Simplicity, thy name is MDGs
22 Sep 2015 by Shakeel Ahmad, Assistant Country Director and Chief, Development Policy Unit, UNDP in Pakistan
When Dr. Mahbub Ul Haq presented the somewhat crude Human Development Index (HDI) in 1990, he was convinced that a single number, which is easily understandable, could convince policy makers, academics and politicians that GDP per capita was not a comprehensive measure of human wellbeing. The simplicity of the framework itself and its focus on people as the real wealth of nations made HDI one of the most acclaimed social sciences’ inventions so far.
Similarly, the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) as an agenda and framework, though a crude measure like HDI, was very simple and easy for a practitioner like me to communicate and convince stakeholders on its importance and relevance. Often my argument with the proponents of a high-tech development agenda was that it was better to have a realistic agenda which people could easily comprehend and relate to, than one which is idealistic, highly technical, and thus difficult to understand.
The MDGs agenda was an excellent example of the kind of results framework that we always want in our project documents. The MDGs brilliantly used the lingo of results-based management. Everything was measurable. I would always revert back to MDGs as reference point whenever I would run into difficulties of how to define and word a result statement or set a goal, target and indicator for projects. So for me, the MDGs framework was a tutoring document on how a comprehensive but clear and simple set of development objectives could be set and communicated.
But it was not only the simplicity and technical robustness. The MDGs were speaking about the problems that the common man, women and children were facing in the developing country. It was the same agenda that politicians would use in their political campaigns. It was the agenda of the civil servants, civil society, and philanthropists. It was the agenda of a father and mother for themselves and their children. As it was everyone’s agenda, it was easier to promote, not only by a development practitioner like myself, but for everyone.
Mr. Ahsan Iqbal, Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Reform in Pakistan spoke with a group of newly inducted civil servants about the MDGs. He narrates his conversation: “They said it was a foreign agenda and as part of our international commitment, we have to achieve it. On this I asked them: don’t you think education, health, poverty, etc… are issues of Pakistan as well? They said, yes of course. I asked again: why are then we calling MDGs a foreign agenda. Shouldn’t it be an agenda for Pakistan? Shouldn’t we call [them] National Development Goals? They all agreed.”
As we transition to the Sustainable Development Goals, I hope that somehow we retain these unique characteristics of the MDGs. As Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Let’s keep the post-2015 development agenda simple but powerful, and convey it in the language that everyone understands.
As we approach the end of 2015, UNDP experts and practitioners share their experiences and views on working with the Millennium Development Goals over the last 15 years, and reflect on the transition to the new Sustainable Development Goals.