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Poverty Experts Want New Thinking on Development Goals


Bolama, Guinea-Bissau
A colonial-era home in Bolama, an island off Guinea-Bissau, dating about 100 years ago, during Portuguese-era rule. JOE PENNEY

If 2015 comes and goes with a significant number of Millennium Development Goals failing to meet their targets, questions will abound over whom or what to blame. There will also be skepticism over reports that a few of the goals have already been met with 100 percent success. In general, specialists in development have already been suggesting that there is much room for improvement in the design, measurement and analysis of progress or failure of these actions.

Some — including the scholar Thomas Pogge, who has been conducting innovative global research among the poor — are calling for fundamental, even drastic changes if new goals are to be made for the post-2015 world. There isn’t much time left for rethinking, and this isn’t going to be an easy fight. There are institutional hurdles to jump.

On May 31 at the United Nations, an expert panel appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a report that bluntly identified what the Millennium Goals missed. The report will now circulate for comment and is expected to be the centerpiece of discussion in the fall at the next General Assembly session.

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“They did not focus enough on reaching the very poorest and most excluded people,” the report said of the goals. “They were silent on the devastating effects of conflict and violence on development. The importance to development of good governance and institutions that guarantee the rule of law, free speech and open and accountable government was not included, nor the need for inclusive growth to provide jobs.” Most seriously, the panel said, the goals did not address “the need to promote sustainable patterns of consumption and production.”

The goals and their targets for judging how nations are doing grew out of the 2000 UN General Assembly Millennium summit. Almost immediately, gaps were exposed. Advocates for women’s reproductive rights, for example, demanded to know why the promises of the 1994 Conference on Population and Development were left out, given that the participation  of women was widely seen by then as crucial to the progress of nations. The sensitive issue of good governance was nowhere to be found, although national mismanagement of development was on display in numerous countries.

The past could haunt any new efforts to toughen up and change the nature of post-2015 goals — a subject that opens for international debate at the UN in September. Member countries, poor or rich, are not likely to back enhanced scrutiny of their roles. That is the nature of the General Assembly. (It was the World Bank that later managed to get a target on women’s access to reproductive health services added to the goal of reducing maternal mortality, even as a backlash was building in the UN against the Cairo consensus.)

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A year ago, the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based international research organization, published a report pointing out, moreover, that agreement on the current MDGs took 10 years of UN meetings to achieve — “a luxury which will (largely) not be available for a second round if it begins in 2015.”

The center’s report — “MDGs 2.0: What Goals, Targets, and Timeframe?” — also focused on a more substantive issue: who will be consulted in determining the needs of developing countries? It noted that nongovernmental organizations are demanding broader inclusion of people whose lives are directly affected by poverty, marginalization and injustice. Government data and institutional surveys are no longer enough.

The authors of the report — Jonathan Karver, Charles Kenny and Andy Sumner — compiled a table showing what areas are covered by the goals, whether these are adequately addressed and what the current goals leave out. Among the missing pieces that greatly affect people and nations are war, terrorism, transnational crime and arms exports. Many wars are small scale and local, disrupting lives. The MDGs also do not deal with human rights, democracy and good governance. The report adds that it may be time for a section on the special needs of Africa.

In devising new methods for better consultation with people living in deprivation and thus best placed to assess their needs, some of the most energetic work is being done by Thomas Pogge, a professor of philosophy and international affairs at Yale University and the author of World Poverty and Human Rights.Pogge has designed and is already carrying out a project to measure poverty from the bottom up and dig deeper into the differences in experiences and perceptions between men and women.

Pogge, a critic of World Bank global poverty data and claims of large successes, says in a preliminary draft paper on his project that the bank’s poverty line is set too low and based too narrowly on income or consumption data. “Although income can be used to purchase many goods and services, or prices can be imputed for the consumption of these goods and services, simply measuring income or consumption-expenditure tells us very little about whether a person is free from violence, has access to adequate leisure time, is able to control the important decisions that affect her life, is able to secure contraception, and so on,” he wrote in the draft, which was just released to PassBlue.

He is also critical of the UN Development Program’s Human Development Report and its reliance in recent years on the multidimensional poverty index designed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, led by Sabina Alkire, a well-known specialist in development studies. Pogge finds gaps, for example, in examining and understanding  different perceptions and levels of poverty within households, which weaken the credibility of generalities — or do not adequately refine and question large assertions.

On just one of numerous issues, Pogge wrote: “For example, both educational indicators [in the multidimensional poverty index] are about enrollment, but these do not provide any information on the quality of that schooling, and a person’s actual education achievements.” In the towns and villages of many developing countries, any educator will tell you that enrollment does not necessarily mean attendance — by pupils or even teachers.

It is a tall order to cover all the bases and corners of life Pogge wants to hear about from villagers and the urban poor to build more realistic data not just about what makes people poor but what they think makes them poor or not. He likes the word “hardship” better than poverty because it seems to reflect better how many people view their situations.

Conducting his research through teams in the field on 18 sites in 6 countries — Angola, Fiji, Indonesia, Malawi, Mozambique and the Philippines — he is aware of the difficulties of generalizing about the local conditions that inform local people’s views. “If a community in Ethiopia identifies not having working livestock as an indicator of poverty, and a group in Peru identifies not owning land for farming, it is not clear how these two indicators can be used to make comparative assessments between the two groups” he wrote. “Furthermore, over time community members may identify different indicators of poverty.” And obviously, of course, the attitudes of only a miniscule fraction of the global population can be measured in very localized research.

The answer, Pogge proposes, is a marriage of what he calls “public reason” and more traditional measurements, which he does not reject wholesale. “We believe that improved measurement of poverty and gender equity can build from the strengths in existing measures of poverty and gender equity while responding to existing flaws,” he wrote. “But the design of new and better measurement is not merely a matter for isolated academic discussion. Rather, our project is committed to the idea that important tools of social valuation must be developed through a process of public reason. The measurement of the deprivation among the worst off must be particularly sensitive to the stated views and preferences of poor men and women.”

Pogge made a point of using what he describes as “an explicitly feminist methodology to develop a new measure of poverty and gender disparity” that made gender central to measuring poverty. Among the many questions interviewers asked individuals were: What makes life hard for women? Do the same things make life hard for men, or are there differences? (Full reports of the research from field sites can be found at

An enormous amount of information and a striking variety of perceptions have already been collected and analyzed, often from multiple interviews. Briefly, Pogge’s team found that some common concerns ranked highest across a wide spectrum, including food, water, shelter, health care, education and sanitation.

When Pogge’s team had sifted, resifted, analyzed and winnowed, the researchers arrived at 15 categories that local people had identified as measures affecting  their definitions of  hardship at various levels: Food/hunger, water (source and quantity), shelter materials, health care, education, energy (cooking fuel and access to electricity), toilets, family relations/decision-making, clothing/personal care, violence (experience and risk), family planning (access and use), environment, voice in the community, time use/labor burden and work status/risk.

Looking specifically at women — something the current Millennium Goals do very gingerly — the subject of violence engendered discussion with these questions, which while not restricted to women, certainly would have touched on their experiences: “In the past year, did you experience being hit, slapped, shoved, pushed, punched, or kicked? In the past year, did you experience being beaten, stabbed, burnt, throttled, or otherwise attacked with a weapon, such as a bottle, glass, knife, gun, club, hot liquid, or explosive device? In the past year, did anyone use physical force or threats to make you or try to make you have sexual intercourse or perform other sexual acts against your will?”

All told, the range of responses from people who are poor as to what they think of as poverty or hardship — or, conversely, wealth — are breathtaking and thought-provoking in this preliminary report. The final study should stir up a lot of discussion, commentary and controversy.

By comparison, think of this: The MDGs now measure poverty and its alleviation in three short targets: to halve between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day; to achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people; and halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. The people keeping score at the UN have already declared victory on the first target, even as they admit that while the proportion of poor may have shrunk, the numbers are still growing.

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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