The Millennium Development Goals 12 Years On: An Honest Assessment

As the turn of the 21st century fast approached, almost a decade had passed since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Arguably, the intensity of globalisation in the 1990s has enabled many to be increasingly inter-connected. However, despite lingering change and uncertainty, one thing has been clear: the public’s trepidation and preoccupation with the possibility of nuclear war and Cold War politics has been supplanted by a growing awareness and conviction that global issues such as human rights and the cultivation of a sustainable future represented the greatest challenges to humanity’s progress. The highly publicised ‘Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)’ proved to be the world’s response.

Image courtesy of Arne Hoel/World Bank, © 2010, some rights reserved.

 The Millennium Development Goals

Established at the Millennium Summit in 2000 and grounded in the International Bill of Human Rights, the MDGs can be found in a UN resolution. It is composed of eight international development goals that 191 (189 originally) nations hope to achieve by the year 2015, and are designed to help the world’s poorest countries. The sub-composition of these eight goals contains twenty-one ‘targets’. The stated objective of the declaration is “to promote a comprehensive approach and a coordinated strategy, tackling many problems simultaneously across a broad front”.  The MDGs are now widely regarded as the de facto fulcrum of economic and sustainable development in the 21st century. They are as follows[1]:

1)      Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger

2)      Achieving universal primary education

3)      Promoting gender equality and empowering women

4)      Improving child mortality rates

5)      Improving maternal health

6)      Combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

7)      Ensuring environmental sustainability

8)      Developing a global partnership for development

 Where do we stand?

As the 12th anniversary of the adoption of the MDGs came and passed this September, it is important to take a step back and assess their progress for two major reasons. An objective evaluation allows us to establish areas of policy lacking direction, resources and overall effectiveness, while also identifying successes.

On some issues, the question as to whether the MDGs have been successful surely must be an unequivocal ‘Yes’. MDG 1’s stated goal is to “halve the number of people making less than a dollar a day (USD); (increase) decent employment opportunities”; and, “halve the number of people suffering from extreme hunger”. In Sub-Saharan Africa, size and frequency of famine has been steadily decreasing, correlating directly with the prevalence of the ‘New Rice for Africa (NERICA)’[2]. By cross-breeding various cultivar of rice, Western Africa in particular has seen a drastic rise in GDP per capita and food security. Moreover, the number of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced by almost half a billion.

MDG 4’s stated objectives are to improve the infant (under one year of age) and under-5 mortality rates (IMR and U-5MR respectively). Pre-dating the MDGs, most African countries had infant mortality rates around 100 per 1000 births, abysmally poor when considering most western countries had an IMR no higher than 10 per 1000 births. MDG 4 is important because it is an exception to the lack of statistical and baseline data plaguing the rest of the charter. The trauma and memories associated with the loss of a child assures the IMR, as measured by household surveys, is likely to be accurate. These systemic implications should have a profound impact on the type of aid policymakers draft in 2015 (the “post-MDG era”). This contrasts sharply with MDG 6, aimed at “combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases”. Most objective observers would classify this as a miserable failure, but it is not for a lack of coordination or effort. There is a consensus among researchers that there is a worrying lack of data that makes it impossible to assess MDG 6 goals. Assessment techniques currently rely on household surveys carried out by MSF (Médicins sans Frontières) and UNICEF, which provide incomplete or false data. Incidentally a subsequent health study by the WHO in 2007 is yet to be published. Their present explanation is as follows: “(it is) too soon to determine whether the global burden of malaria…has increased or decreased since 2000”[3]. Coupled with the fact that only one sub-Saharan country maintains records meeting UN standards, MDG 6 was probably doomed to fail before it began.

While only providing a brief commentary on the MDGs, it certainly does not appear that most goals will be achieved in the hoped-for timeframe, which is certainly a disappointment that has and will continue to arouse pessimism and criticism. I think it is important to note that the very nature of goals often makes them highly elusive. They represent ‘benchmarks’ to which the individual and humanity can and should aspire. Critics will be quick to classify the MDGs and indeed the larger body of philanthropy as simply a rhetorical call to arms. This is a powerful accusation, which seems to warrant a response.


[1] U.N. General Assembly 55/2. United Nations Millennium Declaration (2000) [Establishing MDGs]. UN. 23 Sept 2012.

[2] John Birchall. “Cooperatives and the Millennium Development Goals.” Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives. 15 Sept 2012.

[3] Samir Amin. (2006). The Millennium Development Goals: A Critique from the South. 20 Sept 2012.

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