Published on Let's Talk Development

MDGs that Nudge

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What should replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire in 2015?

Ask your mom or dad.

In a recent working paper, I argue that we need MDGs that nudge – MDGs that frame development issues in ways that capture the attention and enthusiasm of non-experts (regular people).

The argument goes like this. The MDGs had no system of legal accountability, and there is every reason to think that the same will be true of the MDG successors. When there is no legal accountability, international goals achieve impact primarily through inspiration. Think of human rights treaties, which do not have particularly strong legal enforcement procedures either, but which do motivate people (and which, as a recent book and other research have shown, have measurable effects on outcomes).

MDGs that are psychologically, morally, and politically salient are more likely to change behavior. Terms like “maternal mortality ratio” and “halve the proportion” and “gender disparity” simply do not have the moral resonance of terms like “torture” or “dissidents.”

Here are a few examples (others are in the paper).

If there is to be a target for official development assistance, for instance, the “standard” target of 0.7 percent of GNI, which has the disadvantage of including both a percent and technical term, should be replaced. A more salient number would be dollars of development assistance per person, from each donor country, which intuitively informs people how much of their tax money is going to development assistance, and allows them to compare that contribution to how much they spend on their own purchases.

Carbon dioxide emissions, while not an MDG target, has been suggested for MDGs 2.0. Thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, per capita or per dollar of national GDP, is difficult to grasp. Even measures of global average temperature may not be intuitive – an increase of two degrees centigrade in the average temperature of the world does not seem like much to the untrained ear. Rather, the contributions of an average person in a country to the rise in sea levels, in millimeters, over a defined time period, would be a more palpable target. That indicator can be visualized. It also embeds within it the causal narrative between carbon emissions and some of its potentially catastrophic consequences.

In education, several have proposed a target that focuses on outcomes, not just school attendance. Perhaps the most salient psychological target would be “universal literacy.” The ability to read and write is easily understood. And universality, 100 percent, is obviously a salient number.

Before you propose a new MDG goal or target, ask your parents if they approve.


Varun Gauri

Senior Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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