December 17, 2012, by Simon McGrath

Do we need new development goals?

In 2015 the current global run out. 2012 has seen the process of replacing them start in earnest with the Rio+20 summit and its proposal for sustainable development goals, and the appointment of the UN High Level Panel on post-2015.  More recently, there has been a wave of sectoral and overall consultations that are ongoing as I write towards the end of the year.

Like others interested in development I have been involved recently in several processes about the “post-2015 agenda”, including helping to organise a meeting between the UK Forum for International Education and Training, DfID and various NGOs and thinktanks (see, designed to help develop a lobbying position on the place of education in any post-2015 set of goals.  Yet, I can’t help thinking the heretical thought: do we really need a new set of goals?

In the current climate of positioning sectors, organisations and ideas to be at the top table of the post-2015 discussions, it is rather less than fashionable to question the success of the MDGs. However, development progress has been uneven and much of this progress cannot easily be attributable to the MDGs or the processes that have surrounded them.

If we look specifically at my own sector, education, then we know that there has been some progress towards the goal of universal primary education.  However, we also know that the target still is far from being met.  Moreover, there is overwhelming evidence that this goal was misspecified and that inequity of access, retention and achievement remain very serious problems in much of the world.  As I noted in a previous blog (, this failure needs also to be placed in the context of repeated failures to meet international educational goals. Why would we expect any post-2015 goals to be any more successful?

The educational goals experience also points to one of the widest spread critiques of all such targets: that they generate unintended consequences. Focusing attention on any set of goals, target or key performance indicators brings in its wake a strong tendency for behaviour that focuses on achieving these goals regardless of the costs that are generated.  Thus, it does not seem to matter enough that a focus on those things that can be targeted by goals leads to other important objectives being marginalised or undermined. For instance, did the obsession with educational enrolments undermine learning achievement? More generally, can goals cause more harm than good?

There are also a set of concerns about MDGs as an approach to development.  Even if many did subsequently sign up to them, the MDGs were an idea of the OECD and were pushed by a set of powerful governments and agencies, and heavily linked to aid conditionalities. Although there are attempts to make the current round more inclusive in their leadership, it is also possible to see the search for new goals in part as an attempt to maintain the global significance of the UN and certain of its specialised agencies, and of the traditional large donors.

Yet, the world of development has radically changed even since 2000 and many new actors are now involved in development practice, with a concomitant weakening of the historical power and influence of the old bilateral and multilateral agencies. Indeed, is the time for an MDG II approach passed: is it a vinyl solution in a digital world?

There were major problems too in the big development account that underpinned the MDGs, particularly when tied to the grandiose visions of people such as Jeffery Sachs. In the week the Albert Hirschman died I can’t help recalling his cautions against visions of development that far outstripped national capacities for delivery.

Moreover, the MDGs lacked a theory of development, being a political compromise built on an incoherent mix of human rights, human capital and global public goods. Crucially, they were not grounded in a model of how developmental change takes place. Moreover, it was not through focusing on the MDGs that those countries which have done development successfully in the past 50 years have progressed.  Is it really likely that new goals and process will be the route for the next wave either?

Finally, although the MDG discourse has talked about poverty, it is clear that inequality is rising and that social justice was not sufficiently addressed.  Unsurprisingly, the MDGs didn’t address the way in which underdevelopment exists in a dynamic relationship with development or the vested interests that exist in rich countries in limiting development gains elsewhere.  Can we really expect anything different post-2015? Rio+20 correctly tried to put sustainability at the core of a new set of goals. However, is it likely that a genuinely sustainable account can be developed given our experiences of Kyoto and Copenhagen?

So, I remain at my core very sceptical about the juggernaut of the post-2015 debate. Nonetheless, it seems likely that a set of goals are going to be developed regardless of my misgivings. In such a context, I suspect that 2013 will find me back engaged in trying to argue the case for education, work and human development as being central to any sensible and sustainable development vision and, thus, part of any post-2015 approach, goals or no goals.

Simon McGrath (Director of Research and Professor of International Education and Development – School of Education)

Posted in DevelopmentEducation