In early 2000, Lord Mark Malloch-Brown sat in the basement of the United Nations Headquarters in New York with a small group of men, dreaming up the future of global development over the course of just a few weeks. He and his team casually drafted what would become the eight Millennium Development Goals, so casually in fact that he later admitted they “almost forgot” a goal relating to the environment (and completely forgot a goal relating to gender equality).
Fast forward fifteen years, and global leaders have spent the better part of the past three years using surveys, focus groups, innumerable drafting panels, several conferences, and formal UN meetings to craft the Sustainable Development Goals meant to replace the MDGs as they time-out at the end of 2015. The process has certainly been more inclusive the second time around, and has been lauded for its use of door-to-door surveys and online questionnaires meant to collect input from those the goals are aimed to help. However, questions still linger about the effectiveness of the MDGs, even spurring critics to complain that the new SDGs are built on a rather shaky platform.
Even with a questionable foundation, the new goals seem to make strides in the right direction to fix wrongs of the past with a more inclusive framework and diverse, private sector funding. As the inauguration of the SDGs approaches in January 2016, the UN still has quite a bit of convincing to do before all of its member states, and more importantly the goals’ beneficiaries, are completely on board.
For fifteen years, the MDGs acted as guiding principles for much of the UN’s development work, as well as prompts for countless development organizations around the world. They were an effective way to neatly package the world’s greatest problems into sound byte-sized morsels, which, along with a set of eye-catching graphics, made them popular references in the media. UN officials and other advocates of the goals’ success, including their author Lord Malloch-Brown, have continuously shown data correlating the fasted ever decline of extreme poverty of the past 25 years to the MDGs. Indeed, many economists have lauded the successes of Goal 6, which is to “combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.” Those snazzy graphics may have been a world of help when it came to raising awareness about a stigmatized disease like HIV/AIDS, and UN discussions of community goals like the positive externalities of providing treated bed nets to villages has likewise built massive support for anti-malarial efforts. UN Goodwill Ambassadors like Angelina Jolie certainly command vast audiences and have the power to put MDGs on the radars of fans. Between 2000 and 2015, many did. The MDGs became much more widely known than any other UN initiative and started a global conversation about how to tackle development.
However, its critics say this conversation was far from efficient or impactful. Development economists have drawn attention to the fact the poverty was already beginning to decline before the MDGs were instituted, and the rather arbitrary use of a $1.25-per-day poverty line in the goals as if to assume that a $1.26-per-day income is sufficient. Economist Sanjay Reddy points to debt forgiveness, a resumption of global growth, and high commodity prices beginning before 2000 that drove growth in developing countries, perhaps more significantly affecting the decrease in poverty than any MDG projects. While malaria infection rates have decreased 47% since 2000, it is still a major killer in Africa. HIV/AIDS infections are similarly declining, yet the 2.3 million new cases since the introduction of the goals means the rate is simply not declining fast enough to meet the goal. The two most successful of the MDGs have yet to convince their critics that there is cause to celebrate.
In January of 2016, the seventeen new Sustainable Development Goals will come into effect, with a due date for issues like reduced inequalities, affordable and clean energy, and clean water to be set in 2030. A total of 169 targets have been placed under the goals, already making them substantially more detailed and far reaching than their predecessors. Overall, the SDGs focus on actions to be taken by every single country on the planet; the MDGs in contrast were meant specifically for developing countries with direction from the developed. Their structure is far more promising and is already answering many of the MDGs’ issues like lack of specificity.
Yet, when the question of funding this trillion-dollar project was raised, the UN characteristically shuffled its feet and left the question largely unanswered. In July of 2015, world leaders gathered at the Addis Abba Action Agenda Conference to find new and innovative sources of funding for the SDGs. These turned out to be a recommitment to the 40-year-old UN member states pledge of contributing 0.7% of their gross national income (a pledge that has never been fully met), and a statement of general support for finding private sector sources of funding. Many critics of the UN’s top-down distribution of aid through the MDGs such as William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo would be happy to hear that private sector involvement is being considered, as it increases incentives for efficient aid and breaks down the hierarchy of rich donor nations and poor donation recipients. Mark Suzman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and contributor to the SDGs said in relation to funding, that “over the next few months, all countries must identify financing sources and policies to fund development – from greater tax revenues in developing countries to increased donor aid and a larger role for the private sector. If the mere suggestion of diversification is the best the UN can do, then there is still a very long road to making the implementation of the SDGs any different from the MDGs.
So far, the most lauded quality of the SDGs has been their specificity and diversity, with many looking at the intensive drafting process mentioned earlier as a step in the right direction. Not all seem to agree. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been one of the more vocal critics of the actual structure of the goals, saying that seventeen goals and 169 targets are unwieldy numbers that will actually hamper success. He stated he would prefer around ten, twelve at most, and that at their current number “there’s a real danger they will end up sitting on a bookshelf, gathering dust. The SDGs aim to tackle twice as many issues as the MDGs in the same time frame with the same funding structure, yet hope to avoid the shortcomings of the past. Combine this overspread with the lack of concrete funding or any binding commitment to the goals, and there is a serious concern that all this goodwill has no teeth.