Aid or Trade? Problems with the UN’s Human Development Figures



By Amanda Beal and Maria Sofia

This past September, many of the world’s leaders gathered in New York to sign the United Nations (UN) new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Numerous man-hours and unspeakable amounts of money have been used to promote this transition and enhance the global partnership for development. However, no one yet has sufficiently documented the success of the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were established in 2000 or whether these new SDG initiatives are even necessary. In addition, the changes in development that we do see in developing countries could just as easily be attributed to the impact of globalization. Thus, the UN is giving too much credit to their own initiatives and hastily jumping to the next set of objectives.

The main difference between the MDGs and the SDGs is that the SDGs are more complex, including 169 detailed targets for development efforts. The SDGs also include additional areas for improvement that are related to water and sanitation, urban development, infrastructure, institutions, and the rule of law. At the same time, however, many of the SDGs are strikingly similar to the MDGs. Both sets of aims focus on the alleviation of poverty and hunger, access to education, gender equality, improvements in health, the environmental sustainability of development efforts, and the strengthening of a global partnership for development.

Jeffrey Sachs, economist and Senior Advisor for the UN, took a leading role in the development of both sets of development initiatives. Over the past six months, Sachs has presented on, been interviewed about, and written articles pertaining to why the new objectives for development are necessary. He claims that the MDGs were successful in meeting their goals by the 2015 deadline and it is time to move forward with new objectives. Many of the world’s leaders have jumped on board, eager to pass by the one-mile marker and move on to the next one.

In general, the UN target countries demonstrate a consistent increase in GDP per capita (PPP) from 1999 to 2014; Peru saw one of the largest jumps in GDP per capita from approximately $5,000 to $12,000. The increase in GDP per capita indicates that since the formation of the MDGs, overall economic performance has improved in many of the target countries (Graph 1).


Similarly, almost every country in this sample has improved their access to clean water, decreased poverty, and improved the completion rate for primary school education since 1999. Excluding Peru, the female completion rate has improved for most of these countries as well.

The percent of the population living with HIV and the detection rate for tuberculosis have both improved since 1999, suggesting that overall health has improved in many countries receiving UN aid from the MDGs. Malawi saw the biggest drop in its population living with HIV with a 7% decline (Graph 2). Similarly, Pakistan saw the greatest increase in the tuberculosis detection rate with a 56% increase.


In general, these countries have economically and socially improved since the establishment of the MDGs in 2000. Therefore, human development in many of the countries targeted by the MDGs has improved. However, Jeffrey Sach’s rarely provides evidence for this improvement – as we have done here – and none of the measures he uses or the ones we employ here actually explain why these changes have occurred. In addition, Bolivia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Peru are exceptions in the data on many of these measures; each of these countries demonstrate a mixture of increases and decreases in human development, depending on the measure you look at.

One major problem for Sachs, his colleagues, and their arguments regarding the need for new development aims is that many of the countries receiving aid were increasing their involvement in the global economy at the same time. Globalization has become a dominant and powerful force for development around the world and, as Graph 3 demonstrates, most of these countries have increased trade as a percent of GDP since 1999. This data suggests that globalization is just as likely an explanation for the economic and social improvements as the aid money received by these countries because of the MDGs.



Thus, it is unclear whether the changes in human development since 2000 are due to aid or trade and foreign investment, calling into question the need for a new set of UN objectives and the effectiveness of the global partnership for development in general. The UN is spending unknown amounts of government money to make a transition from the MDGs to the SDGs and marketing the change in order to pressure governments to increase their foreign aid commitments. Unfortunately, it is not clear whether the MDG commitments were even successful let alone how much money it cost to formulate and market these new development goals.

Image by UN Photo/Cia Pak.

Amanda Beal, Ph.D. is a political science professor at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland. Her expertise is in international development with a focus on welfare states and nongovernmental organizations. 

Maria Sofia is a senior Political Science and International Studies major with a History minor at Mount St. Mary’s University. She is currently applying for jobs in field organization within campaigns and data analysis. Her research interests include development in the developing world.


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About Amanda Beal

Amanda Beal, Ph.D. is a political science professor at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland. Her expertise is in international development with a focus on welfare states and nongovernmental organizations. Amanda also has expertise in research and assessment skills, including statistical data analysis and field research and she uses this expertise to assess the provision of services by nonprofit organizations in the United States, Costa Rica and Paraguay. Amanda is currently constructing a new major and academic program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Mount St. Mary's University. In addition, she is a weekly volunteer and data consultant at the Frederick Rescue Mission, a faith-based community outreach organization that serves homeless people, indigent families, and men recovering from drug addiction.

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