By Johan Norberg*
If someone had told you in 1990 that over the next 25 years world hunger would decline by 40%, child mortality would halve, and extreme poverty would fall by three quarters, you’d have told them they were a naive fool.
But the fools were right. This is truly what has happened.
Even though all the millennium development goals (MDGs) were not met, the world has been a stunning development success over the last 25 years. The most important goal, to halve by 2015 the number living in extreme poverty in 1990, was met five years early.
But when we discuss the UN’s new sustainable development goals (SDGs), there is widespread pessimism. International cooperation is not what it used to be, and some leading politicians are actively undermining it.
After Brexit, the rise of nationalism in Europe and the election of Donald Trump in the US, suddenly China’s Xi Jinping is not laughed off the Davos stage when he presents himself as the defender of globalization and international cooperation. Deborah Doane is right to worry that rich countries will spend their energy on domestic affairs and squabbles rather than on the development agenda.
Even so, I am optimistic about world development, for the simple fact that we overestimate the need for big pushes to development. Howard Steven Friedman of Columbia University has tried to find out what effect the MDG project had by looking at what happened to MDG indicators before and after September 2000, when they were agreed upon. It turns out that most of the indicators did not experience an acceleration after 2000, they just continued the improvements seen between 1990 and 2000, so in most instances the adoption of the goals did not speed up progress. Where there was an acceleration after 2000, that had usually begun earlier. Food for thought for those who believe that development comes from the top and abroad.
It is easier to understand this if you’ve learned from history that economic growth and local reforms have more impact on development than international targets. The most successful countries were the ones that opened up to the global economy and spurred growth. Some countries that made the most progress, like China, did not receive development aid and never really cared about the MDGs. Development was homegrown.
The MDGs did play a role. They gave a firm foundation to an already emerging consensus, and the goals focused minds on specific problems and created useful yardsticks. Some countries feared being shamed if they didn’t provide safe water or education after having agreed to it. But in the end, it was their own decisions that made the difference, and the results vary dramatically according to those decisions.
For an example of the shortcomings of big plans, look at the Millennium Villages, the ambitious attempt to create model communities that would quickly reach the MDGs in several African countries. Instead of limited interventions, the idea was to invest on multiple fronts at once, from health and education to agriculture and infrastructure. The man behind the plan, development economist Jeffrey Sachs, believed that all these things would support each other. He wrote in a UN report that quick wins would ensure that “large-scale progress can begin immediately” and we would see “major results in three or fewer years”.
That did not happen. A recent study published by the UK department for international development concludes that the villages had “moderately positive impacts”, but had “little overall impact on poverty” and crucially “has not yet had a sizeable impact on the MDGs”. And unlike other villages, they are now dependent on aid money that will one day dry up.
Nina Munk’s book The Idealist grippingly relates the issues with the Millennium Villages and the idea that poverty is an intellectual problem to be solved. It doesn’t matter how often academics from far away mention empowerment and local ownership in their plans. When they draw them up in their institutions, and try to implement them on the other side of the planet, they constantly clash with local culture, traditions, knowledge and needs.
Donors often succeed with limited interventions – like bed nets against malaria, vaccinating kids or improving irrigation – because they can rely on the local cultural and economic ecosystem to take care of everyday life and work in those places, and adapt to and make the intervention work, technologically and socially. But when they try to do everything at once, they have to replace all these things and so run into all the problems of planned economies throughout history. In an interview at the end of Munk’s book, Sachs admitted that the world “is complicated, hard, and messy”.
A big push towards development makes the world complicated, hard and messy by pushing aside local knowledge, initiative and adaptation. On the other hand, the reason why the world is improving right now is that in many countries these sources of progress have gained much more room to maneuver. Despite setbacks, more countries are democratic, more farmers get titles to their land, more people are allowed to experiment with social organization and business models, and to sell their goods to other countries.
As a result, they can improve their lives and activities in their own way and on their own terms, with cellphones and better fertilizer, power grids and health clinics, micro loans and mobile money. This is often done with the help of aid workers, as long as they understand that their role is to strengthen communities, not to redesign them. They can also improve gender equality and combat other forms of local discrimination, which is both an end in itself, and a way to empower more people so they can contribute to this progress.
Obviously, we need strong international cooperation to create a hospitable climate for these local efforts. We need an open world economy with the freedom to trade, we need an international security architecture that guarantees safety and peace, and we have to deal with global environmental problems. Recent political developments in the US and Europe might very well create obstacles on all these fronts.
But if we manage to get at least the basics right in the international arena – granted that this is a big “if” – I am hopeful that billions of people will continue to make tomorrow better than today for themselves, their families and their communities.
Many complain that the SDGs are long on rhetoric and short on detail. They are right. At times they just read like a declaration of hope. But the role of the goals is to focus minds and inspire people, not to replace them. Perhaps what the world needs right now is fewer plans and more lofty rhetoric.
*. Johan Norberg is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future.
This post was originally published by The Guardian. Click here to read.