MDGs: Small thinking won't achieve big results

A young girl from Myanmar attends class at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Why have we failed to eradicate extreme poverty and reduce child mortality? Ubuntu Education Fund’s Jacob Lief shares his thoughts. Photo by: Jared Katz / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

A wasted exercise or the most successful global anti-poverty push in history?

Just ask a Syrian refugee, a sex worker in India’s slums or a Rwandan small-holder farmer about the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. You will find that, despite some notable successes, the international community will fall far, far short of achieving these eight objectives by 2015.

MDG enthusiasts may blame the international community’s halfhearted financial commitment. Others believe that aid flooding into the developing world has undermined accountability and economic growth. But we’ve heard these criticisms before. They have been debated throughout the nonprofit sector since the 189 U.N. member states and 21 international organizations launched the MDGs initiative back in 2000. If we want to answer this question — why did we fail to realize these eight targets — we’re going to have to abandon these taglines and stump speeches. We’re going to have to be honest with ourselves.

We didn’t fail to achieve the MDGs because the objectives were too big, too idealistic. Quite the opposite. We failed to eradicate extreme poverty and reduce child mortality because our thoughts were too small.

Most MDG efforts have defined success too narrowly — enrolling 90 percent of children into primary school, distributing condoms throughout HIV-infected communities and providing protein paste to food-insecure refugee camps. Nonprofits have been far more likely to showcase the number of schools built than their student body’s literacy rates; the industry too often has equated the distribution of mosquito nets with a life saved. We are all guilty of marketing these one-off interventions as long-term, sustainable solutions.

Maybe it’s because these approaches are easier to communicate to donors. We can quickly quantify their impact, and they are scalable. These output-oriented models are powerful. There is no denying that most have the potential to reach hundreds of thousands, even millions, of the world’s most disadvantaged citizens. But will they eradicate extreme poverty? Will they achieve the MDGs? The answer, we have all come to realize is, sadly, no.

Believe me, I would be the first one to celebrate a model that could transform lives with one intervention for just a few dollars. I sincerely wish that it were that simple but what we’ve seen over the past 15 years is uneven progress. India is on track to achieve universal primary school enrollment, yet pervasive hunger continues to undermine students’ academic progress. Unable to capitalize on educational opportunities, these children may never access social mobility. They may face a lifetime of underemployment. Uganda, similarly, is on track to drastically reduce hunger, but it has failed to do so through environmentally sustainable approaches. This progress, then, may be equally short-lived. Communities around the world, like those in India and Uganda, remain trapped in the cycle of poverty despite moving forward on one or two MDGs.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate these achievements; many countries have overcome significant challenges. I’m saying that, moving forward, we need to set our standards higher. We must work toward addressing every facet of poverty across the developing world. This goal may be even loftier than the MDGs, and I know from experience that it is immensely difficult to achieve. It will require accountability, innovation and knowledge sharing. It will demand a re-evaluation of our methods, honesty when we make mistakes, debate and, above all else, partnership.

Think about the impact of one polio vaccine, textbook or microfinance loan. These are all important interventions. Standing alone, they can generate small but significant changes in the everyday lives of the bottom billion. When implemented together, these services could profoundly transform families’ trajectories. We have to work toward this outcome — healthy, educated, stabilized communities. That’s what success should look like post-MDGs.

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About the author

  • Jacob lief

    Jacob Lief

    Jacob Lief is the Founder and CEO of Ubuntu Education Fund, a non-profit organization that takes vulnerable children in the townships of Port Elizabeth, South Africa from cradle to career. Ubuntu's child-centred approach highlights the difference between merely touching a child's life versus fundamentally changing it. In 2009, Jacob was selected as an Aspen Institute Global Fellow and, in 2010, he was recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader. He is currently a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.