After the MDGs – avoiding the curse of the sequel

As David Cameron prepares to chair the High Level Panel charged with designing a successor to the Millennium Development Goals, he should be in no doubt that he faces a tough job.

The original goals have been remarkably successful. Even in a single organisation, most targets are agreed and then quickly forgotten. The MDGs, which took a decade to stitch together, have prospered since their final agreement in 2002. Most developing country governments, and nearly all donors, have at least partially aligned policies to them.

Poverty rates have also dropped remarkably quickly (and not just in China) and progress towards social development targets seems now to be accelerating. How much of the good news can be directly attributed to the MDGs is hard to prove. But if you accept that goals can only ever be a part of the answer to a complex problem, then the British PM should start by asking why the MDGs did so well, not by assuming that his Panel is easily going to come up with something better.

His first question should be to ask what makes for an effective set of goals. I’d identify five criteria. They should:

  • Be resonant – powerful, simple and clear enough to communicate with politicians, media, public.
  • Form the main elements of a common strategic language, enabling different types of organisation to understand and work with each other.
  • Be amenable to implementation, not just on a technical level, but given likely political and resource constraints.
  • Have sufficient authority and clarity that it matters whether or not they are delivered fifteen years down the road.

Conversely, effective goals avoid:

  • Too much complexity – every interest group in the world will want ‘its’ target included and for technocrats more is usually more. Resisting a ‘Christmas Tree’ framework will require a willingness to pick tough political battles.
  • Straying into areas where consensus doesn’t exist – goals make countries more likely to do difficult things they believe are in their best interests; they can’t be used radically to change their identification of those interests.
  • Distorting incentives in a way that is significantly counterproductive. Goals will inevitably have at least some adverse consequences, but the detail and balance of the framework will determine how serious a problem this is, as will the quality of the data on results (to avoid cheating).
  • Making promises that aren’t really meant – some countries will be happy to sign up to goals they have no intention of doing anything to meet and it is possible to imagine leaders embracing a set of empty promises in 2015 just so they can have a big announcement to make.

So my advice to David Cameron would be to take three types of failure very seriously:

  • A failure to agree – lots of talk that leads, ultimately, to another multilateral car crash.
  • A framework to forget – we get agreement in 2015, but it’s largely ignored thereafter.
  • A strategic realignment to no great purpose – we get goals, try to implement them, but it doesn’t work out due to a lack of will or because the goals are the wrong ones.

None of this is to say that I think that, as Chair of the Panel, the PM has been handed (or worse, lobbied for) a poisoned chalice. Sequels are usually worse than the original, precisely because of the complacent assumption that the original’s success will easily be replicated. Cameron – and his team – need to make it clear from the beginning that they are intent on avoiding this error.

(This post is based on a talk I gave to a seminar recently at Brookings. Alex and I will publish a Brookings paper on the post-2015 challenge in the next few days.)