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Charles Kenny

This blog was originally published on February 21, 2012.

The UN is gearing up for discussions about what international development goals should come after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015.  My guest on this week’s Wonkcast is CGD senior fellow Charles Kenny, who recently published a working paper, written jointly with CGD visiting fellow Andy Sumner, that assesses the impact of the MDGs and offers suggestions for what should come next.

We start with a brief review of the history of the MDGs, which were adopted in 2001 by the UN General Assembly and cover eight areas of development, such as reductions in poverty and hunger, and improvements in gender equality, education, and child and maternal health.

Although the goals were not initially intended to be country specific, in practice they have regularly been interpreted as applying at the country level, to all developing countries.

“One concern is that specific countries could have different priorities from the global goals,” explains Charles. “The other concern is when you move from a global goal to a country goal, you make it harder for the world to achieve the MDGs. For example, the global goal for income poverty is to cut poverty in half. But it is a lot harder for a country like the Congo to halve poverty than it would be for a lower-middle income country."

Another concern, he says, is the lack of reliable data to measure progress. For example, data simply isn’t available to determine whether or not we have met the goal for maternal health, which is to “reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio.”

After a quick station break, I ask Charles about the methodology of his paper with Andy Sumner. Since we do not have a counterfactual world where no goals exist, how can you determine success?

“You try and go through the chain,” says Charles. “If you want to believe the MDGs had an impact, you want to see if policy statements had an effect on actual policies. Was more aid given? Did countries spend more money on education? Then you want to look at the final stage. Did we see changes in rates of progress in these areas? If you can answer yes to all, you can’t say this was all because of the MDGs, but you can say the evidence is consistent with the story that the MDGs have had an impact."

So have we achieved success? Charles says yes and no – depending on where you look. “If you look at the percentage of countries reducing the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day, 2/3 of countries are doing that and nearly half are making progress fast enough to meet the goal of halving poverty, which is historically unprecedented progress in reducing global poverty,” says Charles. We end the Wonkcast by discussing what the new round of MDGs should look like – a topic Charles has discussed in a recent blog post.

Charles says he hopes to see a greater focus on sustainable development in any new set of goals. This would include an emphasis on the environment, and perhaps a new goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a specified amount. Charles also advocates for a new goal on reducing violence. And lastly, Charles says, it makes sense to shift the education goal from a focus on the number of children in school to how much children in school are actually learning. More broadly, Charles says that the next round of development goals should be achievable and measurable, as well as reflecting political realities.

“This time through, I’d love to see a more deliberative process of coming up with reasonable targets coming from country level numbers,” he says. “That means the process would have to start soon.”

I’d like to thank Alexandra Gordon for serving as producer and recording engineer, and for helping to draft this post.