Looking back to move forward: The MDGs and the road to post-2015

Meera Tiwari visits the status quo of the Millennum Development Goals -what have they achieved? How do we build on them?


This paper offers a short overview of the Millennium Development Goals in terms of what has been achieved and what remains to be achieved as we approach the timeline of 2015. It then draws out the key debates that remain critical for global development progress and are likely to dominate the post-2015 agenda. Lastly, the paper examines briefly how might the post-2015 development agenda affect – the European countries, the deprived communities in the North as well as the developing world.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

Seldom has a policy tool attracted more names on the oxymoronic spectrum than the Millennium Development Goals. Soon after their conception in 2000 and signed by 189 members of the UN family with the strongest backing form the International Institutions, they opened fertile grounds for research, debate and multi-actor engagement. This global endorsement consists of eight goals: (1) eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, (2) achieve universal primary education, (3) promote gender equality, (4) reduce child mortality, (5) improve maternal health, (6) control HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, (7) ensure environmental sustainability, (8) develop a global partnership for development.  Each goal comprises a set of specific targets and indicators  – in all 21 targets and 64 indicators.

From being termed as the yard stick of development progress and a new development paradigm (Gabay, 2012); fulcrum of development policy (Maxwell, 2005); spurring a global movement of development awareness beyond the researcher community (Vandemoortele, 2011); drawing attention to development that included both non-economic dimensions of health, education and gender along with the economic drivers. The MDGs have further been attributed with the partnership and accountability (albeit notional) for donor agencies and states (Bond, 2006); espousing research for better data on development indicators as well as optimal use of existing statistics and ushering in the urgent need for inter-sectoral work to achieve progress. The MDGs are also hailed as the world’s biggest promise and commitment to reduce poverty and address human deprivations (Hulme, 2010) and a claim from the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon as ‘the most successful global anti-poverty push in history’ (UN, 2013).

This shared vision of the global community rapidly runs aground as we approach the other end of the spectrum. The MDGs have been called a top down reductionist framework that is prone to distortion, narrow in reach, leaving out key priorities of addressing inequality, decent work, unemployment, climate change and sustainability (Fukuda-Parr, 2013). Further omission of important targets have been highlighted, of violence against women and reproductive rights as well the disconnect with the economic and socio-political context of their implementation (Antrobus, 2005). The Goals’ position as global goals is disputed as at least 16 developing countries had no data till 2007 (Clemens et. al, 2007). They have been referred to as the donor restatement of key internal development issues for a donor-country audience (Nelson, 2007) and a policy framework whose language remains devoid of human rights issues and the rights based approaches (ibid). Additionally, financing of the MDGs remains contested.

What has been achieved and what remains to be achieved?

Despite the above pendulum positions, the MDGs do offer a performance record between 2000-2015 that can be subjected to scrutiny and a scorecard. The Millennium Development Goals Report (UN, 2013) on an optimistic note urges the global community to claim with pride the achievements made in several targets and some close to being met. These are illustrated in the table below:

Table 1

Source: (UN, 2013)

Given the complexities and the interconnectedness of the environment where the most unexpected factors can set back years of effort to fight poverty and disease, the achievements of lifting millions out poverty, enabling millions of children to acquire education and reducing the spread of HIV-AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis should be valued and not dismissed.  The bigger attainments of MDGs though go beyond the tangible output based results indicated above. The real achievement of the MDGs is firstly taking the discourse on multiple dimensions of human deprivation and development finance beyond the researcher – policy maker nexus to its numerous stakeholders. The pictographic depiction of the 8 goals as shown in Figure 1 below is a step forward in breaking language barriers and removing donor-led biases (Nelson, 2007) for which the MDGs have been critiqued. While much remains to be done in extending and strengthening this multi-stakeholder engagement, the civil society participation in the larger development discourse is far more visible and vibrant than before.

Figure 1: Pictographic depiction of the MDGs used by UNDP

Further, the MDGs galvanized a global effort that has exposed: areas that need most attention; interventions that have made no difference, espousing new research into causation of failures and success; gaps in data and in tools for collecting data; gaps in methods for measuring progress of targets, indicators that do not capture the targets and targets that cannot be measured. Addressing these issues will only make the global effort towards human development more effective – this must be considered a strength of the MDGs.

Table 2 below provides some of the MDG targets that will not be met by 2015. The bottom half of the table shows areas of concern for the global community that can change development landscape and the partnership dynamics in the post-2015 agenda.  The first half of the table indicates issues requiring more effort in terms of research, new methods and finance as all are core domains of development. Social theory has demonstrated, through evidence-based research, the value of education in improving opportunities in life in all contexts – yet one in every 10 child does not even have access
to primary education as shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Table 2: MDG Targets not met and areas of concerns.

Source: (UN, 2013), author’s research

This could be the first step towards helping to expedite sustainable progress in child and maternal mortality, sanitation and prevention of disease. However one could argue that there is not much to celebrate – the plight of the poor in almost all of Africa remains dismal – be it through disease, conflict, internal volatilities or climatic shocks; South Asia remains the home to the largest number of under -nutritioned children while child poverty levels and inequality within the Eurozone has reached new heights in the post 2008 recession period.

Additionally, some researchers assert that there is no evidence that robustly attributes the progress in reducing human poverty to the MDGs (‘post-MDG acceleration’) (Fukuda-Parr et. al (2013). So, with this pessimistic verdict on the MDGs – what can be learned from looking back into the progress of the global goals and how might this shape the post-2015 agenda?

The way forward – the post-2015 agenda

The post-2015 agenda could not be born in more contrasting context to the one in which the MDGs emerged in 2000. This was a relatively benign environment of global financial buoyancy that exhibited relatively clear demarcations between the developed and developing regions with more inequities and poverty concentrated in the developing countries. In just fifteen years the global terrain could not be more different. The post-2015 agenda is being conceived in a world of acute financial uncertainties since 2008, predictions of a grim future and rapid blurring of boundaries between the developed and developing contexts in terms of rising inequities and poverty. In addition, the scientific evidence towards the adverse impacts of climate change on poverty albeit contested in some quarters, is rightly so becoming more integrated in the development research than ever.

Hence, the core themes of income poverty, education, health and the remaining unmet targets continue to be important issues to address in the post-2015 development discourse. In addition, the changing geographies of social and economic inequalities, rising child poverty in the northern countries and the continuing sluggish economies in the Eurozone have posed new challenges to be addressed in the post-2015 agenda. Thus of the ten Eurozone countries with less than $14500 per capita GDP, the bottom five have per capita GDP comparable to low and low middle income country in the south.

Twenty-three countries in the developed regions experienced increases in child poverty since 2008. The biggest rises were in Greece 40.5% (up from 23%) and Iceland 31.6% (up from 11.2%) followed by Latvia, Croatia, Lithuania, Ireland, Spain and Italy with above or close to 30% child poverty in 2012 (UNICEF, 2014). Another worrying trend in the Eurozone since the 2008 recession is the rapid increase in the numbers of the 15-24 year olds classified as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training). There were 7.5 million young people in the NEET category by 2013.

The new terrain will need different ways of engaging with the development agenda to collectively improve the effectiveness of the efforts by the global community. A starting point could be changing the donor-led statements and understandings of the problems to a participant-led language – the developed countries too have to address core issues of deprivation. This, in itself though could pose new challenges in the allocation of development finance calling for higher levels of accountability and transparency than before (ICAI, 2014).

Further, the diversity of the member states needing assistance as well as the heterogeneity in how a core theme may express itself in different countries, calls for different ways of conceptualising and devising the targets and indicators for the global goals. Hence, addressing child poverty would be a global goal with context specific local targets and indicators developed by the countries themselves. This mechanism would also address problems of assuming all regions to be at the same starting point for meeting the global targets. Africa as a region was marked as being off track for meeting nearly all MDG targets by 2005, not taking into consideration that for almost all targets it had the lowest baseline figures in 2000 or 1990 (Easterly, 2009).

Two other key areas will continue to dominate the post-2015 debates and agenda. Both domains demonstrate how intricately linked the developed and the developing worlds are in terms of economic, social, political and cultural events and impacts.

The first of these is the issue of international migration and human security. In current day, each country in the world is an origin, a transit location, the end point or all of these for international migration flows (IOM, 2014). Thus, no country remains outside of the impacts of international migration.  The International Organisation for Migration (ibid.) estimates that as we enter the mid-point of the second decade of the 21st century, one of every 35 persons is a migrant. In developed countries, one of every ten persons has left their home country. Thus, understanding and addressing the causes of migration and human security remain of paramount importance in all countries and collaborately at the global level. The issue requires much more attention in the post -2015 debate than is evident from the drafts and proceedings of the reports set to guide the final agenda.

The second issue that binds the world together is the threat of climate change. Despite scientific evidence, the global commitment to address the issues has been disappointingly slow in the last two decades and during the MDGs. However, on a positive note, the recognition of the need for urgent attention to climate change and its adverse impacts, the UNDP has formally taken up the recommendation of the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 to come up with a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) . Thus there is currently an ongoing process that is putting together the SDGs that aim to build on the MDGs and converge with the post-2015 development agenda (UN, 2014). By bringing the sustainable development debate to forefront (instead of being tucked away as one of the targets), and as the anchor for the post-2015 agenda, there is clear indication of the urgency and the need for global commitment to climate change. This is a most desirable shift at the global level that should signal a somewhat optimistic way forward.


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