The United Nations Millennium Development Goals - broken promises or an framework for a better development policy?

Posted in Other , UN | 14-Aug-05 | Author: Carsten Michels

UN SecGen Kofi Annan: "UN must undergo the most sweeping overhaul of its 60-year history"
UN SecGen Kofi Annan: "UN must undergo the most sweeping overhaul of its 60-year history"
1. Introduction

As news agencies were preparing to report on the G8-summit in Gleneagles on the 7th of July, discussing new ways of reducing poverty, it was the British capital that tragically appeared on the front pages the next morning. Several explosions have left over 50 people dead and many more wounded. It was the most serious terrorist attack on British soil to date. The summit in the Scottish Highlands was interrupted, the resolutions made did not draw much attention, neither among statesmen nor the public. Call is cynical or not, but this is somehow symbolic for the way development issues are treated in the media. For example, what do we know about the MDGs? Not very much you might say.

Thus we have just detected the purpose of this report. It aims to give the reader an overview of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). After a few introductory comments, the goals and their targets will be listed. After giving you an idea about what progress has been made since 2000, the year in which 147 presidents, prime ministers and monarchs agreed to adopt the MDGs at the UN-millennium summit in New York, we will listen to what the critics have to say about the implementation of the MDGs and the project in general. Conclusions and recommendations will follow before this report concludes with some remarks about the MDGs and development policy itself.

2. The Millennium Goals and their Targets

The following section will list the MDGs and the 18 targets that make the MDGs more concrete. Reading this it must be taken into account that each goal should not be separated from the others. They are rather closely linked to each other and often set the precondition to achieve the goals and targets to come.

  • Goal I: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
    • Target 1: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than one Dollar a day.
    • Target 2: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
  • Goal II: Achieve universal primary education
    • Target 3: Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling
  • Goal III: Promote gender equality and empower women
    • Target 4: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferable by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015
  • Goal IV Reduce child mortality
    • Target 5: Reduce by two-thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the mortality rate for children under five years of age
  • Goal V: Improve maternal health
    • Target 6: Reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio
  • Goal VI: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
    • Target 7: Have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS
    • Target 8: Have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases
  • Goal VII: Ensure environmental sustainability
    • Target 9: Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources
    • Target 10: Halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to save drinking water and basic sanitation
    • Target 11: Have achieved by 2020 a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers
  • Goal VIII: Develop a global partnership for development
    • Target 12: Develop further an open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system (includes a commitment to good governance, development, and poverty reduction, both nationally and internationally)
    • Target 13: Address the special needs of the Least Developed Countries (includes tariff- and quota-free access for Least Developed Countries’ exports, enhanced program of debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries, cancellation of official bilateral debt, and more generous official development assistance for countries committed to poverty reduction)
    • Target 14: Address the special needs of landlocked developing countries and small island developing states (through the Program of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States and 22nd General Assembly Provisions)
    • Target 15: Deal comprehensively with the debt problem of developing countries through national and international measures in order to make debt sustainable in long term

Some of the indicators listed below are monitored separately for the least developed countries, Africa, landlocked developing countries, and small island developing states

    • Target: 16: In cooperation with developing countries, develop and implement strategies for decent productive work for youth
    • Target 17: In cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries
    • Target 18: In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communication technologies

3. Current Achievements

The question standing in the centre of virtually all discussion is: To what extend has the implementation of the MDGs been successful five years after Kofi Annan’s Millennium Declaration? Going through the various studies from development institutions, you might come to the conclusion that a proper assessment of the current situation is hardly to make. That mostly derives from difficulties in collecting data and ensuring its reliability. The following abstract will summarise the millennium development goals report by the UN, published 2005 in New York and add data collected by several other organisations. Please keep in mind that some of the data is already two or three years old. As the UN itself is the initiator of the MDGs, there might also be an inherent bias in the statistics.

Goal 1:

At first, it is widely accepted that halving the proportion of people living on less than one dollar a day will be reached be 2015. Even critical think-tanks and institutes agree on that. But if you have a closer look, you will notice a rather mixed picture. In case of Asia, “reductions in poverty were dramatic”, the UN-report states. Due to a period of rapid economic growth in the region, especially in populous countries like China and India, the number of people living on less than one dollar a day dropped by nearly a quarter of a billion from 1990 to 2001. In Latin America, extreme poverty fell slowly, whereas in Northern Africa and Western Asia, hardly anything changed. The region most affected by extreme poverty and hunger is still sub-Saharan Africa, where the situation deteriorated further and millions more fell into deep poverty. Growing numbers of people could not find productive employment opportunities, agriculture has stagnated and HIV/AIDS is killing people in their most productive years. Given the case that nearby whole generations might be eradicated, HIV/AIDS could ultimately lead to more social instability and finally to a security problem.

In the fight against hunger, the world is making progress, but it is slowing down. There has been substantial improvement in Eastern Asia, South Eastern Asia and Latin America, but Western Asia, Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa see a steady increase in people with insufficient food supply. This is mainly due to poor agricultural productivity and fast growing populations in rural areas, where farmers’ plots are too small to produce a sufficient amount of food. But also political instability and civil-wars and environmental disasters provide a hostile environment for eradicating poverty and hunger.

Goal 2:

In general, there are ten regions in which progress has been measured separately. As goal 1 indicates, it is again Sub-Saharan-Africa which has serious problems in reaching the standards. Here net enrolment ratio in primary education is only at about 60 per cent. In Oceania and Southern Asia the situation is somewhat better, but still far from satisfying. This is mainly due to large school-age populations and the fact that large proportions of children live in rural areas with particularly poor educational resources.

In contrast, the report also stresses that five regions are close to achieving universal enrolment. They are Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Asia, the Commonwealth of Independent States in Asia, Northern Africa and South-Eastern Asia, where 90 per cent of children or more are enrolled in primary school. It also becomes clear that the question of good children’s education is strongly linked to the wealth of their parents, as the report says: “Children from the richest 20 per cent of households are three times more likely to be in school than children from the poorest 20 per cent of households”. Nevertheless, the overall picture gives hope as the net enrolment ratio in most countries is increasing.

Goal 3:

What the UN means by gender equality is “equality at all levels of education and in all areas of work, equal control over resources and equal representation in public and political life”. Although countries with the widest gap between boys and girls in primary education have made progress in increasing the proportion of girls enrolled in school, regions like South-East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia still lag far behind. In those countries with poor teaching capacities and infrastructure, girls tend to be discriminated against when it comes to distributing the seats available in school. Gender disparities even tend to increase at higher levels of education and women still have a smaller share of paying jobs than men. It is still harder for women to get well paid jobs or to start their own businesses. Like the situation in the developed world, men still dominate decision-making at the highest levels, with the situation extremely bad in Oceania, Western Africa, Southern Asia and Northern Africa.

Goal 4:

Given the halving of child mortality between 1960 and 1990, one could have expected an ongoing improvement in fighting the death of children until now. Progress gave hope that child mortality could be cut by a further two thirds by 2015. In fact advances slowed in the 1990s. According to latest UNICEF-figures, the total number of children world-wide who died in 2003 before they were five was 10.6 million. Northern Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and South-Eastern Asia remained the only regions where progress maintained its rapid pace, due to economic growth, better nutrition and improved access to health care. If the overall target is still to be met, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia must undergo a drastic reduction in child deaths by strengthening weak health systems and expanding simple low-cost measures.

Goal 5:

Along with this goes the improvement of maternal health. Countries where levels of maternal mortality are already relatively low have made further progress. More worrisome is the situation in worst affected countries. Here additional resources are required to ensure that the majority of births are attended by doctors, nurses or midwives, able to prevent, detect or manage obstetric complications. But maternal health also includes the availability of a fully equipped medical facility, universal access to reproductive healthcare and family planning services. The report stresses that data available is very limited but makes some general statements: Fewer women are dying during childbirth, except the countries most affected, namely in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. Bangladesh and Egypt can be regarded as success-stories because of their substantial reduction in maternal mortality. The fact that more deliveries are attended by skilled health personnel, especially in South-Eastern Asia, Northern Africa and Eastern Asia, also gives hope, the report says.

Goal 6:

There is no doubt that HIV/AIDS poses a major threat to human life, economic wealth and at the end of the day, to the stability of regions and societies. But the MDGs also focus on the containment and eradication of other diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, which kill millions, especially young people, every year. Statistics show a steady increase in HIV prevalence world-wide. In some regions, the number has doubled in others even tripled. Globally, 4.9 million people contracted with HIV in 2004 and 31 million died. HIV is spreading fastest in the European countries of the CIS and in parts of Asia. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 7 out of 100 adults are living with HIV and the annual number of AIDS deaths is still rising. Programmes for combating HIV are most effective in those countries where the spread of the disease is still at an early stage. But inadequate resources and a lack of political leadership inhibit progress. Chances that HIV will spread in countries that have so far managed to escape are quite high, the report states.

“Malaria attacks the poorest and most defenceless,” the report says. According to a UN-map, an estimated 350-500 million people are affected each year in the north of South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, India and parts of South-East Asia. Counter-measures include the distribution of mosquito nets, which has risen sharply, and the adoption of more effective malaria drug policies, which has occurred in many countries alomg the east coast of Africa. In contrast to the developed regions, tuberculosis is spreading in most of the developing regions. World-wide, the number of tuberculosis cases has been growing by about one per cent each year.

Goal 7:

Poor people in rural areas are especially dependent on a clean and well functioning environment. Many of them have already joined the exodus to urban areas (city dwellers are about to outnumber rural populations), which has taken some pressure off the rural lands. But neither region can afford to pollute and destroy its environment. Therefore greater attention must be drawn to environmental care, which most countries at least theoretically did. “But good intentions have not resulted in sufficient progress to reverse the loss of our environmental resources,” as the following developments underline: In many regions, the cutting down of trees has come to a relative standstill, but in the poorest regions, like sub-Saharan Africa, Latin Americ, the Caribbean, South-Eastern Asia and Oceania, forests are still disappearing. In terms of access to drinking water, the situation has improved world-wide, but is still far from achieving the target. Also the sanitation coverage in the developing world rose from 34 per cent in 1990 to 49 per cent in 2002. The protection of species and habitats continues, but there are still more than 100,000 species considered under threat. As expected, rich countries are the major greenhouse-gas producers, but at the same time, ozone-depleting substances have been drastically reduced.

Goal 8:

The last goal focuses on some more general aspects, like the quantity and quality of development aid and the role of trade between developed countries and those trying to reach their standards. Therefore, progress is difficult to measure, but some comments can still be made. Accordingly the report states that development aid has reached an all-time high, but remains at a historically low level as a share of donor country income. The application of the incoming money can be seen as critical, as it is mostly going to debt relief and emergency assistance, rather than long term development needs. It is welcomed that developed countries are allowing more duty-free goods from developing countries, but tariffs on important exports from developing countries remain largely unchanged.

Humanitarian aid is disembarked from a United Nations helicopter.
Humanitarian aid is disembarked from a United Nations helicopter.
4. Difficulties – what the critics say

If the MDGs appear feasible on the global level, it does not necessarily imply that that they will be feasible in all countries. It appears quite possible that the global goal of halving poverty may well be reached, but this is just due to the rapid economic growth in the two most population-rich countries China and India. This makes global poverty estimates an unreliable source of information. The situation in many other countries, especially those in the sub-Saharan region, is much worse. It appears almost certain that the majority of countries will not meet the country level poverty targets, missing them by a wide margin. This should be accepted throughout the donor community, and taken as a basis for further development actions.

Many of the MDGs have been simply unrealistic for many countries from the start. It was expected that both the poorest and the richer countries in the developing world would perform at the same speed, sometimes at a historical high level. Some were asked to do in a decade, what richer countries took about 50 or 100 years to complete. Given the very different economic, social and historic preconditions, this method of setting the goals was just not plausible and has ultimately led to failure and disappointment. At the end of the day, creating targets that cannot be met could be counter-productive and even provide ammunition for interest groups in rich countries seeking to give up on development assistance. What was thought to be a historical turning point in development aid – the aim to put the developing world back on the top of the political agenda – could lead to an impression of failure throughout the world.

5. What can be done – a few recommendations

  • As the amount of official development assistance (ODA) is widely considered to be too low, it could be recommended to simply increase development aid, because with more money it would be easier to reach the goals in a certain period. Although there can be no doubt that aid can and will play an important role in promoting improved development outcomes, this calculation has proven false and inadequate, many development experts say. We should not create the illusion, that if only the right amount of resources can be mobilised, any goal can be met, because in fact, the link between resources and outcomes is often empirically weak.

  • Countries from the developed world should change their trade policies towards goods from developing countries. Of special interest would be a notable change in the agricultural sector: a cut in subsidies to make incoming products more competitive. That would largely contribute to more economic growth in the developing countries. The so-called “Doha-Round” could provide the framework for multilateral trade-liberalisation for agricultural and manufactured goods, as well as services.

  • To get an idea about what progress has been made and how policies must be designed to support local efforts, we must not only consider overall statistics, which try to cover the world-wide developments as a whole. Those give you a very abstract, simplified and maybe false picture of the situation in general, but tell hardly anything about what is really going on in the developing regions. Therefore, those in charge must take a closer look at a country’s background in terms of history, social, ethnic and political constellations and the government’s record in supporting the MDGs. Consequently goals should be more country-specific and flexible. This demand has at least partly been put in practice. As the MDGs are not themselves a strategy on how to achieve the goals, more than 70 low-income countries have designed their own poverty reduction strategy, incorporating those aspects of the MDGs that fit into their situation. “The MDGs will have the most hope of being met if they are tailored to country’s circumstances, emerging from an informed national dialogue and reflecting the aspirations of a broad range of country’s citizens,” the World Bank says.

  • The chairman of the UNDG working group on MDGs, Jan Vandemoortele, in his essay about the feasibility of the MDGs, lays down a further argument why we should be highly critical in drawing conclusions from statistics. It is one of the MDGs principles that progress should be made for all kinds of social groups in a country. But at the same time, it is much easier to improve the situation of the better-off and privileged people, and this is what frequently happened. Much of the progress made bypassed the poor and the poorest, which cannot be read from average statistics. Therefore again: “Analytical work is key to improving the knowledge basis for development and implementation of a national strategy,” as the World Bank puts it.

  • Consequently, each country needs its own long-term strategy. This can only be achieved by strong dialogue and frequent consultations between all partners involved, including banks, development institutions, government officials and other players. It can be a exhausting and slow process, as interests might differ and success might not be visible in the first place.

  • Nevertheless, the UN Millennium Project argues that despite all the tremendous problems long-term development faces, some short-term measures can lead to “breathtaking results”. For example, the elimination of school and uniform fees and the provision of free school meals using locally produced foods means no one is out of school because of their family’s poverty. To improve food supply, impoverished farmers could be provided with affordable replenishments of soil nitrogen and other nutrients. To see the whole programme, go to the website mentioned below-

  • The World Bank puts the promotion of economic growth at the center of the strategy and regards it as a precondition for solving many other development problems. Therefore, the climate for private activity must be improved by removing regulatory and institutional constraints as well as strengthening the infrastructure. To make investments more attractive, property rights and the rule of law, including legal and judicial reform, must be strengthened.

  • Decentralisation might also be a key to successful performance of development projects. With smaller local groups, working under their own authority, being responsible for success or failure of their project, the implementation of the MDGs can be expected to be more efficient. As a result recording data and monitoring the whole process would be much easier.

  • In financing the implementation of the MDGs, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), together with the World Bank and regional development banks, plays a crucial role. As one could have expected, this large institution has provoked many critics with its policy of linking the allocation of funds to certain economic and fiscal measures taken by a country’s government. Oxfam, to mention just one organisation, is highly critical of the IMF’s performance and calls it inflexible and conservative, “a gatekeeper for donor aid and debt relief”. E.g. the policy pursued by the IMF would harm many development goals only to serve the purpose of a fiscal surplus. Oxfam recommends the IMF should show greater flexibility in its economic targets and focus more on long-term poverty reduction than short-term macro-stability. Without predictable and reliable financing, serious project planning is hardly possible.

6. Final Comments:

In a press release on the issuing of the MDG status report, the UN secretary general Kofi Annan says: ”The year 2005 is crucial in our work to achieve the goals“. Five years after the adoption of the MDGs, the overall picture is mixed. It is certainly good news that the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by 130,000 world-wide since 1990, according to the UN’s own statistics. But there was also an increase in the number of the extreme poor in some areas, notably sub-Saharan Africa. It is believed that in all, an estimated one billion people still live below the extreme poverty line of a dollar a day in income. Having learned that most of the countries will miss the goals in 2015, what can we conclude about success, the sense or the failure of the MDG-project?

Basically there are two poles between which we find much room for the interpretation of the MDGs. The first approach considers the MDGs to be real targets for the development community, which means taking the goals literally. Hence, success in reaching the goals is closely linked to the amount of official donor aid given. The assumption is that if you provide enough money, you can produce a tremendous change in a wide range of development areas. The author finds that a very one-sided view, which given the case that the vast majority of the MDGs will hardly be reached, ultimately leads to disappointment and an undermining of the UN’s authority.

The second approach seems much for flexible and realistic. It takes the goals more as a symbol of the kinds of outcomes the development community should strive for. Therefore, aid is just one of many factors necessary for a successful development strategy. In certain cases, there may be other variables which play a much more significant role in designing a coherent strategy which fits the regional circumstances. There can be little doubt that the MDGs have provoked a new discussion about how to improve the lives of people in developing countries. They can be seen as an incentive to reverse aid decline in the aftermath of the Cold War. Sustainable aid increase has been made world-wide. But is it really a question of development aid? Should a sustainable improvement of living-conditions really depend on the budget-policies of governments in the industrialised countries, and do they really care about what is going in the poor regions of the world, given the case that only a very small minority of their voters does? It is definitely not the purpose of this newsletter to blame anyone for the failures made. But it seems that development, as it is regarded in the industrialised world, only appears when there are incentives, the capacity and the freedom to improve one’s own situation. People must be enabled to do so. To a certain extent, this can be provided by foreign aid, especially in those fields where there is almost no money to be made, like healthcare or education. Foreign aid and debt-relief can also be used to demand what is widely known as “good-governance”, which may be one of the most important pre-conditions. But long-term prosperity can only be achieved by giving the development countries the opportunity to trade under relatively fair conditions. This leads us the reduction of taxes, subsidies and other measures meaning to contain the flow of goods from the developing world. Industrialised countries should cut trade-barriers of all kind and developing countries should use the opportunity. This is probably the only way of escaping the poverty trap.

7. References:

  • Michael A. Clemens, Charles J. Kenny and Todd J. Moss of the Center for Global Development in Washington D.C have produced a working paper (No. 40, May 2004) that looks critical at the repercussions the UNMDG might have on development policy.

  • Oxfam Briefing Paper 54, September 2003: The IMF and the Millennium Goals – Failing to deliver for low income Countries, 030917_imf_mdgs.pdf

  • The Millennium Project provides a wide range of useful background information:, and some more or less comprehensive recommendations supposed to achieve quick success:

  • The official UN-website, firstly presenting an overlook about the goals and related links:, and the official documents dealing with the UNMDGs, see:

    • The report of the Secretary General about the implementation of the United Nations Millennium Declaration, which the MDGs are a part of /A/58/323) and the resolution of 18. September 2000 (A/Res/55/2)

    • More focused the report of the secretary General about the road map towards the implementation of the United Nations Millennium Declaration of 6. September 2001 (A/56/326)

  • The Millennium Development Goals Report 2005 provides the most comprehensive overview about the progress that has been made since the 1990s.

  • The UN-Development Programme and Chr. Michelsen Institute: Unleashing Capacities to Achieve the MDGs – Summary note, Bergen-Norway 2005.

  • Getting Serious About Meeting the Millennium Development Goals – A Comprehensive Development Framework Progress Report, by the Worldbank, go to:

  • Kirby, Alex: World “going to slow on poverty”. BBC-News, 22.06.2005.

  • United Nations Children’s Fund: UNICEF-report on the state of the world’s children 2005,

  • Vandemoortele, Jan: Are the MDGs feasible?, in: Development Policy Journal, Vol.3/2003, p. 1-21.

  • Wolf, Peter: Policies need clear Focus, in: Development and Cooperation, Vol. 31/2004, p. 382-385.

  • Wolff, Peter: Finanzierungsmechanismen zur Erreichung der Millennium Development Goals, in: Messner, Dirk / Scholz, Imme (Eds.): Zukunftsfragen der Entwicklungspolitik, Baden-Baden 2005, p. 301-314.