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It’s not only about the goals

Laura Rodriguez-Takeuchi's picture
Laura K. Rodriguez-Takeuchi
February 2013

In his annual letter, Bill Gates invokes the power of measurement to drive results, and suggests the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) owed to their coherent focus on a set of issues that aimed to help the world’s poorest people. Considerable debate is now taking place on what a successor framework should focus on.

From national governments to trade unions, international non-governmental organisations, think-tanks and groups of young people, everyone seems to have submitted their opinion or proposal. You too can have your say at MY World, as well as track the range of proposals for future development goals.

Despite the variety of topics, there have been several references to the need for more and better data to track progress towards the goals. One reason is that, without data, it is impossible to track countries’ efforts and progress and to know when and where the targets have been met. Without data, it also is very difficult to set the targets in the first place.

As Bill Gates says, one of the great merits of the MDGs was the way they mobilised country action and effort to achieve them. This was allowed by the structure of goals-targets-indicators, going from the very broad to the very concrete. In the new framework, regardless of the final list of topics that make it to the agenda, there will be a need for targets that make it possible to continue with the mobilising effect that the MDGs have had.

Last time around, goals and targets were set drawing on existing agreements from UN conferences and using the scarce available data to extrapolate global linear projections of what would be attainable. This gave shape to the targets of reducing income poverty by 50%, achieving universal primary education and reducing child mortality by two-thirds. These global targets were adopted in an almost mechanical way at the national level, and then used as country-level performance targets.

However, this proved a severe test for some developing countries, with achievement of the targets implying an almost impossible amount of effort. This can be highly demoralising; in addition, in the race to reach targets, countries may choose to direct interventions towards easy-to-reach places or people, reinforcing existing inequalities.

I’m not advocating for condescension: some effort still needs to be part of the equation. But how might we reach a middle ground between highly demanding targets and no-sweat low ones? It is vital to think about the historical paths of progress that can inform the target-setting exercise. One way to do so is to take into account countries’ starting points when evaluating the progress they have attained, recognising that progress rarely happens in a linear manner and can be harder to attain in the poorest countries in particular. If we do this, our perspective on where progress has occurred shifts.

Take MDG6, focused on combatting HIV/AIDS and other diseases. When looking at the annualised absolute rate of change required to meet the target of halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, 6 out of 42 sub-Saharan African countries are ‘on track’ to meet the MDG. When we look at how countries are performing relative to their starting point, however, 22 countries are performing ‘better than expected’, given their starting point.

Such findings – a current focus of efforts in the measurement component of Development Progress – have implications for how we might set targets in a way that is responsive to countries at all levels of development and that gives the right incentives.

At the same time, we are examining how the use of different measurement methods can change our views on countries’ progress more broadly. For example, we found that African ‘lions’ are performing better across several indicators than Asian ‘tigers’ did during their first decade of rapid economic development.

It is important to start thinking now about how to integrate the global and the national frameworks. Although in some areas there are still considerable gaps, overall the availability of data and, more importantly, the awareness that these data need to be used, have grown. It is important to use this potential this time around to get the metrics right.