Foreign Affairs: Millennium Dev Goals


Own the Goals: What the Millennium Goals Have Accomplished

By John W. McArthur, March/April 2013.

For more than a decade, the Millennium Development Goals — a set of time-bound targets agreed on by heads of state in 2000 — have unified, galvanized, and expanded efforts to help the world’s poorest people. The overarching vision of cutting the amount of extreme poverty worldwide in half by 2015, anchored in a series of specific goals, has drawn attention and resources to otherwise forgotten issues. The MDGs have mobilized government and business leaders to donate tens of billions of dollars to life-saving tools, such as antiretroviral drugs and modern mosquito nets. The goals have promoted cooperation among public, private, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), providing a common language and bringing together disparate actors. In his 2008 address to the UN General Assembly, the philanthropist Bill Gates called the goals “the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that I have ever seen.”

The goals will expire on December 31, 2015, and the debate over what should come next is now in full swing. This year, a high-level UN panel, co-chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, will put forward its recommendations for a new agenda. The United States and other members of the UN General Assembly will then consider these recommendations, with growing powers, such as Brazil, China, India, and Nigeria, undoubtedly playing a major role in forging any new agreement. But prior to deciding on a new framework, the world community must evaluate exactly what the MDG effort has achieved so far.


The MDGs are the first global framework anchored in an explicit partnership between developed and developing countries.

The MDGs are not a monolithic policy following a single trajectory. Ultimately, they are nothing more than goals, established by world leaders and subsequently reaffirmed on multiple occasions. The MDGs were not born with a plan, a budget, or a specific mapping out of responsibilities. Many think of the MDGs as the UN’s goals, since the agreements were established at UN summits and UN officials have generally led the follow-up efforts for coordination and reporting. But the reality is much more complicated. No single individual or organization is responsible for achieving the MDGs. Instead, countless public, private, and nonprofit actors-working together and independently, in developed and developing countries — have furthered the goals. Amid this complexity, the achievements toward reaching the MDGs are all the more impressive. The goals have brought the diffuse international development community closer together.

Before the MDGs were crafted, there was no common framework for promoting global development. After the Cold War ended, many rich countries cut their foreign aid budgets and turned their focus inward, on domestic priorities. In the United States, for example, the foreign aid budget hit an all-time low in 1997, at 0.09 percent of gross national income. Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s, institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) encouraged developed and developing countries to scale back spending on public programs-in the name of government efficiency-as a condition for receiving support.

The results were troubling. Africa suffered a generation of stagnation, with rising poverty and child deaths and drops in life expectancy. Economic crises and the threat of growing inequality plagued Asia and Latin America. The antiglobalization movement gained such force that in November and December 1999, at what has come to be called “the Battle in Seattle,” street protesters forced the World Trade Organization to cancel major meetings midstream.

The suspicions on the part of civil society carried over into policy debates. In the late 1990s, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development proposed “international development goal” benchmarks for donor efforts. The OECD’s proposal was later co-signed by leaders of the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN. In response, Konrad Raiser, then head of the World Council of Churches, hardly a fire-breathing radical, wrote UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to convey astonishment and disappointment that Annan had endorsed a “propaganda exercise for international finance institutions whose policies are widely held to be at the root of many of the most grave social problems facing the poor all over the world.”

That proposal never got off the ground, but the international community made other progress in the lead-up to 2000 that helped set the groundwork for the MDGs. Most notably, G-8 leaders took a major step forward when they crafted a debt-cancellation policy at their 1999 summit in Cologne, Germany. Under this new policy, countries could receive debt relief on the condition that they allocated savings to education or health. This helped reorient governments toward spending in social sectors after many years of cutbacks.

At the 2000 UN Millennium Summit, which was the largest gathering of world leaders to date, heads of state accepted that they needed to work together to assist the world’s poorest people. Looking at the challenges of the new century, all the UN member states agreed on a set of measurable, time-bound targets in the Millennium Declaration. In 2001, these targets were organized into eight MDGs: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and forge global partnerships among different countries and actors to achieve development goals. Each goal was further broken down into more specific targets. For example, the first goal involves cutting in half “between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day.”

In practical terms, the MDGs were actually launched in March 2002, at the UN International Conference on Financing for Development, in Monterrey, Mexico. The attendees, including heads of state, finance ministers, and foreign ministers, agreed that developed countries should step in with support mechanisms and adequate financial aid to help poor countries committed to good governance meet the MDG targets. Crucially, leaders set a benchmark for burden sharing when they urged “developed countries that have not done so to make concrete efforts towards the target of 0.7 percent of gross national income (GNI) as official development assistance to developing countries.” At the time of the conference, the 22 official OECD donor countries allocated an average of 0.22 percent of GNI to aid. Thus, working toward a 0.7 target implied more than tripling total global support. The Monterrey conference established the MDGs as the first global framework anchored in an explicit, mutually agreed-on partnership between developed and developing countries. …

For complete article, see John W. McArthur, Own the Goals, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2013.

(Emphasis added)