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Did the Millennium Development Goals accomplish anything?

Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, recently penned an OpEd slamming the progress of the sustaniable development goals. In it, he proposes that the people putting together the new goals consider these areas when discussions sustainability: wellbeing, capability, intergenerational equity, externalities, resilience, and ‘strength of our civilizations.’

“Unless we embrace and measure the full meaning of sustainability, the SDGs will fail. None of us, and certainly not our children, can afford that failure,” says Horton.

The ten year global development experiment, better known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), is wrapping up in the next year. Much of the discussions are now focused on what comes next. There appears to be broad agreement that a new set of goals or benchmarks should follow in 2015.

These sustainable development goals, as they are being called for the time being, are meant to improve upon the MDGs. Recent research shows that people might be thinking about the MDGs in the completely wrong way. In fact, there is good reason to believe that as a whole they did not accomplish much of anything in terms of getting countries on track to meet the goals.

Howard Friedman looked at the MDGs and how countries did on the indicators between 1992 and 2008. They found that there was no accelerations in achieving the MDG indicators following 2000. One-third of the countries measured showed acelerations before 2001.

“[T]he data show clearly that the activities following the MDG Declaration did not provide an acceleration in most of the development goals. For the subset of MDG indicators that experienced an acceleration, the accelerations tended to occur before the MDG Declaration,” concludes Friedman.

He is careful to say that it does not mean the MDGs were useless. It is possible that the goals helped to sustain the progress that countries were making. His findings indicate that the MDGs were more likely a reflection of what was already happening, rather than the aspirational goals that they are touted to have been.

It is also possible that individual countries benefited from the MDGs. The nature of the analysis was to examine global progress towards the MDGs. Further, there are a few exceptions to the general rule: infant mortality, under five mrtality ahd HIV prevalence among young people are three of the five indicators that did see a statistically significant acceleration after 2001.

An interesting point included in the study is the fact that development practitioners are not all that surprised by the findings.

“[W]hen the results of this study have been demonstrated at different United Nations forums, the reaction from seasoned development professionals has consistently been that of affirmation,” writes Friedman.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]