Leaping Forward: From MDGs to SDGs and Transformational Change

Prof Hany Besada, Program and Deputy Executive Director at the Diamond Development InitiativeProf Hany Besada is Deputy Executive Director at the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI). He is also a Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow with the United Nations and Research Professor, Institute of African Studies, Carleton University and Senior Fellow with the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. Until very recently, he was Regional Advisor, African Mineral Development Centre (AMDC) at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Prior to that he was Theme Leader: Governance of Natural Resources at the North-South Institute (NSI) in Ottawa, Canada and Research Specialist on the United Nations High Level Panel Secretariat-Post 2015 Development Agenda, United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in New York. Prof Besada worked as Program Leader and Senior Researcher at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Canada where he oversaw the Health and Social Governance Program. Before moving to Canada, he was the Principle Researcher: Business in Africa at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Prof Besada has worked as Policy Advisor for the South African Ministry of Local and Provisional Government, Amnesty International, United Nations Associations, the Joan Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice (IPJ) and the Office of US Senator Dianne Feinstein.  He has consulted for the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, United Nations Office for Sustainable Development, United States International Development Agency, African Capacity Building Foundation, and the Government of Sierra Leone. Prof. Besada has published widely in international news media and academic journals.  He is the author of 80 peer-reviewed scholarly and policy papers and over 70 opinion pieces. He is the author editor of Governing Natural Resources for Africa’s Development (Routledge, 2016).

The discipline of history is predicated on the belief that we need to look to the past to learn for our future.  The famous words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it”, speak truth to the idea that unless lessons are learned history risks being repeated (Santayana, 1905). By looking into the past, we can learn important lessons – some to never again duplicate, and some that can be the basis of important best practices.  It is imperative to not only avoid repetition of past mistakes, but also to repeat lessons and experiences from the past that can enrich future development goals. At a time when scholars and practitioners are focusing on the “post-2015 agenda”, investigating future opportunities for the development agenda following the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), we are asking: what happened before 2015?  What lessons must we learn from the design and implementation of the MDGs?  What worked?  What did not?  We contend that by looking into the recent past, we can create a more robust post-2015 agenda that builds upon the momentum set by the MDGs, but learns from both its mistakes and its victories.

The Millennium Development Goals emerged from the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000 following adoption of the United Nations Millennium Declaration, which sought to ensure that there were overarching goals to be achieved within a set time period.  Indeed, they were the “world’s time-bound and quantified targets for addressing poverty in its many dimensions – income poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter, and exclusion – while promoting gender equality, education and environmental sustainability. They [were] also basic human rights – the rights of each person on the planet to health, education, shelter and security” (UN Millennium Project, 2006).    

The emergence of the MDGs was the first time that we saw such a large global initiative using the monitoring concept of objectives, indicators, and timelines as an integral component of the strategy.  Organisations and states were not simply focused on what needed to change, but by when.  To this end, the MDGs exemplified the spirit of the human rights-based approach to development – linking matters of human development with the need for universal equality.  Indeed, quantitative measurements like universal primary education (Goal 2) and halving the proportion of people in extreme poverty (Goal 1) showed a shift in international development toward the need for concrete examples of change to the human condition. In the MDGs, indicators, and the length of time it takes to reach them, matter. For example, although the majority of African countries boasted enrolment rates higher than 90% at the primary level of schooling, organisations and governments continued to strive toward 100%. As a result, the goal was not being achieved if universal primary education was not fulfilled. 

There was never a time in history where organisations and states were so focused on similar development concepts and initiatives. 

Even though past decades of development have been analysed to take a very particular theoretical framework (i.e. 1950s modernization theory, 1980s Structural Adjustment Programming (SAP)), the MDGs were the first truly global initiative that included all realms of development policy makers and practitioners for its implementation, including civil society, the public sector, private organisations, global organisations, bilateral donors, regional bodies, and governments. 


The fact that the MDGs garnered such global influence should come as no surprise given the time period in which it was conceptualised. Throughout the 1990s, development theory and practice was shifting to reflect two major shifts in history. One was the new phenomenon “globalisation” which, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and with it the end to the Cold War, clearly was reshaping the way the world operated and the way in which actors interacted. The second shift was a very evident backlash to previous development initiatives. Coming out of the 1980s and the backlash the SAP invoked, many in the donor community, including NGOs, international organisations, civil society, and governments, were searching for innovative ways towards improving humanitarian assistance. Such backlash was evident in that the World Bank constructed the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) as a more country-driven effort, given the obvious need for improvements to adjustment programming. The PRSPs are ‘country-driven’, ‘results-oriented’, ‘comprehensive’, ‘partnership-oriented’, and ‘based on a long-term perspective’ (IMF, 2014).  With a more partnership-oriented policy in mind, the World Bank and IMF were major players in the deliberation and delivering of the MDGs. The IMF explained the PRSPs as “provide[ing] the crucial link between national public actions, donor support, and the development outcomes needed to meet the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals” (IMF, 2014).  

Globalisation ushered in the concept of global norms and a global civil society, as predicted by Keane (Keane, 2003). Indeed, the world was shifting from a Westphalian system to one where non-state actors were rivalling states in importance.  The MDGs were unique in that they enabled all actors to participate in their implementation.  Although the NGO community had been heavily involved in development execution in the past, the fact that the vast majority of development actors, including governments, NGOs, and international donors, were working towards the same goals (the MDGs) was unprecedented. To be sure, there were similar measures in place before, but the fact that the MDGs bear very specific measurements, confirms that all actors were closely aligned in their deliverables. For example, MDG 1 - Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger was achieved by reaching three indicators:  
  • halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1.25 a day; 
  • achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people; and 
  • halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. 
The third MDG - Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women - was determined by its indicator: 
  • Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.  


While for the most part the MDGs have been observed to serve the development and human rights communities well, there are four main criticisms of the MDGs. Two of these criticisms focus predominantly on the indicator approach to the MDGs. Firstly, these indicators involved quantitative measurements.  For example, MDG 2 - Achieve Universal Primary Education - did not consider the quality of learning, rather the number of children in the classroom.  The other criticism was that the indicators might not be capturing a holistic understanding of the goal. Goal 3, for instance, aspires for gender equality, yet girls in the classroom are the only measurement.  This fails to capture a wide range of other measurements, including women in politics, salaries by gender, and so forth. 

Others argue that the MDGs do not bring appropriate recognition to local needs and contexts.  The MDGs depict globalisation at its finest – yet these overtly global policies are criticized as being too broadly oriented to be appropriate for local contexts. For instance, globally-mandated goals and targets do not consider previously-set national baselines, nor do they enable countries to create their own tailor-made objectives that may be better suited for the local context (AbouZahr & Boerma, 2010). As an example, it may be better for country X to focus on quality of education rather than enrolment numbers. The complete lack of devotion to Goal 8 – Develop a Global Partnership For Development, has likewise been heavily criticized for rendering western nations void of responsibility to fulfil the MDGs (Fehling, Nelson, and Venkatapuram, 2013).

Also, the MDGs bring global attention to certain issues, whilst overlooking others. Goal 6 - Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Other Diseases - has received the most criticism in terms of Goals. There are three targets for this Goal, two of which are specific to HIV/AIDS.  Target 6.C - have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the incidence of malaria and other diseases - focuses very specifically in its wording on malaria. Indeed, the wordings of this Goal, and the subsequent indicators, have created an unprecedented focus on HIV/AIDS and malaria. Of course, these diseases are real and do need attention. The critique is that research, development, and care for other diseases have received limited funding because they are not specifically mentioned in the Goals. Indeed, non-communicable diseases, mental health, and disabilities - all major issues in every area of the globe - are completely ignored in the MDGs (Fehling, Nelson, & Venkatapuram; Magrath, 2009; Wolbring, 2011). Goal 2 - Achieve Universal Primary Education - ignores secondary and tertiary education, and appeals to a western, formalized system of schooling (Mekonen, 2010; Tarabini, 2010).  Although the Education for All policy, coming out of the 2000 Dakar World Conference on Education, shifted the focus to include all levels of schooling, the MDGs themselves remain focused solely on the primary level.

Finally, the MDGs have been criticized for their continued obsession with full attainment of set targets. For example, Ethiopia has not met any of the MDGs targets, yet its growth in each category has been remarkable (UNDP, 2014). Indeed, the focus on the end goal, rather than progress, warrants criticism.


However, while the MDGs were in many ways simplistic in their measurements, one could argue that it was this simplicity that enabled so many actors to work together towards these common goals. To be sure, the MDGs comprised an overarching agenda followed by the vast majority of governments, non-state actors, and other practitioners working in the arena of international development, including the human rights community. Funding proposals articulated the MDGs with which they were aligned, governments use MDG statistics in their documentation, and the World Bank and United Nations (UN) system created development agendas in countries that focused on MDG achievement. To say that the MDGs have been central to the last fifteen years of development practice is an understatement. 

The defining feature of post-2000 international development policy and practice is the MDGs. World Vision puts it quite aptly in stating, “the Millennium Development Goals…form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and leading development institutions” (World Vision, 2015).

The fact that the majority of donors and government recipients aligned their strategies with the MDGs follows the features of a system predicated on globalisation. The idea of all actors complying with one set of key objectives supports the global social policy theory that the world is viewing its challenges, and steps for their obliteration, as holistic (Deacon, 2007). The success of the initial writing of the MDGs and the hastiness of donor support, seems appropriate given that in the years following the MDGs, both the Paris Declaration for Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action were conceptualised. In drafting these documents, donors agreed to work together more closely, further aligning their development strategies and expectations.  Indeed, the period in which the MDGs were written showcases the globe working together closely toward common goals. As this volume will demonstrate, working towards a global agenda for development has both positive and negative outcomes – both lessons from which the post-2015 agenda can draw.


On May 30, 2013, the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda released “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development,” a report which sets out a universal agenda to eradicate extreme poverty in all its forms by 2030 and deliver on the promise of sustainable development (UN 2013a). This followed months of work by the High-Level Panel, which was tasked in July 2012 by the UN secretary general to act as counsel for the formation of a new global agenda beyond the 2015 target date for the MDGs (UN 2013b).

The post-2015 development agenda will need developed and developing countries to accept their proper share of responsibility in accordance with their resources and capabilities as driven by five fundamental shifts. These will be:  
  1. The eradication of extreme poverty in all forms; 
  2. Inequality and inclusive economy transformation;
  3. Peace and good governance; 
  4. Forging a new global partnership; and 
  5. The future of sustainable development given environmental, climate change obstacles (UN 2013c). 
Such five fundamental principles would transform our static understanding of development challenges into a dynamic model for action. 

Now that the MDGs have ended, responsibility for the Post-2015 Development Agenda is being shared among a comprehensive group: national governments, local authorities, international institutions, business, civil society organisations, foundations, other philanthropists and social impact investors, scientists and academics, and, of course, citizens (UN 2013d). In fact, shaping popular opinion in support of the MDGs and post-2015 development agenda is a critical component for which every stakeholder is responsible. Over time, popular opinion and general consensus of a particular topic can and should develop into an international norm. Before discussing specific shifts and recommendations, the following section speaks to the important cooperation changes that must be implemented for the future success of a development agenda moving forward.

At the forefront, establishing the post-2015 development goals as strong international norms was an important part of achieving their outcome. Such goals needed to be measurable for society to observe how well these international norms are being met.  It is for this reason that the UN High Level Panel recommended the development of measurable indicators to observe progress for a limited number of high-priority goals with a clear timeframe and target (UN 2013e). It even recommended a consortium of UN agencies to consolidate multiple reports of the various goals into a central, yearly review of how the agenda is being implemented (UN 2013f).  Without UN leadership in this regard, the agenda risked losing momentum and compromising the potential for resolve. Thus the UN took extensive action on the elaboration of an agreement to follow the quickly elapsing MDGs.  A series of targets were established to follow the expiration of the MDGs, as the High Level Panel deemed this to be of utmost importance for the credibility of the UN within the international community. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the result of these UN discussions. They articulate seventeen key goals that the international community is to achieve. They expand the MDGs to be more inclusive of climate change and also to create more critical targets (e.g. ‘zero poverty’ rather than ‘half poverty’ as the MDGs proposed).

The rise of the data revolution is sure to improve the quality and quantity of development data available to the multiple stakeholders. As mentioned previously, this meant established targets and indicators needed to be measurable on a variety of scales. In order for the global framework for development to be embedded in national plans, targets needed to be locally owned. Ownership of these targets at the local level was essential in establishing targets, goals and indicators that are tangible and context specific, recognizing the culture, realities and perceptions of local communities.

At the local level, two important elements to successfully implementing local ownership of targets and increasing measurability of goals can be identified. First, it will be necessary to strengthen the reliability of existing indicators. Facilitating the collection and the quality of already existing data will set a baseline for measuring future data as well as establish and increase the level of trust between groups. Second, an environment that will enable and favour community-based organisations (CBOs) for increased collaboration and interest-based solutions will be necessary for data to be measurable.

At the national level, in order to favour collection of data and ensuring that targets and indicators are locally owned, significant investment in telecommunications infrastructure as well as verification systems will be necessary. Reaching a broader audience by increasing the dialogue on public policy as well as creating more inclusive policies and building trust between different actors will play an important role in making development data more measurable. Moreover, it will be important that indicators and data not only be measurable and representative of local realities, but also be integrated in the decision-making process to reinforce accountability.

On the international scale, increased collaboration will be of importance in establishing a structure and norms for tackling extreme poverty and emphasizing sustainable development practices. An international agreement on a single agenda and a profound recognition of all the stakeholders has been essential in forging a global partnership for data and increasing measurability. 

This article seeks to add research for the important question - what happens after 2015?  Too often the development community has not adequately looked to the past, instead focusing on the future, setting ourselves up to make the same mistakes again.  We can do better.  We will do better.  Representing a diverse range of perspectives, positions and locations, this publication presents a number of insightful dialogues from a variety of leading scholars and practitioners from various backgrounds and regional representations to better understand how the MDGs helped, hindered, or approached certain regions, countries, and areas. Indeed, by learning from the past, we can make better policy decisions for the future.


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