As the United Nations meets this week to draw up a new set of sustainable development benchmarks, the era of the body’s landmark Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is coming to a close, with some wondering – in spite of gains – what efficacy such targets have in countries like Cambodia.
Adopted in September 2000 at the largest gathering of world leaders in history, the goals committed nations to eight time-bound objectives aimed at reducing extreme poverty, hunger and disease and promoting equality, education and sustainability by 2015.
According to the UN, Cambodia met all of its MDG targets – the body’s 2015 MDG report calls it an “early achiever” – performing well on goals of maternal health, infant mortality and combating poverty.
However, the United Nations also acknowledged that there remained room for improvement within several of the goals, particularly in areas such as women’s and children’s nutrition, post-primary education and environmental protection.
Similarly, progress on increasing protected areas under the goal of “ensuring environmental sustainability”, has been hampered by a significant decrease in forest cover and a more than doubling of CO2 emissions.
These inconsistencies highlight what many have criticised as the MDGs’ overly general, and often arbitrary measures of development imported from abroad.
“No-one can disagree with the aims, but the MDGs are very much a case of goals designed in the global north for the global south,” said Clive Gabay of Queen Mary University of London, who has extensively researched the efficacy of MDGs.
“Across the board, it has now been recognised that MDGs were not flexible enough to respond to diverse local needs and circumstances.”
“Local communities weren’t at all involved in formulation of the MDG’s,” he added. “Instead, you have bank-ordained programs within a narrow, number-driven framework, which means that the needs of a lot of groups, for example minorities, get overlooked.”
In countries like Cambodia, Gabay said, where civil society has a limited impact on government policy, the MDGs therefore do little to put development in the hands of local populations.
Chhan Sokunthea, head of women’s and children’s rights for the NGO Adhoc, echoed the sentiment.
“Often what the government says it is doing is just on paper, but there is little real implementation,” she said.
The targets set by the MDGs often fail to address real problems in a Cambodian context, Sokunthea added.
For example, she said, where the MDGs measure gender equality in areas like education, employment and politics, women in Cambodia remain at high risk from violence and other social inequities on which local authorities are often slow to act.
“We need more change on the ground. If the role of civil society does not progress there can be no real development.”
Even the UN itself has come around to the point of view that MDG-driven development – without attendant improvements in governance – is incomplete, though the body will address that facet as well at this week’s summit, said UNDevelopment Programme country director Napoleon Navarro.
“The Millennium Declaration was and is explicit about human rights and the governance dimension,” Navarro said.