Were the MDGs Worth It?

Farmer field schools supported by Nestlé train farmers to improve their cocoa harvest

This was my entry for the Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition. The theme I chose was, “Were the Millennium Development Goals Worth It?” I enjoyed it, but it was difficult writing on this topic in under a thousand words without referencing any academic theory or assuming much of any prior knowledge with readers.

The “funny” thing is that I can go either way with the MDGs and EFA. On the whole, I agree with my own argument and think there are some fundamental flaws in internationally agreed goals. Only the targets with easily measurable goals get any traction, but the metrics used are often obscenely simplified abstractions. In so much as their will be new goals, we should act as stakeholders and fight and scramble to get a broader view of education in the post-2015 framework. I also understand why people think the MDGs and EFA are especially important at a time when aid and development funding is dropping. Their argument is essentially that this is less about prodding the South to develop as it is about prodding the North to donate and get involved.

Without further ado…

After more than an hour of driving down dirt roads through central Luzon, I arrived at a scene with more than a dozen farmers taking a pre-course quiz. Lea Abaoag, the training manager for the Philippines Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), was taking me out to see my first farmer field school. “We’re trying to get them to ask, ‘why, why, why?’” she told me, contrasting this approach with “technology transfer” methods that dominate most extension work. The farmers would be retirement age in any other profession, but this was the first day of class in more than forty years for most of them.

The extension worker for the class had different insects and powders in small bottles taped to white poster boards. Below the bottles were multiple-choice answers where farmers dropped slips of paper into envelope under their answers. The powders were different fertilizers, and the dead insects were of two categories: those that had a taste for the rice plant and those that preyed on these connoisseurs. The farmers would come every Friday for the next four months, and by the end of the program they would learn DIY soil analysis and the art of using leaf colour charts to determine which fertilizers they should use and when. Learning about native insects was part of a system that would harness ecosystem dynamics to dramatically reduce the need for toxic pesticides.

By the end of their first day, the farmers would learn about the food price shocks that had been rippling around the world causing panic, riots, and hoarding. It was 2011 and global grain prices were almost double their 2006 prices. The extension worker used charts to explain the rice supply and demand differences in the country. Because “rice is life” in the Philippines, and so much of it was imported, the country was particularly vulnerable to supply shocks in the international market.

There are 500 million smallholder farmers in the world, and farmer field schools are one of only a handful of programmes that engage them as individuals with unique learning needs. What these farmers do on their farms also affects the rest of us through food prices and environmental practices. Globally, agriculture is responsible for a third of man-made greenhouse emissions and is the largest source of non-point water pollution. Farmer education directly links with environmental sustainability and increasing their production could go a long way in reducing extreme poverty, hunger, improving maternal health, and empowering rural women.

But farmer field schools have never been considered tools to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This is in part because the MDGs arrived amidst a growing trend demanding “value for money” in development projects. Farmer field schools, like many of the best development projects, sit uncomfortably between distinct academic and professional fields. Farmer field schools are orphans of agronomy and education: born of both, but claimed by neither. These orphan programs and agendas often muddle through, addressing multiple critical issues in small ways, but no single issue in a big way.

Isolated as an education issue, farmer field schools are excluded because the MDGs only looked at access to schools for children, with special attention to gender parity. This is part of a larger trend of nonformal education programs becoming increasingly overlooked and underfunded through the 1980s and ‘90s. “We have ministers of schooling,” a retired UNESCO director told me at a conference on internationally agreed goals with Commonwealth education ministers, “not ministers of education.”

After describing the climate change problems farmers in her district face, a Kenyan extension worker told me she’s responsible for providing services for 20,000 farmers. PhilRice lost funding for farmer field schools a year after the visit I described. The World Bank closed their adult education program entirely. Much like farmer field schools, women’s literacy programs “were [seen as] investments in people who will die soon,” as one of the last people out of that program told me. Investing in young children offers an entire lifetime to reap returns.

Was excluding nonformal education a critical weakness in MDGs? Maybe, but it reflects a more intrinsic failure in the DNA of all internationally agreed goals. “Fixing” the MDGs to include nonformal education implies that there’s something uniquely important about it, giving it a higher “objective” ranking than other agendas. But nonformal education is just one dozens of agendas with varying levels of importance for different countries.

Everyone involved in development has pet issues and list priorities in different orders. The MDGS were an attempt to use international “consensus” to bypass the politics that determine which agendas get funding. It tried to swap contested, messy and complex development priorities for a single, depoliticized, and simplified development agenda. In that sense, there’s something keenly undemocratic about the MDGs.

Even if we were to assume that there’s value in focusing on a few core development issues, the metrics used to measure goals are often far more problematic than most people realize. For instance, enrolment rates are the primary metric to measure universal primary education. Because of demographic changes and a statistical quirk, the number of out-of-school children in some African countries is rising even as their enrolment rate rises. And because enrolment rates measure names in books – not kids in seats – most children in the poorest countries eventually fall into what Keith Lewin calls “zones of exclusion.” They enrol in school but rarely attend, repeat grades because of low levels of learning (which drive enrolment rates up!), and drop out precipitously after their first years of schooling. The Brookings Institute estimates that half of children from Sub-Saharan Africa will reach their teenage years unable to read, write, or perform basic numeracy tasks.

Let’s hand the development agenda back over to messy and inconsistent local politics. Let’s let countries expand and define their education systems according to their needs and ability to provide a modicum of quality. And let’s also not forget the importance of muddling through complex problems, as it’s often the only thing that really works.


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