The UN's Millennium Development Flop
At the United Nations, America's new ambassador, Samantha Power, reported for duty on Monday. In remarks just before presenting her credentials, Power listed some of the top items on her UN to-do list, including working together "to alleviate global poverty."
Let's hope Power takes a look at a new study of UN development efforts, which the UN has declined to release -- though it was done by one of the UN's own staffers, Howard Steven Friedman, a statistician with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). Friedman took a look at the results of the UN's centerpiece development scheme, the UN Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. Launched with great fanfare by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000, the MDGs were supposed to speed the the world toward an array of specific development targets set by the UN for the year 2015, including reducing disease and hunger, and halving extreme poverty. The UN, on its MDG web site, boasts that these UN targets "have galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world's poorest."
But UN-galvanized efforts do not necessarily translate into the promised results. Friedman's bombshell finding is that the Millennium Development Goals have made virtually no difference in the pace of development.
So, small wonder that the UN chose not to release his study -- claiming, among other objections, that Friedman's report does not count because he did it while on sabbatical. U.S. News & World Report has a good rundown of the saga, headlined "United Nations' Millennium Development Goals Did Not Accelerate Progress."
Fortunately, Friedman's study was published independently, and U.S. News & World Report has done us all the favor of providing a link; you can find it here, both the abstract and the full report. Unlike the UN public relations machine, Friedman took the sensible tack of looking not just at the years since the program began, but at the longer-term overall trajectory of the development indicators involved, from 1992-2008 -- starting eight years before the UN kicked off its global MDGs, through the eighth year of the program. He found that "the data show clearly that the activities following the MDG Declaration did not provide an acceleration in most of the development goals."
True, these are broad categories and measurements, and Friedman himself goes on to explain that there may be variations among subsets of countries, which his study did not delve into. For that matter, there are UN-defined targets and measurements involved which do not necessarily reflect the enormous complexities of human progress (or lack of it). In the myriad interactions of politics, economics, and individual preferences, there is more at work than is dreamt of in any UN philosophy.
But broadly speaking, Friedman is highlighting data and questions that ought to be the subject of rapt attention and genuine debate at a UN that advertises itself as dedicated to helping the poor -- and solicits billions of taxpayer dollars in the name of that cause. The MDGs have become one of the UN's justifications for its ever-growing appetite for money. Meanwhile. the most highly visible and consistent beneficiaries of the UN Millennium Development Goals are not the poor. The clear beneficiaries are the first-class passengers on the UN gravy train -- UN officials themselves, along with the constellations of well-paid consultants and jet-set conference-goers. The MDGs began with a huge New York summit for the signing of the Millennial Declaration, which Annan has since described as one of the highlights of his UN career. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has carried on in similar vein, touting and lauding the MDGs, and urging that member states pour resources into this UN campaign. The UN has held not only the initial 2000 Millennium Summit, but an MDG 2005 summit, a 2008 "High-Level Event," a 2010 summit, countless conferences around the globe, and with the original MDG deadline of 2015 now getting near, there are plans afoot for a program of post-2015 MDGs.
The deeper problem here is that the MDGs, for all their lofty aims, amount in many ways to simply a UN-repackaged version of central planning. While we can all agree that it is profoundly desirable to end poverty, the real avenue to that goal is not a set of bureaucratically defined targets, but decent government, protecting a framework of law that leaves individuals free to choose for themselves the tradeoffs with which they try to improve their lives. At a UN where the majority of the 193 member states are not free market democracies, that's a goal much harder to promote than a set of slickly packaged MDGs. But if the aim is to make a difference, that's what needs galvanizing. Something the U.S. ambassador could usefully contribute would be to call attention to Friedman's study, and ask the assembled worthies, in public, why on earth the UN would have the arrogance to consider such damning findings irrelevant.