Crash Course: The Millennium Development Goals

This is the fourth edition of the CTED Crash Course, a regular feature which shares some essential background information that will help explain what we do here at the intersection of innovative technology and economic development. We hope to shed some light on some of the basics of solar energy, mobile technology and Internet accessibility that are at the very core of CTED’s research. We also hope to provide some economic and developmental context in light of these areas of research and to examine their importance in solving some of the issues facing the developing world.

In this Crash Course, we will give an introduction to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) as set out by the United Nations in 2000. We will look at these goals, examine the steps being taken to meet them and discuss the challenges still facing the nations and organizations working on these critical issues.

Several heads of state met at the Millennium Summit to set out a series of international goals for reducing poverty, fighting epidemics, and improving the quality of life for many people in the world’s developing regions to be achieved by 2015. The Summit also set out to establish a framework and mechanism for international cooperation in addressing these issues. The goals set forth at the conference are as follows:

–       Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

–       Achieve universal primary education

–       Promote gender equality and empower women

–       Reduce child mortality rates

–       Improve maternal health

–       Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

–       Ensure environmental sustainability

–       Develop a global partnership for development

The eight goals also have targets within them to provide specific ways to measure success. The first group of goals aims to remove the obstacles that keep many people in poverty. Reducing the number of people living on less than $1/day, expanding employment opportunities, reducing hunger, expanding access to primary education (for both boys and girls) and empowering women in education, employment and government are some of the specific targets set within these goals. The next set of MDGs focus on health: reducing the under-five mortality rate, increasing immunization, improving maternal health care, creating universal access to reproductive health, and combating the spread of HIV/AIDS and other epidemics. Another target is ensuring environmental sustainability, which includes integration of sustainable development into policy, reducing pollution and staving off biodiversity loss, expanding access to clean drinking water and improving the quality of life for the millions, if not billions, of people who live in urban slums. Finally, the last set of targets for the MDGs focuses on establishing a framework for reaching these goals – expanding fair trading and financial systems, finding sustainable solutions to the debt problems faced by developing countries, expanding access to affordable pharmaceuticals and expanding the use and benefits of new technologies, including mobile and internet access.

As we can see, these are some very lofty goals to achieve in 15 years. With four years left to achieve these goals, many countries are still not close to meeting many of their goals. The countries, which are closest, though, are China and India, who have used their economic growth to try to meet many of the goals, with varying levels of success. China has now been able to halve the 1990 figure of 85 million people living in poverty and as far back as 2004, already reported a decrease to 26.1 million people living in poverty. In India, however, economic growth has not led to concrete results on the MDGs. According to the UNDP, India has been able to increase the number of children in primary schools, to reclaim natural resources and to provide greater access to clean water, but it is lagging far behind in addressing poverty and health issues.

Recent reports, though, suggest that Sub-Saharan Africa is lagging even further behind and will not meet many if not all of the 2015 goals. Why is it that Sub-Saharan Africa has not been able to make substantial progress towards the MDGs? The World Resource Institute reports that of the world’s 35 failing states (as of 2007), one half of those are in Sub-Saharan Africa and are subject to the failing security and fragile governance, making the challenges of meeting the MDGs even more difficult. A recent article in the Economist, sets out to examine the relationship between violence and poverty – namely are countries violent because they are poor or are they poor because they are violent. The conclusions drawn are striking:

The gap between [peaceful and conflict-ridden] countries is widening. Nearly all have cut infant mortality since 1990. But conflict-ridden states have reduced it by only 19% compared with 31% elsewhere. No poor, violent country has achieved a single one of the millennium development goals (MDGs), targets set by the UN in 2000. As a rule of thumb, concludes the report, countries that suffer large-scale violence lose almost 1% in poverty reduction each year…The implications of this analysis are wide-ranging. First, it suggests that preventing violence should be given much higher priority than it is now. At the moment, the MDGs that guide as well as measure development do not even mention things like justice and people’s security.

As we can see, countries first have to be internally secure in order to begin addressing the issues of poverty, health, education and environmental sustainability that the MDGs set out to tackle.

The fact that these set of goals largely ignore political stability and conflict resolution is only one of many criticisms that have faced the Millennium Development Goals. AidWatchers suggests that the failure of the MDGs was a result of unclear definitions of who was responsible, why they were to address a problem and what they were to do.

WHO is to blame for missing the MDGs? Advocates enthusiastically advertised that 189 leaders signed the Millennium Declaration in 2000, but that was actually a sign of weakness rather than strength. Does an agreement have teeth when EVERYONE agrees – including many oppressive governments who had no more interest in alleviating poverty than in promoting Brussels sprouts? And if the agreement is broken, how can you find WHO is to blame, when 189 leaders (not to mention dozens of international organizations and NGOs) are COLLECTIVELY responsible? The WHY and the WHAT were also murky, since there is little consensus on what causes poverty and how to end it. The responsibility is put on governments, but the rest is unclear (WHICH one? WHAT should they do?).

Many critics of the MDGs argue that that the goals were chosen haphazardly and without a consistent means of verifying and quantifying results. Others argue that the goals are largely a top-down means of development that does not take into consideration the vast differences from country to country in existing conditions and preferences. Aidthoughts notes, perhaps “the MDGs were never supposed to reflect specific preferences on the ground: they represent an objective set of metrics we associate with development.” In such a case, the cynic might suggest, as many have, that the MDGs was merely an attempt at focusing the world’s donor countries to focus their donations and aid towards these somewhat haphazardly chosen goals.

However, there are some successes to this program should be noted. The Millennium Development Villages Project is an initiative launched in 2004 to bring the MDGs to several African villages with the goal of lifting villages out of poverty by implementing programs and technologies to address many of the MDGs. The project brings together village locals and experienced project personnel in a five-year plan to focus on community-based capacity building and action plans that are tailored to each specific village and will hopefully foster self-sustainability. The MDVs are very much the opposite of the top-down development that many critics see the MDGs as. In many MDVs some goals have been met – for example, greater crop yields and improvements in local health care – but there are many issues and concerns that have also been raised as to the effectiveness, fairness and sustainability of the programs.


About CTED

CTED, as part of the New York University Abu Dhabi Research Grant, is a multidisciplinary research lab that focuses on combining economic principles, technological advances, and human-centric design to create innovative solutions for the problems experienced in emerging regions.
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One Response to Crash Course: The Millennium Development Goals

  1. Doc Mwale says:

    Your comment: ”The fact that these set of goals largely ignore political stability and conflict resolution is only one of many criticisms that have faced the Millennium Development Goals”,

    My comment:
    The missing of this element in MDGs is creating Conflict resolution initiatives as an add-on program which in the end is systematically ignored in the development budget agenda. Its common knowledge how greatly any program can be derailed even with mere disagreements without arms like in so called peaceful countries like Malawi.

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