from Development Channel

Question of the Week: The Millennium Development Goals

Dusabe Munyarugamba, 16, carries a container of water on her head at Bukima, just north of the eastern Congolese city of Goma,...ters into a cave using burning shoots of grass to light their way into the muddy darkness (Finbarr O'Reilly/Courtesy Reuters).

September 25, 2012

Dusabe Munyarugamba, 16, carries a container of water on her head at Bukima, just north of the eastern Congolese city of Goma,...ters into a cave using burning shoots of grass to light their way into the muddy darkness (Finbarr O'Reilly/Courtesy Reuters).
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What impact have the Millennium Development Goals had, and what should follow them after they expire?

Question of the Week posts review important questions and controversies in global development by providing background information and links to a full spectrum of analysis and opinion. Today’s post explores debates over the Millennium Development Goals, their track record, and their future.

With 2015 rapidly approaching, governments, NGOs, and multilateral organizations are increasingly focusing on the legacy of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—and what should follow them after they expire that year. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations (UN) recently appointed a high-level panel to help craft a post-2015 agenda, and a range of processes and proposals are already on the table. Participants and observers are debating the MDGs’ impact and how a future set of global development aspirations might better promote opportunities for the world’s poor. Indeed, questions over the ability of the international community to adequately fund existing MDGs featured prominently at the UN General Assembly last week.

The MDGs arose from the Millennium Declaration, a sweeping document adopted by 189 world leaders in 2000. The declaration’s language on bolstering development and reducing global poverty led in 2001 to the Millennium Development Goals, a series of measurable objectives for poverty reduction, improvements in health and education, and other steps. The goals’ importance may lie in their form as much as their substance. “It is important to note that all these goals, and their subsidiary targets and benchmarks, were expressed and signed up to in some form by major member states in the years before 2000. But these pledges always suffered from a lack of momentum, petered out, or went largely unnoticed,” former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan writes.

The MDGs comprise eight goals:

  1. “Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger”
  2.  “Achieve universal primary education”
  3.  “Promote gender equality and empower women”
  4.  “Reduce child mortality”
  5.  “Improve maternal health”
  6.  “Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases,”
  7.  “Ensure environmental sustainability”
  8.  “Develop a global partnership for development”

The goals are measured by 21 targets and 60 indicators. For instance, one of three targets measuring the first goal is to “halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than one dollar a day.” In turn, one of four indicators measuring that target is the percentage of the population that lives on less than $1 a day.

What headway has been made on these goals? As 2015 approaches, the results are mixed. On the one hand, specific signs of progress are clear. “The target of reducing extreme poverty by half has been reached five years ahead of the 2015 deadline, as has the target of halving the proportion of people who lack dependable access to improved sources of drinking water,” explains Ban Ki-moon in a report. He also praises progress on gender parity in primary school enrollment, slum conditions, and reducing child and maternal mortality.

However, progress in many other areas is less certain, and it has been uneven among regions and countries. For instance, while the target for “access to improved drinking water sources” has been slightly exceeded globally (89 percent of the global population now has access, just over the 88 percent target), this is hardly the case everywhere. “Only 61 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to improved water supply sources compared with 90 percent or more in Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern Africa, and large parts of Asia,” report the WHO and UNICEF. In November 2011, the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) put forth an “MDG Acceleration Framework,” noting that “many countries are likely to miss some MDGs and associated targets unless they make urgent additional efforts and take corrective action.”

Arguably, the MDGs have had an influence beyond specific outcomes by altering conversations about international development. “The MDGs have become the standard reference point around which international debates on development revolve. They are used as a proxy to judge progress in tackling global poverty,” says Sakiko Fukuda-Parr of the New School, mentioning how international organizations, economists, nonprofits, the media, and others incorporate the MDGs into their work. “Political leaders make speeches defending policy initiatives with the warning: ‘without such and such action the MDGs will not be achieved,’” she writes.

A big question is how the MDGs will be realized, a matter of both funding and policy. Much of the funding for MDG-related efforts comes from official development assistance (ODA)—donor countries’ aid to multilateral institutions and developing countries. In the MDG framework, ODA is not only a means to an end: it is also a target to be reached in itself. Goal 8 is to “Develop a global partnership for development,” and one of the targets to reach this goal “includes…more generous ODA for countries committed to poverty reduction.” The official 2012 UN report on the Millennium Development Goals reports that net aid in 2011 fell in real terms from 2010, though. And donors generally fail to meet the longstanding UN objective of sending 0.7 percent of their gross national income to ODA. In 2011, for instance, the principal donors gave a combined total of 0.31 percent. At the same time, critics of the focus on ODA argue that rich country policies regarding trade, investment, and private capital flows have a far more significant impact on development outcomes in emerging economies than does foreign aid, yet the world’s major economies have so far failed to ink any major agreements in these areas that would put achieving the MDGs at the center of the agenda.

Indeed, the coming expiration of the MDGs in 2015 is sparking significant discussion about the policies that have—and have not—led to successful development and antipoverty outcomes. Civil society actors, scholars, activists, and others are trying to make their voices heard about what the MDGs have accomplished and what should come after them. Various individuals and groups are seeking to address not just poverty but also sustainability in any successor goals, to include more perspectives from the global South in the goal formulation process, to better address poverty in urban areas, and more. On the Development Channel, Alicia Ely Yamin of the Harvard School of Public Health recently expressed concerns about ensuring civil society participation in the post-2015 process, for example.

What do you think?

Is progress in poverty reduction more a result of MDG-inspired programs or of economic growth that would have occurred anyway? Did the goals lead to substantive policy shifts within governments and multilateral institutions, or did these institutions simply adopt rhetorical changes to satisfy the donor community? Should donor countries contribute more to the MDGs, and should Goal 8 be included in the next set of development goals? What should a future set of goals—and the process to define them—look like? As 2015 approaches, these are some of the most pressing questions in global development, and ones that the Development Channel will continue to explore in the coming weeks. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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