How the Millennium Goals could (finally) address Inequality
  • April 20, 2012

Tida is a 7 year-old girl. She leaves in Cam­bo­dia, a Coun­try that scores well in terms of progress towards the MDGs. Yet, Tida doesn’t go to school, lives in a house with no elec­tric­ity nor san­i­ta­tion. Should she get ill, she would not have access to a hospital.


Tida is only one in a hun­dreds mil­lion peo­ple who are left behind their Country’s devel­op­ment. At a time when dis­cus­sions are inten­si­fy­ing on what should replace the Mil­len­nium Devel­op­ment Goals (MDGs) after their expiry date in 2015, it is more and more crit­i­cal to fig­ure out how the new global ‘goals’ will be able to take into account inequality.


But let’s step back a bit: is it a good idea at all to have global goals like the MDGs? I believe that the answer is a big yes. The MDGs rep­re­sent the most impor­tant ‘pact’ ever made for inter­na­tional devel­op­ment. They have been tremen­dously use­ful in fram­ing devel­op­ment dia­logue, advo­cacy and invest­ments and in fos­ter­ing a cul­ture of ‘mea­sur­ing’ progress, which — despite numer­ous tech­ni­cal caveats – has great advantages.


So, as we approach the end of the cur­rent MDGs (2015), the ques­tion is not whether to con­tinue them. The ques­tion should be how to revise them in a way that takes into account (a) what doesn’t work with the cur­rent goals, and (b) what needs to be cap­tured in terms of emerg­ing devel­op­ing challenges.


Both (a) and (b) high­light that a stronger focus should be placed on inequal­ity as a key devel­op­ment chal­lenge. On the one hand, the cur­rent MDGs have done a fairly poor job on track­ing and high­light­ing inequal­ity. Actu­ally, I would argue that the empha­sis on reach­ing tar­gets mea­sured at the level of national and global aver­ages pro­vides and incen­tive to over­look inequal­ity and focus on ‘quick wins’, mean­ing reach­ing those that are clos­est to the MDGs min­i­mum thresh­olds. On the other hand, it is pretty clear that inequal­ity is becom­ing a key (to some the key) devel­op­ment chal­lenge for the next decade. While the world is on track to achieve at least some MDGs, stark dis­par­i­ties per­sist and in many cases increase. Dis­par­i­ties between the rich and the poor, between urban and rural regions across the devel­op­ing world.

The same mes­sage comes loud and clear also from the ‘devel­oped’ world. Whether we base our views on robust research (see the excel­lent 2011 OECD report “Divided We Stand”) or to the voice of the street (see Occupy Wall Street and sim­i­lar), what we get is a clear indi­ca­tion that the devel­op­ment model that many coun­tries are fol­low­ing is one that is ben­e­fit­ing only a few and not favor­able to many.

Now, at this pre­cise point of my argu­ment, I know what many econ­o­mists out there are think­ing: inequal­i­ties are part of the game. Espe­cially in devel­op­ing coun­tries one needs to accept inequal­i­ties because these will reduce as growth kicks in and devel­op­ment trick­les down to poorer peo­ple and regions. In many cases, these argu­ments are fac­tu­ally wrong. There are plenty of exam­ples of Coun­tries where growth doesn’t quite trickle down, and where inequal­ity comes to under­mine social cohe­sion and to threaten future growth and devel­op­ment. But even if the ‘pro-­‐inequality’ argu­ments of Mil­ton Friedman’s dis­ci­ples were cor­rect, I would argue that the defin­ing chal­lenge of the next decade is not to find the quick­est path to devel­op­ment, it is about iden­ti­fy­ing the fairest path.


If we accept this approach, then the UN and the MDGs have a crit­i­cal role toplay. The role of the UN is to embrace and sup­port a devel­op­ment approach that bal­ances out equity and effi­ciency and the MDGs should be designed to mon­i­tor and fos­ter this. Devel­op­ment as a fair game, not as a timed race.


My pro­posal: let’s include in the post-­‐2015 frame­work a new MDG con­ceived as an indi­ca­tor of inclu­sive growth. For the sake of sim­plic­ity and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, I will call this the “inclu­sive growth MDG” or – at the risk of being ridicu­lous – “iMDG”. This goal could be sup­ported by two main sets of tar­gets and indi­ca­tors: a first set could focus on indi­vid­ual inclu­sion, i.e. a mea­sure­ment of progress in reduc­ing dis­par­i­ties between the rich and the poor, not only in income but cap­tur­ing the inclu­sive­ness of progress across other key MDGs (or other key vari­ables such as finan­cial inclu­sion). The sec­ond set of targets/indicators could focus on ter­ri­to­r­ial inclu­sion, for instance the dis­par­i­ties between rural and urban areas and between lead­ing and lag­ging regions. In a more sophis­ti­cated ver­sion the iMDG could also mea­sure the degree of inclu­sive­ness in terms of gen­der, eth­nic­ity or other groups. This could be deter­mined Nation­ally for greater rel­e­vance and ownership.


Design­ing and imple­ment­ing the iMDG will be chal­leng­ing both for polit­i­cal and tech­ni­cal rea­sons. Polit­i­cally, it will imply giv­ing greater vis­i­bil­ity to inequal­ity. It will mean tak­ing a coura­geous step towards address­ing -­‐ rather than cov­er­ing up -­‐ the prob­lem. Not every gov­ern­ment will be will­ing to do this. Think of how China will like an empha­sis on inter­nal dis­par­i­ties. Or to what extent the US will accept to ques­tion the Amer­i­can ‘model’ and be open – on a global stage – about America’s alarm­ing trends in income inequality.


Tech­ni­cally, mea­sur­ing inequal­ity is not straight­for­ward. For instance, while indi­vid­ual income inequal­ity can be rel­a­tively easy to mea­sure, based on Gini coef­fi­cients and sim­i­lar -­‐ ter­ri­to­r­ial inequal­ity is a trick­ier one to mea­sure, espe­cially con­sid­er­ing the need for MDGs to be used in and com­pa­ra­ble across countries.


But the whole point here is not to reach exact mea­sure­ments. The point is to draw everybody’s atten­tion to Tida, yes, that 7-­‐year-­‐old girl that lives in a ‘fast devel­op­ing’ coun­try but still has no future. The future MDGs can­not ignore her.





The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations, including UNCDF, or their Member States