Development Goals: the failures of a millennium?

At the turn of the last millennium all 189 member states of the United Nation came together to agree upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in what was the greatest show of global unity in history. With modern technology, medicine and economic prosperity, never before has the world been better equipped to tackle poverty and the hardships it endures. This effort was divided into eight clearly defined goals to be met by 2015. With the deadline almost upon us, has humanity been able to succeed in this greatest of tests?

Although substantial progress has been made, on almost all fronts we have failed to reach the targets: 58 million children still do not attain primary education, around 1.5 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year and 748 million people continue to rely on unsafe drinking water. Despite the UN’s unsurprisingly positive spin, it is hard to argue that the Millennium Development Goals have been a success.

The only goal that has been achieved is reducing extreme poverty – those living on less than $1.25 per day – by half before the 2015 deadline. This however, is largely the result of rapid economic growth in countries such as China and India, rather than the deliberate effects of development programs. Moreover this doesn’t change the fact that 22% of the world’s population – 1.6 billion people – continue to live in extreme poverty.

The MDGs have been influential in bringing greater global attention to these development issues as it is unlikely that the progress that has been made since 2000 would have happened without these goals.

That said, the reality is that most of the MDGs were easily achievable. What was lacking was the political and social will to make the goals a priority. For example, the UK currently spends six times as much on the military as it does on aid. Can we really justify spending such hefty amounts on our ‘national security’, when military intervention often only increases instability and exacerbates poverty in those countries?

Researchers at the Overseas Development Institute, a London based think-tank, suggest a different approach should be taken. Instead of the traditional aid-led strategy bankrolled by the OECD countries, the focus should be shifted to helping developing countries help themselves. No longer would they be finance-recipients, but finance-generators able to tackle poverty much more sustainably and would be free from the often crippling conditionality of bilateral aid. This may be overly simplistic, but the current approach is clearly not working and other avenues must be explored. If anything is to be learnt from the Millennium Development Goals, it is that developing countries need to have a greater say and a greater role in their own development.

As the UN begins to form new goals for post-2015, it will hopefully take stock of the failings of the past 14 years and form much more effective policy to tackle these persisting problems.


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May 2021
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