The Millennium Development Goals have been succinctly described as “the world’s biggest promise”. The last few weeks have seen a veritable mountain of reports, papers, policy papers, blogs and tweets on reaching the 10 year mark and the imminent approach of 2015, the anticipated end-date of the MDGs. Despite the sheer volume of material and amassed intellect that has been focused on the critical issues, one important area appears to have been sadly neglected…

Owen Barder usefully notes three emerging narratives from the summit and related events, which may on the surface seem contradictory:

  1. that there has been good progress and with coordinated efforts and more cash, we can achieve much more
  2. that there is a need for more transparent and accountable institutions, both in developing countries and in the international development system
  3. that the global context of the MDGs has changed, and that the necessary focus should now be on inequality rather than absolute poverty.

As Owen suggests, this last point is the most interesting strand of the the past few weeks of discussion and debate. This is also the area which has raised some of the most significant challenges to the assumptions underlying the MDGs.

The excellent work of Andy Sumner is central here, especially an IDS working paper published last month entitled ‘Three-quarters of the World’s poor live in middle-income countries’. This work shows that the face of poverty has changed dramatically since the MDGs were set. As Andy puts it in a summary for the Broker:

…there is a new ‘bottom billion’ and they don’t live in the world’s poorest countries. What does this startling change mean for the future of the MDGs, aid and global strategies for poverty reduction?

While these assumptions are clearly worth unpacking, it is interesting to note that in the three narratives Owen describes, there is little on the theories of change underlying the MDGs. In fact, Andy has previously provided some very pertinent reflections on the MDGs and what a post-2015 agenda might look like – this from a 2009 Broker article:

The MDGs represented an approach that in many ways suited the benign decade before the crisis, a period of relative stability, strong economic growth and fairly buoyant aid budgets. But even then, the MDGs sat uneasily with emerging ideas about soft systems and complexity theory that posited that development is difficult to predict or steer, nonlinear in cause and effect… (emphasis added)

Questioning the assumptions of predictability, cause-and-effect and linearity have potentially major implications for the MDGs, yet such questions have not played an especially prominent role in the MDG+10 analyses. Why might this be the case?

Lant Pritchett provides one possible answer. The MDGs are arguably the grandest manifestation of the paradox faced by aid agencies seeking to bring about change in developing countries, as he described it on Aid Watch:

The paradox of the external organizations that attempt to support development is that people tell them “we’ll give you budget if you tell us for sure what you are doing will work.”  This leads to a powerful culture of pretending that much more is known about the “theory of change” that leads to development that really is known. [emphasis added]

Robert Tulip has described the MDGs as “utopian policies” that lack a credible empirical theory of change – the key word being credible. What does credible mean in the context of the world’s biggest promise?

Authors such as David Hulme have long argued that the MDGs represent a direct application of results-based management (RBM) approaches:

Results-based management was applied to the MDGs in a very direct fashion. At times goals, targets and indicators were screened for how “SMART” (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) they were. Panels of experts were convened to specify targets and indicators, and judgements made on RBM principles impacted directly on MDG form and content…

If this holds true, then the credibility of the MDG theories of change will depend crucially on how much you subscribe to the theories of change implicit in results-based management approaches.

Without wanting to go into all of protracted debates on RBM here, the argument put forward by Andrew Natsios (former head of USAID) is especially relevant:

One of the little understood, but most powerful and disruptive tensions in established aid agencies lies in the clash between the compliance side of aid programs—the counter-bureaucracy—and the technical, programmatic side. The essential balance between these two in development programs has now been skewed to such a degree in the U.S. aid system (and in the World Bank as well) that the imbalance threatens program integrity. The counter-bureaucracy ignores a central principle of development theory—that those development programs that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those programs that are most transformational are the least measurable… measurability should not be confused with development significance… [emphasis added]

However, according to Hulme, this is exactly what happened with the MDGs: “the idea of RBM meant that the MDGs avoided potentially difficult-to-measure goals”.

Questions around this broad area of assumptions and theories has not featured much in the MDG+10 document mountain, and where it occasionally has, it has been indirect and implicit. One of the few exceptions is the superb work by International Alert, led by Phil Vernon, which he summarises on Open Democracy:

The MDGs have been used for the past decade as a tool for guiding and measuring development progress. Not only has progress been found wanting: the MDGs themselves are wanting. They represent the wrong view of change; they are being routinely misused in a way which confuses the ends with the means; they are highly unrealistic; and they are set at a global level, when development happens much more locally. Because of these flaws, they act as perverse incentives, even obstructing the development process they are supposed to galvanise. The problem is not just the MDGs, but the ill-adapted development discourse that they represent.”

In this light, it would be great to see some serious, systematic attention paid to how change happens and the role of external organisations in contributing to developmental changes such as those called for in the MDGs.

If this doesn’t happen, we may well end up missing some of the most important lessons of the worlds biggest promise.

Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. Excellent analysis on ‘theories of change’ and why they do not always fit, or continue to apply well in large [bureaucratic] programs, over many years. It would have been/be very useful to see more discussion of this surrounding the MDG 10 year review. But in many ways, unfortunately, the ‘review’ was not particularly analytic. Another fault perhaps in the system. I also noted in a post-MDG review post that we saw little discussion of what was working or not and WHY. The ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ do not always come easily to policy makers….

  2. A very timely critique!

    A challenge for all of us is to show what an alternative, systems based approach may look like, both theoretically and practically. See an example in:

    Ramírez, R. 2007. Appreciating the contribution of broadband ICT with rural and remote communities: Steppingstones towards an alternative paradigm. The Information Society 23(2): 85-94

    Ricardo Ramirez
    Guelph,ON Canada

  3. […] MDGs and theories of change – Aid on the Edge – “The Millennium Development Goals have been succinctly described as ‘the world’s biggest promise’. The last few week has seen a veritable mountain of reports, papers, policy papers, blogs and tweets on the 10 year mark, all of which are in a slight spin about the imminent approach of 2015, the anticipated end-date of the MDGs. Despite the sheer volume of material and amassed intellect that has been focused on the critical issues, one important area appears to have been sadly neglected…” […]

  4. Reblogged this on Post 2015 Water Monitoring Working Group and commented:
    Old post, includes apt warning against the temptation to rank ease of measuring over importance


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Accountability, Financial crisis, Innovation, Knowledge and learning, MDGs, Public Policy