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About the Author

Bart Knols
Medical Entomologist (Dodewaard, Netherlands)

Bart G.J. Knols (1965) is the Managing Director of MalariaWorld, the world's first scientific and social network for malaria professionals. He is a malariologist with a Masters degree in Biology and a PhD in Medical Entomology from Wageningen University, the Netherlands. He also obtained an MBA degree from the Open University (UK) in 2006, for which he won the prestigious international ‘MBA Student of the Year 2007 Award’ as well as the Alumnus of the Year Award from the Open University. With 11 years of working experience in Africa he has managed large-scale research and vector control programmes on malaria for ministries, international or national research institutions. He has worked for the UN (IAEA) as a programme manager for three years, has served as a consultant for the World Health Organization, and is currently a Board Member of the UBS Optimus Foundation, the second largest charity in Switzerland. He has published over 130 peer-reviewed research articles, has written 16 book chapters, and has served as senior editor on a WHO/IAEA sponsored book on implementation research. In 2007 he co-edited a best-selling book titled 'Emerging Pests and Vector-Borne Diseases in Europe'. He received an Ig Nobel Prize (2006), an IAEA Special Service Award (2006), and in 2007 he became a laureate of the Eijkman medal (the highest award in the field of tropical medicine in the Netherlands). He has been a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2004. Bart held an Assistant Professorship at Wageningen University until April '09 with projects across Africa. He currently directs K&S Consulting, a firm he founded in the beginning of 2007.


Whose MDGs are they anyway?

Published 11th May 2010 - 27 comments - 7651 views -

Tanzania, last week...

As I stroll the streets of Tanzania's capital city Dar es Salaam I see people from all walks of life struggling to make a living. Young boys wiggle their way through traffic jams to sell a bar of soap or a cigarette lighter. Underpants, brooms, you name it. Anything to make the few shillings that will carry them over to the next day without starving. At a traffic light I see a man without legs. He sits there patiently waiting for coins to be thrown at him from airconditioned 4x4 vehicles waiting for the light to turn green and dash off. Ironically, the small street vendors and handicapped are the lucky ones. Most of the people just sit in the shade under a tree and do nothing. They belong to the mass of unemployed Tanzanians of which the precise number remains unknown. 

WEFMeanwhile a thousand business folks and government officials from around Africa have landed in the city for the three-day World Economic Forum summit and meet in the fanciest airconditioned hotels of town. 'Committed to improving the state of the world' read their banners. Every hour or so a police escort followed by a black Mercedes with some dubious flag on its bumper passes by. Everybody looks up, stares at the vehicle that rushes by, then all returns to normal. 

I suddenly feel the urge to ask those around me about the Millennium Development Goals. Simply because I am curious to find out what people in a country that ranks amongst the poorest on the planet know about these. After all, the MDGs should benefit Tanzania to a large extent, so its populace should be familiar with the goals I imagine.

Tanzanians are some of the most friendly people I have ever met, and a handshake and some chitchat is sufficient to start some small talk leading up to the question in the back of my mind: 'Do you know what the Millennium Development Goals are?'.

First I talk to Maria, 23 years of age, with a degree in accountancy. She works in a hotel where she runs the business centre.  Maria speaks good English, is IT literate, listens to the radio regularly, and reads the newspapers. But a question about the MDGs returns a blank. She has never heard of these, nor read anything about them.

In the lobby of the hotel where I stay I run into a friendly man, in his fifties, and we start chatting. He works for an NGO that deals with HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. 'This will be spot-on', I secretly hope before asking the big question. But this man also goes blank when asked what he knows about the MDGs. Bummer.

Whilst waiting for the ferry to go to Zanzibar I walk into a local stationary shop. I buy myself a small writing pad, and after paying for it ask the Indian lady behind the counter (in her mid-thirties I guess) the dreaded question. She nods her head in a 'no' manner and apologises politely. The MDGs are unknown to her. Does she read newspapers? 'Yes', she responds.

Next to me in the shop is a Tanzanian man, also in his thirties, who happens to be the first to provide me with an answer. 'Isn't that a big bag of money to build roads in Africa?'. We all laugh.

On Zanzibar I try my luck with a British lady, aged 27, who is working in the health sector and has been doing research in Tanzania for the last three years. 'Something with poverty, right?'. 'Yes, something with poverty' I reply. 'Anything else?'. No answer.

A day later, after flying to Tanga, a fairly big city on the coast, I try my luck with Miriam, 27, housekeeper. Nothing. The radio was on as we spoke.

At the hospital in Tanga I run into Kanika, a 42 year old father of six children, who once flourished as a truck driver and worked in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and as far as Malawi. Now he runs a taxi service, using his motorbike. This was a man of the world, experienced a lot, travelled, and speaks good English. When I talk to him he holds the Daily Standard, a Tanzanian newspaper. 'The MD-what?' is the simple but telling answer I get from him.

Are MDGs for us or them?

This small sample of Tanzanians by no means matches the outcome of a full-fledged survey, but it got me thinking nevertheless. First, if people don't know about the MDGs, is this because the media in Tanzania do not cover these? No. The DailyNews alone returns 69 articles published in the last year when searching for 'MDGs' or 'Millennium Development Goals'. Maybe the MDGs are just too distant from people's every day life to bother. But titles like 'Global Fund impressed by war on malaria' or 'Tanzania 'succeeding' in AIDS fight' should have been received with pride and a healthy dose of patriotism. Void of other explanations, let me turn the discussion around.

MDGIs there a need for those that should benefit from the MDGs to know about them? Would the life of the man without legs at the traffic light change if he was aware of the ins and outs of the eight goals? Is it sufficient when only the governments of the 192 UN member states that signed up to the MDGs know about them?

In other words: If something is being done for you from higher up, is there a need for you to know about it?

This is a fundamental question and I struggle with the answer. Did the people of Western Europe know about the Marshall plan that followed the peace declaration in 1945? Many probably didn't - but it worked nevertheless and fuelled development in post-WWII Europe.

But we live in a new era. An era in which empowerment of and knowledge acquisition by those affected are viewed as important, if not essential. Would the MDGs be reached faster and better if target groups would actively pursue them? Would the poor be put in a position to hold their governments accountable for the resources provided by the international donor community to reach the MDGs?

Information generates knowledge. Knowledge empowers. Empowered people can tackle the MDGs better. Or not so?


Category: Equality | Tags: africa, africa, development, mdg,


  • Robert Stefanicki on 12th May 2010:

    Only in case MDGs are reachable. Otherwise the knowledge would make the them frustrated… It’s like desiring the newest, expensive TV-set - when you didn’t know it exists, you were sleeping better wink

  • Bart Knols on 12th May 2010:

    Thanks Robert. But can’t I say the same about the many, many other goals that were thrown at us over the past decades and were never reached? The Kyoto protocol? The ‘Health for all by 2000’, etc. What would be the use then of declaring 2010 the year of Biodiversity if it is highly dubious that the goals can be reached?

    Should we only communicate what we know we can accomplish. Surely not. Worse, we might have very little to talk about if this was the case…

  • Clare Herbert on 12th May 2010:

    First of all, jealous that you were in Tanzania last week. You lucky thing.

    I think the MDGs are for us. They’re conceptual, statistical and abstract to the people you met. They are useful to raising awareness, teaching about development and informing the public, but are also laden with blind spots and inconsistencies. For example, MDG 1 is to “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015” while the goal is actually to halve the numbers living in poverty. There’s a big difference between eradicating and halving, but only one looks well on a poster.

    Great post (as always)

  • Johan Knols on 12th May 2010:

    Dear Clare,

    I hope you are not saying that blind spots and inconsistencies are the reason for keeping the MDG’s to ourselves. In my opinion it is again a one-way system: us towards them.
    Is this not against MGD #8?

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 12th May 2010:

    Bart, great post! Makes one think…

    Again, it’s a complex issue. I think the MDGs are for everyone, or at least they should be. If more people knew what our governments have promised, maybe we’d keep them more accountable for not delivering. What is the point for the UN to announce all these years, decades, days, and goals if nothing is to be achieved?

    I bet in my country the majority of population don’t have a clue about the existence of MDGs, and many couldn’t be bothered at all. Information is power.

  • Lara Smallman on 12th May 2010:

    Hi Bart, this occurred to me the other day. What do people in developing countries know about the MDGs? People in the UK certainly don’t seem to be all that clued up on them.

  • Prabhjot Singh on 12th May 2010:

    MDGs or Millenium Development Goals are ways to hold the Govt’s accountable. Over a period of 10 years, while Govts change, it is a process to identify priorities to maintain continuity of focus. Also it gives a sense of direction to International funding agencies besides gearing all countries/ regions towards handling/targetting common problems in a big manner. What is important to note here that these MDGs are very broad, therefore these are used to serve as strategic directions and not tactical instruments for stakeholders. Every country is thus free to model a solution in their own manner.
    Mass communication of these to the people is a good idea, but let’s not talk about ideal situations and practical options. The present situation in most developing countries, though much better than 10 years from now, is still far removed than you think. Twitter and Facebook may have many members but mostly from Developed countries and the elite in other places. Given this scenario, expecting a wide-spread message does not make sense. And what are you going to tell them- We need to reduce poverty, diseases, promote ... They hear this every 5 years in forms of political speeches. Realistically these goals were meant for Govt’s and to forge communication and alliances between them and international organisations to achieve tangible.
    Do not expect miracles, they don’t happen in real life, expect honest commitment and effort which is what these MDGs are meant to ensure.

  • Bart Knols on 12th May 2010:

    @ Clare: You say they are ours. @ Giedre: You say they are for all of us. So what’s the verdict? Can we really set goals and don’t consider the fact that people have at least the RIGHT to know? I don’t think so and hope that this is not what you have in mind…

    @ Clare - I am not surprised. The Brits are still feverish about Downing street 10. Maybe tomorrow they will wake up and learn about the MDGs.

    @ Prabhjot. All appreciated, but can you explain to me who should hold governments accountable if nobody knows what they should be held accountable for? How can one expect honest commitment from governments if they cannot be judged by anyone in terms of the efficiency of their governance? Doing so in many developing nations will get you thrown into jail… Are we back to ‘good governance’? Surely not I hope.

  • Bart Knols on 12th May 2010:

    Sorry, second @Clare should be @Lara…

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 12th May 2010:

    People have the right to know, definitely.

    On another note, I’m thinking of a little research: ask people around who could explain what MDGs are without Google.

  • Bart Knols on 12th May 2010:

    @Giedre. Yes, by all means - ask ask ask. Curious to know, suspecting though that the outcome will not be much different from what I experienced in Tanzania…

  • Ivaylo Vasilev on 12th May 2010:

    Bart, what exactly questions did you ask them? Like, credibly ‘un’s milleniuum development goals’?

    I wanted to make a point earlier about the need for local activism. You can’t just tell people how they should live their lives without them embracing wholeheartedly your advise, i.e. it won’t work if you just tell them - everyday do A & B, and they follow automatically with no other considerations. Similarly, assuming it’s possible, it’d be a lot worse to artificially model their environment without them realizing its worth. I think it won’t even work in this human realization dimension somehow, though you can probably argue on this.

  • Bart Knols on 13th May 2010:

    @Ivalyo. The question I asked is exactly the one above: Do you know what the Millennium Development Goals are?. Or maybe a slightly different version ‘Have you heard about the Millenium Development Goals’. Again, don’t consider this a full survey - it was just seven people that I talked with.

    Not sure what you mean with ‘I wanted to make a point earlier…’. As far as I can see this is your only comment here. Please elaborate on what you mean.

    And, there are in fact places in Africa where the resources have been provided to kick-start development, in the Millennium Villages: where the environment has been pretty much modeled…

  • Clare Herbert on 13th May 2010:

    Johan - Of course not. I was suggesting that the MDGs are very generalized and generic and do not take into account the nuance of international development. They are useful tools for informing people in both developed and developing countries but are not the full picture.

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear.

  • Bart Knols on 13th May 2010:

    @Clare - I am not sure if I follow your reasoning, and when looking at the MDGs find that these are very specific and targeted indeed. Take for instance goal 6:

    Some pretty specific outcomes that are stipulated there. So they are not ‘very generalized and generic’, right?

  • Prabhjot Singh on 13th May 2010:

    @Bart Knols: Isn’t a Government made to Govern by the people (provided it is elected) But let me not be rhetorical. Accountability comes in the form of finances, international donors have led to a marked improvement in governance in the larger picture.
    Moreover, the exact terms called MDGs are incomprehensible to most people, but ask them about the issues: do they know about AIDS/HIV, family planning, diseases, do they feel their children are getting better knowledge than themselves.
    What we fail to realize that MDGs are not a separate entity but a process of integration of all efforts and so don’t distance it from all other development activities and the knowledge, if any, the common mass may have.
    However, I would still want to emphasise, that as policies- MDGs are meant to goad Govts into action and direction. Look up some Govt policies and you will clearly see the mention of 1-2 MDGs and how the current policy ties in with it. In that you can compare MDGs with a common Mission statement.

  • Clare Herbert on 14th May 2010:

    Bart - I think that the MDGs offer a neat summation of development policies but I’m not convinced that they paint the full picture. You mentioned MDG6, Combating HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases. Who decides what other diseases? Who decides where we start? How much we commit? Who is accountable, who is in charge and how are they monitored?

    You can manipulate statistics to tell any story you want and I’m not convinced that the MDGS are the silver bullet to end disadvantage in the developing world.

    Apologies that I have not been very clear in articulating my view. Will try better in future smile

    Thanks for continuing the debate.

  • Bart Knols on 14th May 2010:

    @Prabhjot. Thanks for additional insight. Your first question ‘Isn’t a government made to be governed by the people’ is very hard to answer: . The obvious answer seems yes, but the real answer in terms of how many governments in the poorest parts of the world function may be very much different from that. ‘Good governance’ is what most developed countries use as the stick behind the door when it gets to the provision of aid, but the effectiveness thereof is also something that can be debated.

    Wrt your second point I think you make an important observation: Indeed, asking about MDGs is different from starting a discussion about specific issues embedded in them.

    I like your view of MDGs as a mission statement, but have the feeling that they were desgined to go far beyond that. Mission statements don’t contain verifiable indicators, and virtually every MDG (the subcategories) has…

    We need some extra support here to clarify issues. I have just sent an email to Ms. Sonja Ribi of the INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION CENTRE FOR THE UN MILLENNIUM DEVELOPMENT GOALS, and invited her to chip in her thoughts. Let’s hope she will join the discussion.

  • Bart Knols on 14th May 2010:

    @Clare. Thanks for further clarification. Let’s see what we get to hear from Ms. Ribi.

  • Pierre-Anthony Canovas on 14th May 2010:

    Interesting post Bart ! But people who don’t know anything about the MDGs are not only in Tanzania. I was surprised to see the Really really weak knowledge of my fellows citizens in France on this issue. Like you, I have asked many of my friends, colleagues and the people I have met over the past weeks if they know those MDGs, if they have heard at least once about them and many said no. I think soon, I’ll do probably on video on it, a sort of “Vox Populi” where I’ll ask randomly the people I meet in the street if they about that.

    I think everyone should be aware of those MDGs whether you live in the Netherlands, France or Tanzania and Uganda. More communication shoudl be done about it. But I think people have so much to think about. I am referring to everyday-life basic things. Especially in developping countries, many people struggle to survive. How a better knowledge of MDG’s would help them?

  • Bart Knols on 14th May 2010:

    @Pierre-Anthony. Thanks. I did indeed not consider the fact that only people in developing countries don’t know about MDGs. Holland will likely not differ from Franca. And yes, I really would encourage you to do the ‘vox populi’ you suggest. This will be a great addition to TH!NK3.

    Nevertheless, the MDGs are of course more geared towards the developing world, so I was assuming that they would be better known there…

    MDGs may, as Prabhjot suggests, be used as a tool to hold govts accountable for their actions. But beyond that?

  • Ivaylo Vasilev on 14th May 2010:

    @Bart Sure, I was just sharing a thought I wanted to share in another thread, not yours. Hope you don’t mind.

  • Bart Knols on 15th May 2010:

    @Ivaylo. So your point dealt with local activism, right. How do you place local activism in the context of ‘awareness about MDGs’? Curious to know now… thanks.

  • Ivaylo Vasilev on 15th May 2010:

    Well, my point is - local communities need to get in grips with reality and be the agents behind the achieving of the MDG. So as far as awareness is concerned, it needs to be raised from within. On a side note, when the rich person tells you how much he sympathizes with your hunger, do you believe him?

  • Bart Knols on 15th May 2010:

    @Ivaylo. OK, all clear now. Have you read the book ‘Lords of Poverty’ by Graham Hancock? This is a book full of stuff that relates to your second statement. Mandatory reading for anyone interested in development aid… That book and Moyo’s ‘Dead Aid’ will not make you think twice but ten times about what is going on in this world of development aid…

  • Ivaylo Vasilev on 15th May 2010:

    Thank you for the references. I am a novice: I am sure that there is serious literature on my “statement.” I will try to obtain these things, or the least get them when I go to London for my studies later in the year.

  • Bart Knols on 15th May 2010:

    @Ivaylo: Paul Collier’s ‘The bottom billion: Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it’ is another highly insightful book that I would recommend. Best of luck with your studies.

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