This ‘virtual roundtable’ features interviews with four prominent commentators on development and global poverty:
Varun Gauri is a Senior Economist in the Development Research Group of the World Bank; Branko Milanovic is a lead economist in the World Bank’s Research Department; Thomas Pogge is Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University; Gustav Ranis is the Frank Altschul Professor Emeritus of International Economics at Yale University.
Interviews by Gilad Tanay
How would you characterize the process that was used for the formulation, adoption, and implementation of the MDGs? How inclusive was it? What were the main strengths and weaknesses in that process?
Varun Gauri: As most people know, the Millennium Development Goals were developed mostly by international civil servants, at the OECD initially, and then at the United Nations. As a result, they have many strengths and weaknesses of that process. They did not involve wide consultation with low-income or middle-income country governments. I think that’s important for understanding what the MDGs were really about. They’re primarily a statement about development goals and a vision for donors.
If you think about the elements of the MDGs themselves — cutting world poverty, child mortality, education — at the global scale, those are not things that a small, poor country has much control over. The framing as a global project suggested that those countries that saw themselves as actors on the world stage were the ones who were speaking. So, I think it was very much international civil servants, international organizations, and rich countries that did most of the formulation.
When it comes to the adoption though, even the rich country governments weren’t significantly consulted. There wasn’t a legislative endorsement from rich countries. There wasn’t broad discussion within rich countries either. So, if you look at the data about who knows about the MDGs—there was a world value survey question about this, I think it was in the 2005-2006 wave — five percent of respondents in the United States had even heard of the MDGs. It went up a bit more, maybe to the twenties, for Germany. Overall the country average was 20. So, it’s not something that the world as a whole knew a lot about. It sort of came upon us. And that was true even within some of the large organizations like the World Bank. When I was working there, [the MDGs] were given to us, and we didn’t know about them beforehand. And in terms of implementation, among the MDGs, there’s a lot of variation. A lot of variety in implementation across countries, across sectors. Even within an organization like the World Bank.
Thomas Pogge: I think the truth is that we don’t know very much about the process that led to the adoption of the MDGs. As you know, the predecessor version was formulated in the Millennium Declaration, and that was passed by to the UN General Assembly, and of course we know how that happened. This was proposed, and it was adopted by the General Assembly in the year 2000.
But what then happened, what led to Article 19 of the Millennium Declaration to the MDGs is a process that is wholly unknown. The goals were substantially changed and, in particular, diluted in that process. It’s clear that that happened somewhere in the United Nations but it is not clear which bureaucrats were involved in it. Truly, Kofi Annan was involved in it, but other people presumably as well. It’s also not clear what pressures these people responded to, and so I think the truth is that we don’t really know what led to that dilution of the MDGs.
What would you see as strengths or weaknesses of the MDG framework, in terms of overall design, conception of development, goals, targets and indicators?
Gustav Ranis: Well, one strength is that they energized the international community with certain goals. Some weaknesses are that they were too general, without enough specificity. Because every country has different priorities, and among the eight MDGs, different people have different priorities, and that was not recognized in the formulation. The question is, what should be pushed in any given country? What is the priority in that country? We can’t expect them all to follow the same guidelines. So, I think that’s the main problem — that underneath each of the major MDG objectives, we ought to be more specific as to what needs to be done on a country-by-country basis. And let the country determine how they want to achieve their priorities if we do anything after 2015.
Branko Milanovic: From my own very narrow perspective and, of course, this is Goal 1 which I [am referring to] … the issue of global inequality does not even get a mention here. [The goal] refers to global poverty, but these are two different things, and I believe that this is an amazing issue.
Now, global poverty is really easier to quantify as we know. There was the objective as to reduce it in half and, just in terms of language, there were no numbers from an absolute number of people or even percentage of people who are in poverty, and so on. You know, global inequality is not itself such an easy target. We cannot say we want to have such and such a number and all that, but we could, of course, say it’s not impossible to do.
You could actually look at income ratios between the poorest countries and the richest countries. You can say like, the ten poorest countries and the relationship in terms of per capita income to the ten richest or some such number, and I think you could introduce that. But then again, there is no mechanism that would actually make these poor countries become richer, because there is nothing behind that. But I think, just to produce a little bit of awareness of the [inequality], you could actually do the same thing with people. You can say that the objective would be the [to increase] the share of [those on] the bottom, [and to change] the relationship between the bottom and the top. You could do the same thing that we did with poverty. You could do it with inequality.
Varun Gauri: An issue is really about the fact that they only spoke to part of the development process. So, when we encountered the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, the MDGs weren’t really a resource. And they really didn’t address issues like trade. More recently, what’s been on the agenda is land acquisition. Land grabs, that kind of thing. In the Pacific and in Sub-Saharan Africa, MDGs don’t necessarily speak to that problem. The governance agenda is not something that they deal with head on. And [they do not address] financial regulation.
So, I think that they don’t really speak to the variety of factors that are directly affecting development. And so, as a result the other agendas just go merrily on their way. The trade agenda goes on. The issues in finance aren’t really affected by the MDGs. And there are a variety of other development actors and processes already active, and the MDGs didn’t really have much to say to them, and so those weren’t touched by the process.
What were the benefits brought about by the MDG framework?
Thomas Pogge: I think that relative to having no such framework at all, there were some benefits, and one benefit in particular was to focus world attention on the urgency of overcoming poverty. The modern poverty problem is different from the past where essentially much of the poverty of humanity was unavoidable. Since, maybe, the middle of the twentieth century, we have had the means available to overcome poverty for most of the human beings in the world. And that obviously is a very important, morally speaking, very important, urgent problem. If this poverty is avoidable, it must be avoided. And so the MDGs have the advantage of focusing humanity on this very urgent moral goal.
Branko Milanovic: I think the main benefit is awareness. Many issues in the world and in countries really start with the ability to apply concrete numbers, figures, estimates, because you are moving in some kind of grey area, where you don’t know if things are really going up or down, or whatever.
So, I think it does help. Maybe some people don’t like it because it seems like they’re planning on the global [scale]. It’s not really planning, because there is no mechanism to enforce them. But I think the great advantage, I mean, the advantage of the goals is an ability to focus on what is happening in the world, because without them, we would be as we were before. And I’m not sort of overemphasizing the importance of the goals, but at least we have some kind of scorebook. Without them, we don’t.
Varun Gauri: I think [one of the main benefits] was reframing development as an enterprise that’s focused on human development and human development outcomes. Education, literacy, health, mortality, and poverty. Rather than the older conception of development, which was about the operation of markets. I think the MDG framing wasn’t the only thing that shifted the world’s thinking, but it was part of contributing to a wave in that direction.
In terms of resource allocation, well, there was an increase in ODA, if you look at the data on OECD, over the first decade of the new millennium. It’s hard to know whether the MDGs were causal, or they were reflective or a larger change of the currents in the world. And there was a general interest [in development], for a lot of reasons that I mentioned a moment ago. So, the MDGs may well have played a role. But it’s hard to know for sure.
Were there ways in which the MDGs were detrimental to poverty alleviation?
Thomas Pogge: I don’t think they were detrimental relative to having nothing at all. But I do think that the MDGs were much inferior to what else could have been put in their place. And that is true in particular in two respects. First I think the MDGs were not nearly ambitious enough, in that they set very low goals, [in particular], the halving of the proportion of poor people in the world over a period of twenty-five years. That’s really not very ambitious. Given that the population in developing countries increases by somewhere around forty-six percent over that period, if you get poverty down to seventy-three percent of what it was in that same period, you have already halved the proportion. And so a twenty-seven percent reduction in the number of extremely poor people over twenty-five years is really ridiculously under-ambitious, given how rich in resources the world now is.
So, one problem is that the goals are under ambitious. The second very big problem is that the goals were just put out there without the slightest hint as to who bears what responsibility towards achieving these goals. And so, of course, everybody was very happy to celebrate the goals: to say, yeah, yeah – that’s good. Let’s just all reduce poverty. And nobody felt in particular called upon to do anything in particular to achieve the goals.
Gustav Ranis: Well, I think that they did bring worthwhile objectives, like poverty alleviation, to the attention of many agents. I think they were more embraced by the donors than by the recipients. I think the recipients were a little cool, partly because there was not enough country specificity, and they felt they were being pushed into it. Though, actually, they really supported the goals, in some cases.
Branko Milanovic: Honestly, I cannot say that they were detrimental. I can say that they may not have made any difference because … there is no instrument. There is no connection between a goal and really the vision of the goal. But I don’t see that [they were detrimental to poverty alleviation].
Varun Gauri: I think the main harm that they may have caused was an opportunity cost. I know that there’s a discussion out there that says that the MDGs could have been much more ambitious, that they tolerate a certain kind of poverty. I understand that critique, but I think one really has to look at the political counterfactual. I don’t think that at the time there was anything else on the table that could have done much more than they did. Going forward, I think if one of those standards is accepted now, after broader discussion and after an understanding of what the MDGs did and didn’t do, then I think that one can say well, yeah, they really distracted from what we ought to be doing. But I think at the time they were mostly an opportunity cost. The opportunity cost itself is predicated on the political counterfactual and we don’t really know what that was.
How would you assess the degree to which the MDGs have been achieved?
Gustav Ranis: Well, they have changed international public opinion, which is important. They’re probably loosening up some financial resources, although in the last year, the international financial crises have hurt the financial side. So it’s given a boost to have that energy and a push on quantity [of financial resources]; it has been helpful, but I don’t think it emphasises quality enough.
Thomas Pogge: Well, on their own terms — this is a very significant restriction here, right? The MDGs come with a very elaborate system of measurement. In the case of MDG 1, which I know the most about, the halving of poverty, there is a big methodology that the World Bank has developed for measuring or counting the number of extremely poor people. If you take that methodology for granted — and think it’s a good methodology for tracking the evolution of poverty — then you have to say that the world has been reasonably successful in achieving MDG 1. It looks like, by the World Bank’s standards, we will over achieve MDG 1 if we achieve more than that twenty-seven percent reduction over twenty-five years in the number of extremely poor people.
Branko Milanovic: Again, they really talk more about poverty, a little bit about education and health. And I take the numbers for granted, I mean I don’t dispute the numbers. So, in terms of poverty, they have been successful. However, the issue there, you can argue, is that of course it was predominately due to China, and, much less and more recently, to India, and much less so to the development in Africa. I’m not sure to what in extent it was a shared growth or growth like, for example in Angola, which was very high income inequality, and where most of growth was collected by very few people. But, I would, I just say, technically or numerically or whatever you want to call it —- arithmetically — the success in a restricted sense was there.
Varun Gauri: Well, if you think about whether they eradicated poverty, and whether they developed a new partnership, those haven’t really been achieved per se. Now, some of the targets were achieved, but again there are real questions about the causal role of the MDGs in this area. I think the MDGs really are a statement about what the donor countries were trying to create. And, really, MDG 8 [“develop a global partnership for development”] is at the heart of that. To sort of motivate the rich countries and organize donors to create a new partnership, such that some of the other goals could have been achieved. And I don’t think one sees dramatic change in that area.
Should the MDG successors be an extension of the current goals, an expansion/revision of the current goals, or something different altogether?
Thomas Pogge: Well, it has to be something different altogether, I would say. The crucial thing here is that what we need here is not a statement of goals alone. What we need is a statement of responsibilities. So the goals have to be attached to agents. Unattached goals are no one’s goals in particular, and there is just no reason to believe that these goals will be achieved. The goals should be more ambitious and they should be tied to particular agents.
So for example: we need something like statements about how much aid should be given by various countries. We should have statements about how that aid should be spent—what should be prioritized. Again, example: we have about $120 billion in development aid today each year. But of that $120 billion, only about $15 billion goes for basic social services. That is to say, to poverty relief efforts. That number has to be increased. You know, we don’t need more development aid necessarily, but we certainly need more of that aid going into basic social services—basic education, basic healthcare, water and nutrition, and so forth.
Further, I think, and that’s maybe the most important point: we have to stop thinking about the poverty reduction project as being promoted by development aid only. Development aid is a very small niche in the international institutional architecture, and what happens there cannot possibly make up for the enormous headwind that is generated by the rest of the institutional order against the poor.
So, what we need to do is not just focus on development aid, but we must focus on the entire remainder of the international institutional architecture and analyse it to see how it is designed and to what extent its design is detrimental to the poor or helpful to the poor. So, by redesigning such elements, we can do a great deal more for poverty eradication than by increasing development aid.
Let me give one example that which I have worked on quite a bit, which is the TRIPS Agreement. The TRIPS Agreement basically establishes one uniform minimum standard for intellectual property rights the world over. That standard is very high. It requires, in the case of medicine, a twenty-year monopoly on product patents, protecting the particular molecule against copying. And so this enables innovators to sell new medicines at somewhere between 20 and 50 times the cost of production, thereby excluding poor people from the benefits of new medicines. Now, this is a tremendous detriment for the poor. And, of course, you can make up for that in some way if you subsidize medicine purchases here and there and so on, by way of development assistance of one sort or another.
But you could make up for this much more effectively if you found a different way of incentivizing pharmaceutical innovation. For example: in the way that we have proposed in the Health Impact Fund system. That will be a system where innovators would be rewarded not by being allowed to mark up their products in the patent-protected way that protects them from competition, but where innovators would be rewarded on the basis of the health impact that the medicine actually achieves.
Gustav Ranis: Well, I don’t think just changing the date is a good idea. I think we should have a new start and keep some of the goals, but basically get away from this eight major objectives, and be much more country-specific, as I said, and be a little more involved in institutional issues, rather than quantitative. The problem with the goals is that too much is quantitative, and not enough is qualitative; and [we ought to consider] different institutional issues. What kind of institutions do we need to create — domestic and international — to further the objective of poverty and other things? And we should probably reduce the number of things we are trying to do to a smaller number, which we focus on more rigorously. I think one problem is how to generate technology. It’s not there. And I think, ultimately, countries need to be innovative, and not necessarily with technology of the rich countries, but with their own adaptive technology, which is labour-intensive and, therefore, will help poverty alleviation. There is still too much emphasis on what we know and that we should transfer from us to them, and so I think that adaptive technology, building institutional R&D and in the small-scale sectors—that, I think, is where we should be heading.
Branko Milanovic: I would actually put it, in your classification, as an extension, so that they could be an area where the Millennium Development Goals could be extended. Then, of course, another one, which I already mentioned, was inequality, so I will not go back to that. But an area where it’s difficult to see how the international community could do it, but more sensitive topics like democracy, participation, gender equality — [that is an area where] I would also see as an extension. I would not look at is as an overhaul. Again, to answer your question, I would say between the three sort of options that you gave at the beginning, I would say that an extension would be the one that I would like the most. That, again, with the caveat that we cannot really extend it to cover everything in the world, because then we cannot have fifty Millennium Development Goals, so maybe some of the goals can be cut out, and others introduced, but in order to keep this awareness that I believe is the main sort of contribution of MDGs, they have to be relatively few in number. We cannot have a hundred of them.
I gave two or three additional goals in discussion. Of course, self-servingly, I would say global inequality, because it is a very quantifiable goal. I think if we sit together, we can in an hour decide what would be one criterion that would be a [good measure]. So it’s really not difficult. The database is already in existence. It’s the same database, more or less, that is used for global poverty, so it’s very easy to do. The other goals which I mentioned, I think, are important also — these are the more political goals which I mentioned. It’s really participation, openness of political systems, meaningful elections, lower ability of the rich [to exert undue influence] — and that actually pertains also to the rich countries like the United States. Lower ability of the rich to influence the election process — these are other things that are [important]. If I were to prioritise these, I would put inequality as number one, and [political goals] as number two. That might not reflect their real importance. That might just reflect what they like.
Varun Gauri: I think that a new set of MDGs ought to be less uniform. I think that, although it may not have been an intention of the formulators of the MDGs to speak this way, the result as it played out was to create pressures for all the countries in the world who were partnering with donors to focus on certain kinds of development. And to focus on these goals in the short term. That may not be the right thing to do for all the countries in the world. I mean, I think that it’s not obvious that what the MDGs ought to be doing is setting a framework for every single country. Rather, what they can do is to talk about the global system. Because, what the MDGs are is an agreement among the various countries of the world, and most of the participants in this agreement don’t know what’s happening in, say, Mali, or in Bolivia, or in Laos.
So, we shouldn’t be talking about what ought to be happening in those countries in formulating these goals, but rather thinking about the global system as a whole. I think that’s what would be really useful in the next round.
Editorial Assistance by Ravina Khela