Journal of Human Development and Capabilities   |  April 17, 2014

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The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were heralded as opening a new chapter in international development, and have led to the use of global goals and target-setting as a central instrument defining the international development agenda. Despite this increased importance, little is understood about how they influence policy priorities of key stakeholders, and their broader consequences. While quantification is the key strength of global goals, it also involves simplification, reification and abstraction, which have far-reaching implications for redefining priorities. This paper highlights the key findings and conclusions of the Power of Numbers Project, which undertook 11 case studies of the effects of selected MDG goals/targets, including both the empirical effects on policy priorities and normative effects on development discourses, and drew specifically on human rights principles and human development priorities. While the Project found that the effects varied considerably from one goal/target to another, all led to unintended consequences in diverting attention from other important objectives and reshaping development thinking. Many of the indicators were poorly selected and contributed to distorting effects. The Project concludes that target-setting is a valuable but a limited and blunt tool, and that the methodology for target-setting should be refined to include policy responsiveness in addition to data availability criteria.

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