meant to be measured at the country level. Each MDG was designed as a global target: something that all countries and the world’s leading development institutions would strive to meet as a collective. Holding states to account for their individual progress toward the MDGs designed to be met at an international level is neither realistic nor fair, particularly when those states have weak governance, fragile institutions, and unreliable data collection processes.

In some ways – as with Paul Harvey’s beef – this is a question of semantics.  While they might have been conceived of as global targets, the MDGs are now routinely measured at the country level, to draw attention both to the leaders and the laggards. But, it seems as though fragile and conflict-affected states – however they are defined – are being set up for failure if they are expected to achieve targets such as halving the number of people in extreme poverty when the tools they are using are so meagre. Achieving that target, regardless of the absolute number of people implicated, is much easier for an economy like India or China, than it is for that of Somalia or the Central African Republic, to choose two extremes.

This is why initiatives like the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals within the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States and proposals for including indicators on conflict and violence in a new post-2015 development agenda are so important: they recognize that fragile states need a set of pre-MDGs to get them to a place where working towards the MDGs is meaningful and achievable. They also recognize that national-level indicators that take the local contexts of fragile and conflict-affected states into account will give us all a much more realistic understanding of how fragile states are doing on the path of human development. As progress on the post-2015 agenda speeds up – the High Level Panel’s report to the UN’s Secretary General is due to be released this month – let’s keep that in mind because, really, that’s what development goals should be about in the first place.

Jennifer Erin Salahub is senior researcher and team leader, fragile and conflict-affected states, at the North-South Institute. Twitter: @jennifersalahub