Why – so far – the Millennium Development Goals have been a success

23 Aug 2011

Fishermen bring in the daily catch in south-eastern Viet Nam. Fishermen bring in the daily catch in south-eastern Viet Nam. Photo: Tran Vinh Nghia/UNDP

The world has 1,520 days to achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – eight commitments that were agreed upon at the turn of the century with the aim of creating better living conditions for all.

The MDGs were criticized when they were first adopted.  They continue to be criticized. Some believe they lack ambition, others say that they are unrealistic. Many have pointed out that they do not adequately consider unjust conditions in areas such as trade, investment and debt. Others have pointed to a weak emphasis on environment and climate issues, or that the goals are isolated indicators of poverty.

Despite the criticism – and the fact that we do not yet know whether the goals will be achieved globally – we can, in my opinion, state that the MDGs have been a phenomenal success in two ways.  First, they have contributed to ensuring that a majority of developing countries are giving increased priority to policies that put people at the center: freedom from hunger, education for all, basic healthcare, clean drinking water. Around the world, the goals have guided budget decisions and law-making processes. As such the MDGs have contributed to a significant shift.  Growth, investment, asphalt and megawatts are all well and good, but they are only means. The fact that some have confused the goals with a development strategy cannot be blamed on the goals themselves.

Second, the goals have made a significant global impact. They have created a common agenda that unites countries across geography, interests and income levels. Despite the many challenges in international negotiations, the cooperation on specific goals has contributed to increased focus on results and on measures that actually work. The climate change conference in Copenhagen collapsed because of conflicting interests, whereas the MDG Summit in New York, nine months later, focused on sharing experiences. How did Brazil manage to reduce hunger so dramatically? What was the secret to reducing maternal mortality in Rwanda? The Summit re-established a lot of the confidence in the United Nations as a global forum for solving global challenges.

Beyond 2015 it is essential that the international community agrees to a new joint development agenda. The alternative to having a set of common goals is deeper fragmentation, less cooperation and weaker results. What kind of goals do we need? Should they focus on providing the poorest with a more dignified life, but also consider challenges such as discrimination and the environment, a sort of 2.0 version of the current MDGs? Or do we instead choose an agenda for all of us, where we include targets to reduce rich countries' ecological footprint and strengthen the protection of human rights globally?

Only the United Nations can create legitimacy for a set of post-2015 goals. We are therefore ready to support a process that can give the world what is needed at the end of 2015: a set of ambitious and relevant goals that can inspire everyone: political leaders, NGOs, the private sector, you and me.

By Olav Kjørven, Assistant Secretary-General and Director of UNDP's Bureau for Development Policy

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