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October 25, 2016

From Millennium to Sustainable Development Goals

by Edouard Leonet, based on seminar discussions of 'Theories and Issues in International Development'

Branded as the ‘world’s biggest promise’, ironically enough the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have disappointed many. In a rush to make sure the badge of human development remained on the UN bulletin boards, the MDGs were put forward by a small group of bureaucrats from the UN in the 1990s. With human development as its key objective, the international community agreed on unanimously working towards eight broad goals that centered on eradicating poverty, hunger, and improving basic living conditions. The purpose of the MDGs was to bring the international community together to support countries embarking upon a journey towards a mutually agreed upon definition of development.


The feasibility and practicality of the MDGs has long been questioned and after their deadline in 2015 it has largely been agreed that the MDGs failed to elicit any statistically significant results on the global level. However, several sources also suggest that the MDGs have made a difference. Most of the sources put forward by the UN often adopt a rather positive and optimistic tone regarding the end products of these goals. Agreeably, success stories from the cult of the MDGs have emerged, and as indicated by some statistics these successes are record breaking.

However, taking a closer look at the MDGs allows us to see that even though global statistics and averages may make these goals seem feasible, on a national and local level their effect has largely been unequal and variegated. The MDGs put forward a very generalized view of development needs as perceived by the Global North and one the main reasons of their failure could be attributed to the fact that they did not take into consideration how each country has its own distinct economy, society and history applying to different development needs and priorities. More so, development strategies under this program are not cognizant of the various socio-cultural and historical sensitivities of different countries, which largely contribute to the success or failure of the strategy. Additionally, when speaking of the utility of the MDGs one must take in to account the fact that although the sound of eradicating global poverty sounds rather honorable and gallant, there is a rich political underbelly to this form of combatting underdevelopment. In the midst of such shortcomings the entire plan was also handicapped by flawed and static methodologies of data collection and indicators.

Another reason put forward for the failure of the MDG’s was that their achievement was focused on inputs as opposed to outputs. Nations were too preoccupied with aid and donor targets that what missed were any real observations of the results that this was providing. The actualization of development was overshadowed by the commitment to development and as such, the inputs to the MDG’s were much more obvious than any outputs.

The MDGs don’t necessarily measure what is of crucial importance. By way of illustration we can use goal number 2: “achieve universal primary education”. The way they measured the success of this goal is by looking at the enrollments rates. This will allow you to know how many boys and girls have attended school but what this goal has failed to do is to go deeper into the problem and possibly look at the quality of learning. There is no point of having 100 % enrollments rate when millions of children go through school but come out without basic literacy or numeracy skills. Education should only be judged by what students learn, not by attendance.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is much more of a universal set of goals, to be achieved by every nation. While the MDGs disproportionately focused on making changes in the developing world, many of the MDGs set out objectives that both the developing and the developing world should strive to achieve. Most strikingly, the SDGs are a bigger set of goals, with the number of objectives rising from eight to seventeen. These have also been broken down into manageable goals, so while there are more overall, the targets to be achieved are more specific and contextual. The reformulation of what changes need to be seen in the world have led to the inclusion of a number of environmentally focused SDGs and also a more socially focused set of goals that tackle all aspects of development necessary to achieve success. Overall, the Sustainable Development Goals offer us a better-rounded set of goals that encapsulate all of what is needed to ensure sustained development globally.



As more countries signed up to get behind the SDGs, there appears to be more unity in reaching a successful level of change than was evident with the MDGs. With more countries backing the goals, we can be optimistic that a greater effort can be made to reach the targets set out. It has also become clear through the SDGs that these goals cannot be neatly compartmentalized – all are interlinked and we cannot talk about some without reference to the others. These interactions and connections have led to more collaboration between institutions working in each area, which is a definite move in the right direction to produce meaningful change. However, the specific targets of the SDGs are low, so while they may work in the sense of achieving their targets, the actual impact may be difficult to see in practice. While we are hopeful for the future, only time will tell whether the Sustainable Development Goals will make a meaningful change to the world.

1) Image source: UN City Copenhagen,

2) Image source: UN,

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Edouard Leonet
Anni Piiroinen
Sailja Jain
Maria Elena Olsen
Madiha Shekhani
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