International flags wave below the UN's headquarters in New York
International flags wave below the UN's headquarters in New York © Bloomberg

When world leaders gather in New York this month at the UN General Assembly, they are set to endorse an ambitious package of global economic, social and environmental objectives for the coming 15 years.

The aims include ending poverty in all its forms everywhere; providing inclusive and equitable quality education for all; achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls; taking urgent action to combat climate change; conserving and sustainably using the oceans; and ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for all.

These sustainable development goals (SDGs) sound bold, perhaps even naively idealistic, but there is a precedent: the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ratified by their predecessors at the start of the century, which spanned poverty, hunger, education, health and the environment.

Since then, radical changes in thinking, evolutions within countries and political shifts in governance have overhauled the process of selecting — and the underlying substance — of the international agenda. Yet experts remain divided on the value of the MDGs in the past, and whether the SDGs will have any greater impact in the future.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s secretary-general, summed up the effects of the eight MDGs in a final evaluation report this year as “the most successful anti-poverty movement in history”. On paper, at least as far as the data can be relied upon, there has indeed been significant progress in achieving the goals endorsed in 2000. Extreme poverty in developing countries has fallen from 47 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent this year, while annual global deaths of children under five have halved to 6m.

Yet even on their own terms, the achievements have fallen short of the goals. Despite the positive spin in the UN evaluation report, on current trends it will take another decade for child mortality to fall by the target of two-thirds, for instance. Many of those most in need of the MDGs — the poorest and those living in fragile, conflict-torn states — benefited least.

Just as important is how far the MDGs themselves have influenced what successes have been achieved. Most notably, if the single-greatest driver of declining global poverty since the turn of the millennium was the remarkable internal economic growth of China, then the MDGs had next to no influencing role.

An analysis by the economist Howard Friedman in 2013 concluded that there was no global acceleration towards most of the development goals after 2000. And among a subset that did progress, the acceleration had generally occurred in the 1990s, before the MDGs were even launched.

However, Mr Friedman pointed out that the goals could have crystallised existing development beliefs and practices, and some individual countries and regions may have achieved accelerated progress after 2000 because of their influence.

For Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a US think-tank, even any marginal gains attributable to the MDGs should not be dismissed. “At the global level, such change can still amount to millions of lives saved or improved,” he argues.

In some areas, the MDGs were at least a corollary of a broader trend. They reflected, if not determined, policy and funding shifts by richer donors and poorer recipient countries alike. In health, for instance, international development assistance more than trebled after 2000, with the creation of new multilateral agencies and bilateral funding commitments to maternal and child health and infectious diseases.

Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré, minister of health and social development in Mali at the start of the millennium and now head of the Roll Back Malaria partnership, says: “At first the MDGs created a lot of anxieties, with people thinking they were too ambitious. But they became excited, countries advocated better and mobilised their parliamentarians. If you look at what has been achieved, it’s because of the focus of the UN on bringing all partners on board and really agreeing on goals.”

However, William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University, remains sceptical. “The MDGs communicated a very wrong idea about how development happens: technocratic, patronising and magically free of politics,” he says. “It’s not about western saviours but homegrown efforts linked to a gradual extension of political freedom.”

There was at least some attempt to reflect such concerns in the drafting of the SDGs, which involved a far more extensive consultation and debate over many months, and ensured a larger voice for developing countries.

Yet the result has been an explosion in the number of overall goals from eight to 17, and of specific targets from 18 to 169. Some fear that whatever benefits the MDGs had will be diluted and further progress on them set back. Mr Easterly says: “The SDGs are a mushy collection of platitudes that will fail on every dimension. They make me feel quite nostalgic for the MDGs.”

In a recent evaluation, the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council argued that less than a third of the SDG goals were “well developed”, with some objectives not quantified and many containing contradictory trade-offs and unintended consequences.

Jamie Drummond, head of One, a development advocacy group, argues that much greater emphasis on data is needed: swiftly collecting, using and sharing reliable and high-quality information using technology to monitor and assess progress and hold policymakers to account.

There are wider concerns about implementation. Derek Yach, chief health officer of the Vitality Institute, an insurance company, worries that while the involvement of the private sector will be essential to delivering the SDGs, it is struggling to find a voice in the process. “Ownership of the SDGs has to be well beyond government, but there is not a mechanism in the UN for non-state partners,” he says.

So far, against a backdrop of slower global growth and disparate national interests, governments have been slow to signal there is an appetite to fund the SDGs. There were strong words but few additional resources pledged this summer at the UN Financing for Development meeting in Addis Ababa, for instance. And there are also mixed views on the likely progress that may be made at the Paris climate change conference in December.

US economist Jeffrey Sachs, a longstanding advocate of the MDGs, concedes that the new goals will not be easy to implement. But he argues: “The SDGs are a very broad and complex agenda. Whether it can work out is an open question. But there is now an amazing amount of discussion. There is a sense that this is a sensible framework. I’m not saying a new dawn has broken, but at least governments are saying we need to try.”

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