Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 6, No. 11, November 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor
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Reducing Inequality: The Missing MDG

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr
The New School, New York

This article was originally published by the
International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG)
Poverty Practice, Bureau for Development Policy, UNDP
Esplanada dos Ministérios, Bloco O, 7º andar
70052-900 Brasilia, DF, Brazil

This article is the fourth of a series published as
IPC-IG Poverty in Focus, Number 19, January 2010
Reprinted with Permission


The strategy in the majority of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) focus on economic growth and investment in the social sectors and reflect an assumption that ‘trickle-down’ would achieve the poverty reduction objectives of the MDG agenda. Yet almost all PRSPs reviewed apply the MDGs as planning targets in a mechanistic fashion by applying selected quantitative targets without adaptation to national realities. As indicators of the complex objectives of the Millennium Declaration, the MDGs should include a goal on reducing inequality within and between countries.

The MDGs have received unprecedented political commitment and forged a strong consensus on poverty eradication. But implementation lags, raising questions about weak commitment and sense of ownership. A content analysis of current Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) and donor policy statements found that these documents reflect a high degree of commitment to the MDGs as a whole, but are selective in which of the 34 goals and 60 indicators are adopted as priority objectives.

The key issue is not whether there is ownership of the MDGs as such, but how they are being used (which of the MDG priorities are being implemented, what poverty reduction strategies are being adopted, and how the MDGs are being used as a policy tool) and whether they reflect the objectives that world leaders adopted in the Millennium Declaration at the 2000 UN Summit.

Which of the MDGs?

PRSPs and donor policy statements consistently emphasise income poverty and social investments for education, health and water, but not other targets related to the empowerment and inclusion of the most vulnerable, such as gender violence or women’s political representation. Neither the PRSPs nor donor policy statements explore the partnership efforts required to remove the constraints on poverty reduction posed by the global market environment, nor the initiatives needed to move the trade and aid agendas forward.

What Strategy for Poverty Reduction?

In most of the PRSPs, the strategy focuses on economic growth and investment in the social sectors, and reflects an assumption that a “trickle-down” effect would achieve the poverty reduction objectives of the MDG agenda. Most of them lack a strategy for pro-poor growth and pro-poor social investments. Nor do they contain strategies for building democratic governance—creating an environment to empower the poor and addressing institutionalised obstacles to their participation in economic, social and political life.

The growth and social investment approach, reminiscent of the 1980s, ignores much that was learned during the 1990s about the multidimensional nature of poverty and about the important role of empowerment and participation as strategies for poverty reduction. The 2000 World Development Report, for example, notes that while labour-intensive growth, social protection and social investments are necessary for poverty reduction, they are not sufficient. The report expands the strategy by proposing opportunity, empowerment and security as pillars of an effective poverty reduction strategy.

MDGs as a Tool

Global goals such as the MDGs can be used as planning tools, benchmarks for evaluating progress, or as normative aspirations that command global consensus. Because they are concrete, global goals with quantitative and time-bound targets can be powerful in mobilising consensus around an objective and in serving as benchmarks. But applying global goals and targets as national planning targets makes little sense, since at a given point in time each country has a unique set of constraints, opportunities and priorities. Yet almost all the PRSPs reviewed apply the MDGs as planning targets in a mechanistic fashion, by applying selected quantitative targets without adapting them to national circumstances.

Post-2015 Agenda

The MDGs were created to serve as “indicators” of progress in implementing the objectives of the Millennium Declaration. While aligned mechanistically with the MDGs, the policy strategies in the PRSPs do not reflect the Declaration’s core objective of making globalisation a more inclusive process in which the benefits would be more widely shared, one rooted in the ethical values of global solidarity and equality. The agenda was therefore to redress the increasing inequality between and within countries resulting from liberalisation and economic globalisation. Just as the empowerment of poor people is a core strategy in removing obstacles to equal opportunities, so reform of global economic institutions in order to create a more level playing field was central to integrating marginalised countries into the global economy.

To align international development more closely to the core objective of the Millennium Declaration, the MDGs should be refocused so as to take a human rights-based approach. First, as an instrument, local adaptation of targets and processes should be promoted so that the MDGs can be effective not only as long-term objectives but also as planning instruments. Second, as policy agendas, they should focus on pro-poor growth and democratic governance at the national level, and on systemic reforms in global governance.

Finally, as indicators of the complex objectives of the Millennium Declaration, the MDGs should include a goal on reducing inequality within and between countries.

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