World leaders warned that approach to African aid needs a total rethink

As key summit on Millennium Development Goals begins, experts cast doubt on conventional approach to poverty reduction

As world leaders gather in New York today to decide the future of aid, an influential new lobby has emerged calling for a total rethink of foreign assistance. At the end of a decade dominated by slogans such as "Make Poverty History", in which development has been defined by a series of sweeping targets – known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – experts are warning heads of state at the global poverty summit not to sign up blindly to more of the same.

A draft declaration being circulated by the UN deplores the lack of progress and calls for "redoubling of efforts" towards 2015 targets such as slashing poverty and improving access to education. International NGOs concerned at "aid fatigue" are demanding a "rescue package" to save the goals.

But a third way is being called for by some experts, who warn that ignoring the shortcomings of the past 10 years in favour of staying the course risks destroying public faith in aid. "While laudable and important aspirations, the targets are actually the wrong measures of development progress," says Phil Vernon from International Alert, a London-based group calling for a radical rethink of aid. "It is not just the MDGs which are at fault. Despite some brilliant thinking and actions within the development sector, the prevailing paradigm has become tired, confused and is in need of renewal."

The summit marks the 10th anniversary of the Millennium declaration, signed by 189 countries, which set out eight specific targets aimed at making a better world by ending extreme poverty. Some progress has been made, but it is clear those targets will not be met.

The architect of the MDGs, US economist Jeff Sachs, says the blame for the anti-poverty project being off-track lies in western capitals. "Rich countries made promises which they didn't follow through on and now people want to say it was wrong all along," Professor Sachs says. The UN estimates the gap between funds promised and those delivered is worth $20bn (£12.8bn) for this year alone, with $16bn of that affecting the poorest continent, Africa.

The G8 grouping of wealthier economies committed themselves to spend 0.7 percent of GDP on overseas development assistance (ODA) but are lagging behind on 0.34 percent. Professor Sachs says the targets remain "realistic and practical" if rich countries would spend less on their military and more on development.

But leading aid sceptic Professor Bill Easterly says the goals were a successful fundraising exercise which then squandered much of the money meant for the poorer world. "Why waste any more efforts on the MDGs?" Professor Easterly asked recently. "[They] will go down in history as a success in global consciousness-raising, but a failure in using that consciousness for its stated objectives."

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion and professor of economics at Oxford University, says both left- and right-wingers have exaggerated the importance of aid. "Aid is not transformational by itself in either a good or a bad way. It's not that if only we had a lot more aid we'd transform Africa." The age of slogans such as "End Poverty Now" is over, he says. "We have moved beyond that and we have got to recognise complexity."

The Overseas Development Institute, the UK's leading think-tank on aid, says that the millennium goals should be judged on relative progress, rather than absolute failure. " The problem with the MDGs was that they were agreed as ends but then confused with means," says the ODI's Claire Melamed. "They were a political bargain, not a blueprint for development but that's how they have been misused."

Despite concerns over international strategy, senior UN officials and anti-poverty campaigners will put the EU delegation under severe pressure to make good its funding promises and take moral leadership of the aid project. There is a broad understanding of the failings of efforts so far but many governments and aid agencies would rather "hold their nose", as one official put it, and get to the end of the target period rather than risk a rethink now.

But the consensus that the MDGs are the only show in town is being questioned, with some analysts suggesting that this approach could hurt any remaining public trust in the aid industry.

While the West's broken promises are coming across loudest, there are voices calling for better-quality aid, and the need for non-aid approaches, including reducing trade barriers, International Alert said in a pre-summit report. "There is no simple correlation between the volume of aid and its impact," Mr Vernon says. "Failing to meet the goals should not be interpreted to mean we should spend more money in the same way. People were told a story in which if they opened their chequebooks they would end poverty. But ending poverty is as much about politics as about getting children into school."

Unless a more honest story is told, which admits that the targets set 10 years ago were too narrow, it is argued, there could be a huge backlash from people who feel misled. A failure to get this right now could mean that instead of ending extreme poverty, present efforts destroy the compact between taxpayers in the rich world and the development community and make aid history.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Life and Style
Baroness Lane-Fox warned that large companies such as have become so powerful that governments and regulators are left behind
techTech giants have left governments and regulators behind
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin visits her 1990s work ‘My Bed’ at Tate Britain in London, where it is back on display from today
artsBut how does the iconic work stand up, 16 years on?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor