Thursday, July 2, 2015

What can be learned from the MDGs for the development of Post-2015 Development Agenda?


Fifteen years ago, in September 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as the first common international development framework was introduced and adopted by 189 UN member states (Childs 2015: n.p). From 2000 until today, the international development agenda has been centred on the MDGs which consist of eight goals which range from “eradicate extreme poverty, achieve primary education for all, promote gender equality, combat HIV/AIDS and malaria, improve maternal health, achieve environmental sustainability and build global partnership for development” (UN 2014: 6-50). Progress towards the MDGs is measured trough its 21 official targets and 60 indicators and have a deadline to be achieved by 2015 and using data in 1990 as the baseline (UN 2014: 54).

As the deadline for the MDGs approaches, the United Nations (UN) and the International Communities have started to discuss and develop a new international development framework as a continuation of the MDGs (OECD 2015: 1). In 2012, the first formal debate regarding the Sustainable Development occurred at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or often called as Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil which focused on reducing poverty, social equity and protection of environment to get to the future we want (UNCSD 2012: n.p). In March 2015, the outcome document of UNCSD entitled “The Future We Want” submitted to the UN General Assembly and consists of 17 goals ranging from ending poverty and hunger, gender equality, reducing inequality within and among countries to strengthening the means of implementation for sustainable development (UN 2015: n.p).

Another discussion and debate on the new framework for international development also facilitated by the UN by establishing the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons (HLPEP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. In July 2012, the UN Secretary General announced the 27 members of HLPEP which chaired by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron to advise on the global development framework beyond MDGs (UN 2014: n.p). In May 2013, the outcome document of the HLPEP entitled “A New Global Partnership” submitted to the UN Secretary General and consists of 12 goals such as: ending poverty, gender equality, quality education for all, healthy lives, good governance, ensure stable and peaceful societies and long-term finance for development (UN 2013: 32-59).

Currently, the UN is still in the process of defining the new framework for global development agenda based on several inputs and recommendations from the SDG Open Working Group, the HLPEP and other parallel processes (Anderson 2013: n.p). The new agenda will be launched at the UN Summit for the Adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda at 25-27 September 2015 (IISD 2015: n.p).

According to Moss (2010, as cited by Melamed and Scott 2011: 1) a key component for the Post-2015 Development Agenda is learning and examining the success and failure of the MDGs. In doing so, this paper aimed at discussing lesson learned from the implementation and achievement of the MDGs, commitment of under-developed, developing, and developed countries to the MDGs, process and outputs of the HLPEP on the Post-2015 Development Agenda and Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, criticism to the MDGs and finally what should be done in order to achieve the real global development trough the new international development framework.

Millennium Development Goals

At the UN Millennium Summit – the largest gathering of world leaders in history – on 18 September 2000, the MDGs were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and 189 countries signed up to the resolution or UN Millennium Declaration [A/RES/55/2] and committing themselves to eradicate extreme poverty by 2015 (Rigg 2008: 30; Unicef 2014: n.p). To help track progress toward this commitment, the Millennium Development Goals, a time-bound and quantified goals, targets and indicators were developed for combating poverty in many dimensions (UNMP 2006: n.p; Unicef 2014: n.p). Trough their goals, targets and indicators, the MDGs have two main purposes; firstly the MDGs act as a global norm to mobilise development assistance resources from around the world and secondly as a commitment to hold donor communities and governments to work together to achieve the goals (Save the Children 2012: 1-2).

In the 2014 report, several achievements have been highlighted such as: the MDGs have succeeded in halving global poverty in 2010 or five years ahead of the time frame by reducing the number of people living under extreme poverty by 700 million, almost all children (ninety percent) in developing countries enjoy primary education, disparities in enrolment between girls and boys have narrowed significantly, the MDGs saved about 17.000 children every day and the world also succeeded in improving access to sources of drinking water for more than 2.3 billion people (UN 2015: 3-4).

On the other hand, the Report also acknowledges that despite the achievements have been made, more effort is needed to achieve several targets and to overcome the significant gaps and disparities within and among countries. Several targets that need more efforts such as: one in four young children (or 162 million in total) is still affected chronic under-nutrition, child and maternal mortality, improved sanitation facilities as about a billion people still resorted to open defecation which affects community lives negatively, and special attention must be given to Africa as according to World Bank projections, sub-Saharan Africa will not meet the MDGs by 2015 (UN 2015: 4-9).

Criticism to the MDGs

In spite of their achievements and strengths such as: simplicity, measurability, deadline-driven, consensus-driven and data improvements (Higgins 2013: 3), the MDGs also have been globally criticised. Melamed and Scott (2011: 2-4) point out several weaknesses of the MDGs such as: MDGs are donor-led agenda, miss out on important dimensions of development and neglect the poorest and the most vulnerable people. Clemens and Moss (2005: n.p) supported by Easterly (2008: 26-35) argue that the MDGs are unfair to Africa and Africa will not meet any of the goals. MDGs have also been criticised because of the low commitment from the UN member countries. Data from OECD (2008) show that most of rich countries failed to fulfill the 0,7% of GNI for development assistance. In addition, Harris and Provost (2013: n.p) state that the MDGs are a minimalist interpretation of the Millennium Declaration and leaving out important issues such as security and peace.

MDGs are donor-led
One of the limitations of the MDGs is “donor-driven agenda”. Small group of donor country experts dominated the process for developing and establishing the goals, targets and indicators (Higgins 2013: 3).  In addition, Melamed and Scott (2011: 2) also contend that donor-driven agenda is a major criticism of the MDGs because MDGs pay little attention to local context. Easterly (2009, as cited by Melamed and Scott 2011: 2) gives example that MDGs stigmatise and penalise the poorest countries where meeting the goals is a great challenge.

This is in line with the politics of international aid in the implementation of the MDGs. Example of this is the new development policy of Australia. It stated in the Australian aid framework that the goal of the foreign aid investments is to achieve Australia’s national interest (DFAT 2015: n.p). Lasenksy (2003: n.p) also gives example on how foreign aid serves the US national interest by reducing aid for MDGs and channelled more aid in the war against terrorism and the fact that the largest recipient of American foreign aid is Israel, a wealthy country.  

Miss out crucial dimensions
Melamed and Scott (2011: 2) identify several missing dimension of the MDGs including the quality of education, climate change, economic growth, human rights, good governance, infrastructure and security.  In addition, German Watch (2010: 8) illustrates the missing dimensions of the MDGs especially when the MDG Agenda meets the Climate Agenda. These including: climate security, energy security, economic security and human security.  There are synergies and trade-offs in tackling the agendas, therefore it’s important to align the MDGs and Climate actions such as: fighting poverty and promoting renewable energy (German Watch 2010: 8).

The root of this is the minimalist interpretation to the Millennium Declaration. The Millennium Declaration and the MDGs are two different documents. The Millennium Declaration was internationally agreed, but the MDGs were not (Sumner 2011: 2). It can be seen from the Millennium Declaration that most of the crucial dimensions such as: international peace and security, human rights, good governance and economic growth were already stated in the declaration (UN 2000: n.p) but failed to be interpreted to the MDGs (Harris and Provost 2013: n.p).

Neglect the poorest and the vulnerable
The achievements of the MDGs are based on average progress at national and global levels (Melamed and Scott 2011: 2). With this approach, the MDG progress may look impressive in some countries, while the very poorest is actually getting worse (Murphy 2015: n.p; Melamed and Scott 2011: 2).  Jones, Holmes and Espey (2008: 1-4) point out that in the MDGs, however, gender is only explicit in goal 3 in education, employment and legislative and goal 5 in maternal mortality whereas the other MDG indicators are gender-blind. A failure to deal with gender issues will become a barrier in achieving MDGs (Jones, Holmes and Espey 2008: 1-4).

MDGs are unfair to Africa
Easterly (2008: 26-27) argues that the MDGs are poorly designed to measure achievement and progress against poverty and the design makes Africa look worse than it really is. Moreover, Easterly (2008: 26-27) also argues that some African successes are portrayed as failures because of the way in which the MDG targets and indicators are set.  

In addition, Moyo (2009, as cited by Edemariam 2009: n.p) argues that Africa has not benefitted by the foreign aid and international development practice provided. It has not made Africa better off, despite receiving more than $ 1 trillion from the donor countries. Moreover, when aid was at its peak in Africa between 1970 -1998, the poverty rate in Africa rose significantly from 11% to 66% or about 600 million people are now trapped in poverty  (Edemariam 2009: n.p). According to the UN Word Summit Declaration in 2005, Africa is the only continent not on track to meet any of the goals of the MDGs by 2015 (Easterly 2008: 26).

Lack of commitment
 The word “commitment” is one of the keywords in the values and principles of the Millennium Declaration (UN 2000: n.p). Moreover, one of the fundamental values to be essential in the Millennium Declaration is “shared responsibility” which means that responsibility for managing worldwide social and economic development as well as international peace and security must be shared among the nations (UN 2000: n.p).

On the other hand, the 0.7% target which refers to the commitment of the rich countries to commit 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) to Official Development Assistant (ODA) failed to be fulfilled by the rich countries (UNMP 2006: n.p). Furthermore, Shah (2014: n.p) analyses that since 1970 – when the world’s rich countries agreed on the 0.7% target – rich countries have rarely met the promised target and in reality, both quality and quantity of aid have been generally poor.

Outputs of the Post-2015 dialogues:

There two main processes facilitated by the UN for the development of a new international development framework: The High Level Panel of Eminent Person on the Post-2015 Development Agenda and The Open Working Group for Sustainable Development Goals.

The High Level Panel of Eminent Person on the Post-2015 Development Agenda
In July 2012, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, tasked Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and David Cameron to chair a twenty-seven person panel to make recommendations on the development agenda beyond 2015 (UN 2013: n.p). In their report entitled A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development, they concluded that the post-2015 agenda is a universal agenda and needs to be driven by five big transformative shifts: “leave no one behind, put sustainable development at core, transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth, build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all and forge a new global partnership” (UN 2013: 7-9).

In all, the chairs reviewed recommendations for goals and targets from over 5000 civil society organisations including grassroots and global organisations, working in about 120 countries, consulted the CEOs of 250 companies in 30 countries, scholars from developing and developed countries, international, national and local NGOs and also parliamentarians (UN 2013: 2).

On May 2013, Yudhoyono, the Panel’s co-chair handed over the report to UN Secretary General (UNSG 2014: n.p). The report contains 12 universal goals along with 54 targets and comparing to the MDGs, they are more integrated and linked (Roth 2013: n.p). The goals are:

Proposed goals
No of targets
End poverty
4 targets
Empower girls and women and achieve gender equality
4 targets
Provide quality education and lifelong learning
4 targets
Ensure healthy lives
5 targets
Ensure food security and good nutrition
5 targets
Achieve universal access to water and sanitation
4 targets
Secure sustainable energy
4 targets
Create jobs, sustainable livelihoods, and equitable growth
4 targets
Manage natural resource assets sustainably
5 targets
Ensure good governance and effective institutions
5 targets
Ensure stable and peaceful societies
4 targets
Create a global enabling environment and catalyze long-term finance
6 targets

TOTAL: 12 Goals
54 targets
Source: HLPEP Report “A New Global Partnership” (UN 2013: 30-31)

Open Working Group for Sustainable Development Goals (Rio+20)
The main outcome of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) which held in Brazil in June 2012 was the agreement to develop a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) (UNDESA: 2015: n.p). The Open Working Group (OWG), a 30-member of the General Assembly which was established on 22 January 2013 and is tasked to prepare a proposal on the SDGs has finalised their proposal to the UN General Assembly and proposed 17 goals for a new international development framework (UNDESA 2015: n.p). The goals are:

Proposed goals
No of targets
End poverty in all its forms everywhere
5 targets, 2 MoI
End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
5 targets, 3 MoI
Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
9 targets, 4 MoI
Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
7 targets, 3 MoI
Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
6 targets, 3 MoI
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
6 targets, 2 MoI
Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
3 targets, 2 MoI
Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
10 targets, 2 MoI
Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
5 targets, 3 MoI
Reduce inequality within and among countries
7 targets, 3 MoI
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
7 targets, 3 MoI
Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
8 targets, 3 MoI
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts*
3 targets, 2 MoI
Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
7 targets, 3 MoI
Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
9 targets, 3 MoI
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
10 targets, 2 MoI
Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
19 targets

TOTAL 17 goals                                                 169 Targets (126 outcome targets, 43 MoI)

MoI = Means of Implementations | Source: UNDESA 2015, UN Habitat 2015

What need to be done?

In developing the new framework after MDGs, by learning the process, success and failure of the MDGs above, the new development framework must tackle the most pressing development problems and must reflect current thinking of aid and development (Melamed and Scott 2011: 2). In addition, Harris and Provost (2013: n.p) contend that the new framework must have better data and statistic and the need to ensure that the targets must be met by all social and economic group.

Tackle the most pressing global issues
The MDGs, current development framework, were debated in 1990s and agreed in 2000 when most people lived in rural areas, poor people lived in poor countries, no concern of climate change, far from political issue that it is today (Melamed and Scott 2011: 2). Now the world looks quite different with many poor people living in middle income countries, and huge inequality within and among nations. Some key issues need to be addressed such as: urbanisation, climate change, chronic poverty and inequality, jobs, equitable growth, security and governance (Higgins 2013: 3; Denney 2012: 1-7; Melamed and Scott 2011: 3). Example of inequality can be drawn from Indonesia, a developing and middle income country. A study conducted in 2010 by an NGO revealed that the wealth of the top 40 richest people in Indonesia was equivalent of 10.3 percent of the national GDP and also equalled the wealth of 60 million of the poorest people (Wasono 2014: n.p). 

Reflect current thinking of aid and development
The current development framework is donor-driven agenda and based on donor-recipient model of aid (Higgins 2013: 3; Melamed and Scott 2011: 3). With the most of poor people now living in middle income countries and the rise of new challenge such as climate change and security concerns, the donor-recipient model may no longer suitable for to end poverty (Melamed and Scott 2011: 4).

Country ownership
MDGs have been successful in their average achievement at the global level but less successful at the country-level. With this fact, and also in line with the need of current thinking of development above, country ownership to the new framework need to be strengthened (Kenny 2014: n.p; Higgins 2013: 3)

Data Revolution
The need for a “data revolution” was first expressed by the report of the HLPEP on Post-2015 Development Agenda. The report calls “for a data revolution for sustainable development with an international initiative to improve the quality of information and statistics” in all countries by taking advantage of new technology to strengthen accountability and assist the decision-making process (HLPEP Report 2014: 21-24; Harris and Provost 2013).

Fulfill the commitments
Learning from the failure of the MDGs to attract commitment from rich countries to give the 0.7% target and commitment from underdeveloped and developing countries to work hard to achieve the MDGs targets, the HLPEP Report points out the importance of sharing commitment and accountability to achieve the new targets in 2030 (HLPEP Report 2013: 27). Moreover, Higgins (2013: 3) argues that the new framework must have specific quantitative targets or deadline for rich countries to meet to bind the industrialised countries with different commitments.


It is indubitable that MDGs show some major achievements at global level but the achievements cannot be generalise as a success of MDGs in most countries because the poorest and most vulnerable people are actually getting worse and the targets cannot be met in most of African countries.

The world is changing and facing different development issues compare to the world issues in 1990s when the MDGs discussed, debated and agreed. Learning from these facts, several parallel processes with the participation of multi-stakeholders have been facilitated by the UN and resulted several new ambitious goals and targets to be started in 2015 and achieved in 2030.

Learning from the minimalist interpretation of the Millennium Declaration to the MDGs, the new international development framework need to combine the proposals resulted from the long process both in the HLPEP and the OWG-SDGs and come up with new paradigm and commitment.

Written by: Agung Wasono (June 2015)


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