A Distorted Metric: The MDGs and State Capacity
53 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2013 Last revised: 1 Sep 2013
Date Written: February 14, 2013
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been commonly understood as national targets. This interpretation has fostered the critique that the framework favours complacent middle-income countries, discriminates against low-income countries, provides a poor national planning tool and generally fails to conform to the more nuanced obligations of states under international human rights law, such as the duty to use the maximum available resources to realise socio-economic rights. The result is that the current MDGs framework (and its likely successor in 2015) may be an unreliable and misleading indicator of progress when used as a cluster of national benchmarks. This paper tests this potential bias in the framework by measuring performance on two MDG targets, water and sanitation, from the perspective of state capacity. A number of proxy indicators are used to capture the relevant resources: GDP per capita; the ratio of ‘disposable national income’ (DNI) to GDP; total population; land area; urbanisation and the dependency ratio. The relationship between this capacity and actual progress on access to water and sanitation is measured for both levels and changes in resources between 1990 and 2010. The resource-adjusted performance of states is then ranked according to two alternative methods and compared with the ranking generated by the standard MDG metric. The paper concludes by arguing that the post-2015 agenda needs to address the distortion and disincentives created by the MDG framework and suggests a number of practical means of doing so.
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