International development targets — focusing policy or measuring results?

Simon Maxwell

The International Development Targets (IDTs) are – well, as one might imagine, they’re a set of targets for international development: reduce poverty, achieve universal primary education, cut infant mortality, and so on. They’re also, and this is more interesting, the instruments of an ambitious political project to refocus the international development effort.

There’s certainly a debate to be had about the substance of the IDTs and how to reach them, and it is one which keeps academics, aid officials and government policy-makers in a state of high excitement – see, for example, this year’s World Development Report by the World Bank, which deals precisely with the meaning and measurement of poverty, and with the measures needed to achieve the target of reducing it by half by 2015.

That territory is well covered, however. What is much less discussed is the success of the wider reform ‘project’. What were its objectives, explicit and implicit? How can its success be evaluated? Have the objectives been achieved? We have here a case study, not so much of poverty reduction per se, but of policy change IN the international arena. As with all projects, we can ask the standard evaluation questions, about relevance, effectiveness, efficiency and impact.

The ‘project’

We need first to describe the project, and this is easily done. In 1996, the rich country aid donors, working through the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD, issued a document called Shaping the 21st Century: The Contribution of Development Cooperation. This document introduced the targets, in the context of a discussion of a new partnership between rich and poor countries. Most were culled from the series of large UN conferences held in the early 1990s, especially Rio (sustainable development), Beijing (women) and Copenhagen (social development). The culling was selective and, in the case of the core target, poverty reduction, designed to produce a target more concrete than the general commitment agreed in Copenhagen the previous year. There were only seven targets, but they were time-bound (for 2015), quantitative (with the possible exception of the environment target) and universal.

The targets might have been parked quietly on a back street, as so many targets in the past have been, but they were not. Instead, they were taken up with enthusiasm by a number of development ministers, perhaps most notably by the incoming Secretary of State for International Development in the new Labour Government in the UK, Clare Short. As a result, arrangements were put in place through the DAC to define indicators and measure progress. More important, the targets were aggressively disseminated in a variety of fora – the UN, the EU, in bilateral aid programmes, and among the governments of developing countries. Today, they provide the dominant framework within which international development is discussed.

That looks like a success story, but we need to return to the evaluation questions, focusing particularly on the core target, poverty reduction. First, was the project relevant? Did the world need, in 1996, a new poverty reduction target for 2015?

Was it needed?

This is always difficult to assess, because we don’t know what would have happened without the IDTs. It might be argued that their adoption changed very little – that without them international agencies and national governments would in any case have devoted themselves single-mindedly to poverty reduction.

In fact, there’s something in this. Poverty reduction was already the dominant development theme of the 1990s, stimulated by World Bank and UNDP reports in 1990. Furthermore, there was some resistance to the worldwide application of rather simple, quantitative targets, which might or might not be appropriate at country level. For example, the new targets took a more simplistic view of the meaning of poverty than earlier formulations. The international target is defined in terms of money income (with the key indicator being income of $US1 per day, in 1985 purchasing power parity); other initiatives incorporate wider indicators, like social participation, self-reliance and self-esteem.

Nevertheless, it must be remembered that aid budgets were generally falling in the mid-1990s, that aid was not always well used (the Pergau Dam scandal comes to mind), and that many governments in developing countries were pursuing policies, including budgetary policies, that did little to help the poor. In this context, the IDT ‘project’ was a valuable one: it provided political impetus, focused minds on a few key aspects of the problem, and provided a framework within which progress could be measured.

Has it changed policy?

Has the project been ‘effective’, in the sense of changing policy? It may be too soon to tell – the work is still ongoing. Some governments – again, the UK is a good example – have used the IDTs as a ruler against which to measure the value of programmes, and as a result have seen significant change in the composition and content of what they do. In rural development work by the UK, for example, a new emphasis on livelihoods rather than agricultural development can be traced back to the new poverty focus of the programme.

By contrast, other governments, particularly in developing countries, have been reluctant to take on the IDTs, not necessarily because they are not committed to poverty reduction but rather because they have their own definitions of poverty, and their own targets – Uganda is an example.

Many agencies and governments find themselves between these two extreme positions, accepting the IDTs in principle but struggling to deal with the practical implications. The EU is an example here: its recent policy paper commits in principle to the IDTs but ducks the difficult political consequence of cutting aid to middle-income countries in Europe, North Africa and South America in order to favour the poorest countries elsewhere.

Has the project been efficient and cost-effective? The evidence is lacking to answer this question in detail, but there are some interesting lessons to learn about the process of international policy change: the value of a relatively simple ‘narrative’ about the importance of poverty reduction; the need to put alliances together, within the DAC or the EU; the need for investment in monitoring; and the requirement constantly to ask questions about implementation, internationally and at country level. There has been a substantial investment of political capital and of professional resources to achieve the widespread adoption of the IDTs.

Has it helped the poor?

Which brings us to the last question, about impact. The IDTs have been successfully ‘sold’. Has that actually helped the poor? Again there’s a problem about not knowing what would have happened otherwise, but there are some promising signs: support for development is strong – witness the international campaign for debt relief, Jubilee 2000; aid volumes are beginning to recover in some countries; and expenditure on poverty reduction is increasing in developing countries, partly as a result of new budget procedures introduced in connection with the IDTs. Poverty itself is falling only slowly in aggregate terms, and hardly at all in Africa, but it is falling  – and perhaps faster than it would have done without a commitment to poverty targets.

There are good reasons to be sceptical about targets, especially when international targets are used as a template for country policy: they can over-simplify the problem; they can distort public expenditure priorities; and they can lead to political disillusion when targets are missed. At the same time, they undeniably give political impetus to an issue – a relatively simple ‘narrative’ about the importance of poverty reduction is undoubtedly of value here. There might well have been other ways to raise the game of the international aid apparatus in the mid-1990s, but the IDTs have been successful as a vehicle for doing just that.

Simon Maxwell is Director of the Overseas Development Institute, London. He can be contacted by email at

International development targets

  • To reduce the proportion of people living in extreme poverty in developing countries by at least one-half by 2015.
  • To achieve universal primary education in all countries by 2015.
  • To demonstrate progress towards gender equality and the empowerment of women by eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005.
  • To reduce the death rate of infants and children under the age of five years in each developing country by two-thirds the 1990 level by 2015.
  • To reduce the rate of maternal mortality by three quarters between 1990 and 2015.
  • To make access to reproductive health services available through the primary healthcare system for all individuals of appropriate ages by 2015.
  • To have a current national strategy for sustainable development in the process of implementation in every country by 2005, to ensure that current trends in the loss of environmental resources are effectively reversed at both global and national levels by 2015.

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