Friday, August 24, 2007

UN MDG: Millennium Development Grifters

By Stanford Matthews
Blog @

This is another attempt to pierce the veil of secrecy covering details of the UN's Millennium Development Goals and the missing proof of concept or simple accountability for claims made of this program's success to date. A review of the UN 2007 Report on the MDG displays pretty charts and figures one is obviously expected to believe. Any discussion of this program is rather quiet and it is likely you will not hear much about it unless actively searching for answers and even then useful data is hard to obtain.

For instance, the UN MDG uses PPP or purchasing power parity as a numeric cutoff to define the buying power of those considered in extreme poverty. The first goal of the MDG is to eradicate poverty and hunger. However, a closer look at documents other than the initial publications indicates the goal is really to 'halve' whatever level of poverty existed when the program started. The current PPP of $1.08 is based on data from the World Bank and with just that much information it is quite useless for the general public, not to mention those in extreme poverty and hunger. In one of the reports it suggests that the level of those facing extreme poverty and hunger decreased from 1.25 billion in 1990 to 980 million in 2004. Another piece of information that is totally useless to the average reader. Aside from the obvious reasons, those figure are useless since the MDG program started in 1999 or 2000 and the figures include many years in which the program did not exist. Plus, there is no addressing whether or not birth and death rates were taken into account. As morbid as that may seem, if a person is dead they cannot reasonably be considered to have been lifted up beyond hunger and poverty.

That was a rather lengthy description of part of what is wrong with the MDG. But alas, this post is not the only source of criticism toward the Millennium Development Goals. After much searching, one lone source was unearthed today. Included in someone's paper on the subject was criticism of the measuring process with regard to the MDG. It is focused on medical aspects of the goals but nonetheless concludes that any meaningful data will not result from the way the UN measures goal results. And one response to the paper is enlightening as to the motives behind the MDG as well.

The following is the paper's author on goals, measurement and problems with the data.

Viewed objectively, it must be agreed that the MDGs palter. The health goals for 2015 sound quantitative, but for most of them, their quantification is irretrievably flawed. The trends that the health goals allude to are either immeasurable or were not measured properly from the 1990 baseline year onward. This is not an extraordinarily controversial conclusion: recall that in each of the cautionary examples discussed—malaria, maternal mortality, and TB—the UN's own current or former staff have said that the trends are immeasurable or lack baseline data.

Short of abandoning the MDGs, the better option is to amend the goals, targets, or indicators—all three levels of the hierarchy—to be feasibly measurable.

Unfortunately, the UN leadership has, to date, delayed this option. In a September 2004 memo, one year ahead of the Millennium +5 Summit, the UN's Deputy Secretary General instructed the organisation's experts in charge of the MDG statistics with the following:

The [Millennium +5 Summit]…should not be distracted by arguments over the measurement of the MDGs—or worse, over different numbers being used by different agencies for the same indicator…. [P]roposals for modifications of definitions or new indicators will only be considered formally after the [Millennium +5 Summit]… as any changes at this stage would only distract from the result that we would like to achieve. [3]
And below is the author's description of a peer review of his paper. But the interesting part is the reviewer's opinion of what the MDG are. It nay even be the words of someone working for an NGO.

Some may disagree with my emphasis on measurement and timelines. One anonymous peer reviewer of this paper wrote that while measuring the MDGs is “of concern for epidemiologists and others”, my interpretation “misses the point” because the purpose of the MDGs is merely to be exhortatory. “The MDGs are not a measuring exercise”, wrote the reviewer, but instead are a “common vision of what matters most for improving the lives of people in poor countries”.

It is always refreshing (NOT) to have someone who is not suffering from extreme poverty and hunger express what matters most to people who are. It should be clear to anyone reading this that independently determining the value or lack of value in just one of the MDG goals requires an excessive amount of research. That only serves to make the point that the UN is missing a key element in their Millennium Development Goals. Readily available proof of results in a form understood by the general public would provide some credibility to an organization plagued by suspicion.

There is currently no reasonable way to tell if anyone is better off because of the Millennium Development Goals program. The only thing to be sure of is UN representatives will continue to hound the world for more money while some of us continue to question and criticize the UN.


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