Arbitrary Development Numbers: MDGs

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William Easterly has a new paper exposing silly development bureaucracy numbers: the Millennium Development Goals.

Measuring social and economic progress is not at all as straightforward as the discussion of the MDGs makes it seem. Setting targets in a particular way will make some regions look better and others look worse depending on a number of choices that any target-setting exercise must make. These choices include the following:

1. Choice of benchmark year

2. Linear vs. nonlinear relationships with time or per capita income

3. Absolute changes versus percentage changes

4. Change targets versus level targets

5. Positive vs. negative indicators

There has been very little discussion of these choices that were made in setting the MDGs. Sometimes, the choices made just seem a priori to make no sense; other times, they seem arbitrary and it is unclear on welfare grounds which measure to prefer; finally, the choices do not seem consistent across the seven MDGs. Unfortunately, as this paper will argue, many of the choices made had the effect of making Africa’s
progress look worse than is justified compared to other regions.

For example, for the poverty goal, countries are given credit when a citizen exits poverty, but met with silence if a citizen moves from near-poverty to a comfortable life. And why are the targets set vis-a-vis 1990, when the grading was announced in 2000? To meet targets, “17 African countries… would need 6 percent per capita growth over 2005-2015”: failing to meet the target is merely failing to produce a miracle.

Read the full paper. See a prior installment in arbitrary development numbers.

[HT: Pienso]

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