For more than a decade, the global conversation about development has been dominated by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Established at the United Nations’ Millennium Summit of 2000, these eight objectives focused on what the international community could do to meet basic human needs in the developing world.
Over the past dozen years the MDGs have been attacked on numerous grounds—for setting impossible goals (such as 100% primary school attendance), for neglecting critical requirements like good governance and strong institutions, and for placing unrealistic expectations on what foreign aid can actually accomplish. But whatever their shortcomings, the MDGs mobilized unprecedented global attention and financial resources for poverty alleviation, driving policy and budgetary decisions throughout the world’s aid agencies. Several of the MDGs have already been achieved (such as halving of absolute poverty) or are on track to be met by 2015.
The global development community is now debating what should replace the MDGs when they expire in 2015. What is crystal clear is that the inherited MDG model is increasingly irrelevant to today’s development landscape:
- First, the MDG approach focuses overwhelmingly on what Western donors can do to deliver development through foreign aid. This ignores growing evidence that aid often pales in comparison to foreign investment, trade liberalization, private sector promotion, and technology transfer in laying the foundations for sustained economic growth. It also overlooks the growing role being played by non-traditional aid donors, including China, India, Brazil, and the Gulf countries, and pays insufficient attention to aligning global goals and targets to the national development priorities of the poorest countries themselves.
- Second, the world’s poor are not where they were when the UN establish targets for the MDGS. In 1990—the baseline date used for MDG targets—fully eighty percent of the world’s poor lived in stable, low income countries. Today, only 10 percent do, whereas nearly two-thirds (66 percent) live in middle-income countries and another quarter (24 percent) inhabit fragile or conflict-affected low-income countries. The implication? Making a dent in global poverty will require unprecedented collaboration with governments in middle-income nations, on the one hand, and new strategies to engage the world’s most conflict-ridden and dysfunctional countries, on the other.
- Third, any successor to the MDGs must take a more comprehensive approach to development. As the UN team spearheading global consultations has concluded, follow-on goals must target not only inclusive economic and social development but also environmental sustainability (given short shrift in the MDGs) as well as peace and security (completely ignored by the MDGs, despite being a fundamental precondition for development).
So what should replace the current MDGs?
The best practical answer to date comes from the Korean Development Institute (KDI) and the Canada-based Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), which recently released a glossy report, titled Post-2015 Development Agenda: Goals, Targets and Indicators. Don’t let the soporific title fool you. This short document is an engaging, incisive and timely contribution to debates on the future development agenda.
The authors’ eleven goals include:
- Inclusive growth for dignified livelihoods and adequate standards of living: The KDI-CIGI initiative wisely focuses on broadly shared economic growth as the sine qua non of development.
- Sufficient food and water for active living: This goal responds to growing concerns about water scarcity and food price volatility, as well as the need for adequate nutrition, not simply caloric intake.
- Appropriate education and skills for full participation in society: Whereas the MDGs focused on grade school enrollment and childhood literacy, this replacement goal encompasses secondary and tertiary education.
- Good health for the best possible physical, mental, and social well-being: The KDI-CIGI report wisely integrates all global health targets under one single goal. It also addresses not only infectious disease but the growing burden posed by non-communicable diseases. Finally, it emphasizes the importance of health system strengthening—as opposed to stove-piped, single disease interventions.
- Security for ensuring freedom from violence: Among the MDGs’ biggest lacunae was inattention to human insecurity (including war, crime, and domestic violence) as a limiting factor to development. Closing this gap is critical, particularly in engaging fragile states.
- Gender equality enabling men and women in society to participate and benefit equally in society: Reflecting the importance of women in the development process, the report calls for steps to advance the physical, economic, and decision making autonomy of women across societies.
- Resilient communities and nations through disaster risk reduction: Growing global vulnerability to natural disasters–ranging from drought to hurricanes—underlines the need for all societies to invest in preparedness and recovery systems.
- Quality infrastructure for universal access to energy, transportation and communication: In an age of globalization, development depends on connectivity. The authors thus include targets for increased access to energy, transportation networks, and communications technology.
- Empowering people to realize their civil and political rights: This proposed goal is both the most controversial and the most important. While authoritarian regimes may bluster, long-term development requires that people participate in the political process, possess civil rights, have access to rule of law, and can hold their governments accountable.
- Sustainable management of the biosphere, enabling people and the planet to thrive together: Building on the Rio+20 conference, the authors propose steps to break from “business as usual”, including putting a price on the ecological costs of economic activity.
- Global governance and equitable rules for realizing human potential: Finally, the report proposes sweeping reform of international institutions to advance development globally. This potential agenda is so massive and complex that the authors might wish to limit themselves to an even ten goals or focus on specific shortcomings in the global economy that represent enormous barriers to development.
One of the report’s most distinctive—and perhaps controversial—recommendations is that progress toward these goals be measured in all countries, including advanced market democracies. While one can imagine outcries from some sovereignty-minded conservatives about being “judged” by the international community, there is no reason the United States should not voluntarily embrace, domestically, a set of universal, non-binding goals for human betterment broadly consistent with its own political and economic ideals—as well as the development agenda it has long pursued abroad. After all, as philosopher Amartya Sen has written, the most compelling definition for development is “freedom.”