From September 20th to the 22nd, world leaders gathered
at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to assess progress and challenges
in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Adopted at the Millennium
Summit in 2000, the eight goals represent a global commitment to reducing
poverty and improving the lives of citizens in poor countries including through
improved education and health.
These goals are unique - unlike many summits and partnerships, they committed governments to specific and clear targets to be achieved by 2015. However, in the lead-up to the Summit it became clear that many of the identified targets would not be met in the next five years, despite real progress in several areas. Of particular concern is the group furthest from achieving the MDGs, fragile and post-conflict countries.
What distinguishes so-called fragile states from other low-income countries? These are the countries struggling with the legacy of conflict, and hampered by weak government legitimacy in addition to chronic poverty, particularly pervasive in fragile states. According to the World Bank, 54 percent of the population in fragile countries lives in poverty, compared to an average of 22 percent for all low-income countries. A recent report by the Center on Global Development identifies the ‘MDG laggards,' those furthest from achieving the goals. As the report notes, "Not surprisingly, the list of MDG laggards consists mainly of post-conflict countries or fragile states." Eight of the twelve currently have UN peacekeeping operations, one of the clearest signs of fragility.
This is no surprise. Racked by often cyclical violence, the institutions of government and their ability to deliver services is often severely weakened or destroyed. Limited infrastructure and, frequently, corruption and poor governance pose significant obstacles to the realization of the MDGs, as the basic foundations for development are missing.
In fact, the preeminence of the MDGs as a guide for aid to fragile and post-conflict countries is questionable. In the group of fragile states, not one has achieved even a single MDG. The emphasis by international aid and development institutions on achievement of the MDGs has also shifted attention - and financing - away from other, urgent needs in fragile states. This reality challenges long-held assumption about development, raising the question of whether these are the right - or the only - global goals for this set of particularly vulnerable countries.
Recognition of this incongruence has led to efforts to supplement the MDGs with specific goals for post-conflict countries. In Afghanistan, a ninth goal - security - was adopted after Afghan citizens identified insecurity as their greatest challenge, underscoring that basic security is a prerequisite for achieving the MDGs. In 2010, the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, which brings together representatives from fragile states, donors, and international aid and development organizations, identified a set of goals for post-conflict countries "as stepping stones to achieve progress on development" that could serve as the foundation for further articulation of peacebuilding and statebuilding goals. As the Minister of Finance in Timor-Leste, Emilia Pires, recently noted at a side event to the MDG Summit on fragile states, "Aid is given based on MDG criteria, and from our experience we have found out that before we can get the MDGs, we have to do a few things first. We have to have peace and stability."
Debates in the lead-up to Summit saw a divide between those advocating for a particular focus on the least developed countries and those in favor of additional focus on middle-income countries that have demonstrated progress towards the MDGs.Institutional support has either sought to focus on those areas that have demonstrated results, or those that are most in need. However, these distinctions fail to capture the specific needs of fragile states, identified in the Outcome Document of the Summit, which recognizes "the specific development challenges related to peacebuilding and early recovery in countries affected by conflict and the effect of these challenges on their efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals."
As leaders return from the Summit, reflecting on progress made and challenges ahead, it is critical that they stop to assess current efforts in fragile and post-conflict states. These countries are furthest from achieving the MDGs, the most in need, and those most at risk of relapsing into conflict or failing - presenting real security challenges both regionally and globally. Any action plan moving forward requires a specific focus on the MDG ‘laggards' to ensure that they are not left out of any ‘big push' for the achievement of the MDGs over the next five years.
Megan Gleason is a Program Officer in the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Program at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. She holds a Masters degree in International Relations from New York University's Center for Global Affairs.