Three Lessons From This Year’s Celebration of the Millennium Development Goals

Who doesn’t love a victory lap?

This fall, during the third week of September, the who’s who of international development gathered in New York to extol all the good that has been done for the world in the past year. This year, the celebration was especially jubilant, as it marked the achievements of the past 15 years of work towards the Millennium Development Goals—the infamous MDGs.

The Social Good Summit kicked off the week with panels and short talks design to inspire a global dialogue on #2030NOW, the Clinton Global Initiative convened the ultra-influential in its usual style, and the UN General Assembly provided an opportunity for national leaders of all stripes to celebrate their country’s progress towards meeting their individual goals. The victory lap commenced, and it was glorious.

Amidst all the celebration, it’s sometimes hard not to be cynical. Certainly those who gather have the best intentions, and many individuals and organizations have indeed worked hard to improve lives. At the same time, the parade of dinners and receptions at some of New York’s finest venues contrasts starkly with the endless discussions of extreme poverty and inequality.

In past years, my cynicism has quickly turned to optimism as I glimpsed the many innovations underway that have the ability to eliminate the world’s most egregious social challenges. I have been inspired to learn more, and to do more. This year, though, as I attended multiple events focused on the MDGs, I found myself utterly disappointed with the analysis and discussion of both what has been achieved, and what issues future goals must address. What’s more, my subsequent discovery of a flawed framework of impact evaluation—taking 1990 as the MDGs’ comparative measurement point—lends a degree of deception to the celebration I could not ignore.

How did we get to be here?

In 2000, the UN member states affirmed the Millennium Declaration, solidifying a set of development targets that every UN member country would work to address over the following 15 years. A year later, these targets became the eight Millennium Development Goals:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Global partnership for development

By design, the MDGs had no strategic plan or associated budget, working under the expectation that countries, companies, and NGOs alike would come together organically to focus on these goals. To the UN’s credit, the goals have fostered progress on this front, bringing myriad players together to at least participate in the same conversation. For that fact alone, MDGs should claim some degree of success.

That said, at nearly every discussion session, speech, or reception I attended during UNGA week this fall, the MDGs were at the top of the agenda, with laudatory comments about the international development community’s achievements against these goals. While statistics consistently presented do clearly show solid improvements across many indicators—halving extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education, reducing HIV infection— I found myself repeatedly wondering what was behind the data.

UN Week 2014 was an ongoing celebration of MDG successes, with little data presented to verify the progress. (Photo: Crown Copyright-Aaron Hoare)

On the United Nation’s website, the most readily available progress report is a color-coded chart that tells the reader very little. For more information, the reader is referred to an MDG-specific page where one can find the MDG 500-day countdown video. The video is titled Millenium Development Goals 2014, What does the data tell us? It is presented with the following explanation: “This video, prepared by UNSD, provides a snapshot of what has been achieved and what needs to be done to reach the MDGs.”

The first achievement: 700 million people have been lifted out of poverty. Using Indonesia as an example, the UN claims a 70 percent reduction in the population living under $1.25 per day, a drop from 54 percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2011, a truly impressive, and significant transformation.

The problem here is that, while the UN selected 1990 as a baseline year for most of the targets, the MDGs were only endorsed in 2001.  In other words, MDG reporting calculates progress that dates back more than a decade before the goals were enacted. From 1990 to 2003, the number of people living on less than $1.25 per day in Indonesia was reduced by half—from 54 percent to roughly 27 percent, making the improvement from 2003 to 2011 only 11 percentage points. Likewise, the video claims near victory on reducing the number of underweight children. The Bangladesh example provided shows a decline in this number from 62 percent in 1990 to 37 percent in 2011, but the decline between 2001 and 2011 is far less substantial, and nearly flat from 2006 to 2011. Thankfully, an encouraging example from Cambodia shows a clear and significant decline in infant mortality from 2001 to 2011. And the reduction in HIV incidence from 2001 to 2012 is astounding. Regardless, the pattern of the data presented continues in this way, implying that the MDGs are responsible for the bulk of the progress. An accompanying written report provides a deeper look at the data, but also largely in the 1990 to 2012 comparison frame.

“Reliable and robust data are critical for devising appropriate policies and interventions for the achievement of the MDGs and for holding governments and the international community accountable.”

Claiming achievement even where the progress slowed after the enactment of the MDGs, is not only intellectually dishonest, it’s not helpful in planning forward.

Ironically, featured adjacent to the video on the site is the following statement:

“Reliable and robust data are critical for devising appropriate policies and interventions for the achievement of the MDGs and for holding governments and the international community accountable.”

I could not agree more with that sentiment. Unfortunately, neither the report nor the video significantly contribute to the ability to make policy or hold anyone accountable.

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Where are we going?

An enormous amount of research is required to meaningfully evaluate the headway that has been made. At a time when the world is considering the targets for the next 15 years—what will become the Sustainable Development Goals—the lack of comprehensive analysis of what contributed to success (or lack thereof) is alarming.

Looking ahead to 2015, three lessons can help guide greater measurement and impact in the years to come.

1. Recognize that data is required to meaningfully assess interventions and research is required to generate it.

Those who are in positions of leadership on global progress—heads of development agencies, such as Rajiv Shah (USAID) and Justine Greening (DfID), foundation luminaries such as Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, and leaders of non-profit and for-profit development implementing organizations alike—have an obligation to hold data and claims of achievement up to a higher level of scrutiny. All those engaged in these efforts must invest in understanding what effect, if any, the Millennium Development Goals, and the associated interventions, have had on the progress made over the past 15 years. That understanding, however uncomfortable, must provide the foundations for the targets that will be set by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

2. Learn what works, and what doesn’t, make documentation publicly available, and recognize and reward those with the courage to do so.

It’s no surprise that leaders in international development are taking a victory lap, claiming success for progress that the UN’s own data shows was, in many cases, steadily happening prior to the enactment of the MDGs. Anything less than that brings on a wrath that leads to reduced funding and prevents any additional forward movement. However, claiming achievement even where the progress slowed after the enactment of the MDGs, is not only intellectually dishonest, it’s not helpful in future planning.

New leaders in poverty reduction, such as the Poverty Action Lab, are actively working to use scientific methods to test the efficacy of discrete interventions. Such evaluation is worth the time and funding required, providing an opportunity to forgo the wasteful, subjective investments of the past in favor of scaling effective interventions that actually make a difference. Esther Duflo’s TED talk in 2010 presents a compelling argument on why the right approach to evaluation is so valuable.

3. Develop a whole-systems approach to a few key challenges.

The international development community generally silos its interventions—projects are focused on health or economic growth, water or food security, good governance or the environment. But these are not stand-alone challenges—they are necessarily intertwined. It makes sense that large agencies need a defined structure, and the creation of pillars is understandable; however, the paucity of collaboration, or even conversation, across divisions within the same agency, let alone across multiple organizations, hinders the ability to analyze and learn from one another. Better knowledge sharing within and among industry players would foster better problem-solving given the complex ecosystems that must be considered in any intervention. Perhaps with a commonly developed understanding—even a commonly developed understanding of assumptions—it would become easier to respect the relative contributions of different players, hold appropriate people to account, and reduce the culture of territorialism that can pervade such institutions. While the results of the transformation remain to be seen, Dr. Jim Kim, the President of the World Bank, has begun to lead the way towards this way of thinking with the reorganization of that influential institution.


The aforementioned MDG video was transparent on the topic of the herculean work that remains—1 in 8 people on this planet still suffer from chronic hunger, 748 million still use water from an unimproved source, 800 women die each day from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth, and only 30 percent of those who need anti-retroviral drugs are receiving them. But without an analytical and honest evaluation of the progress to date—and the correlation of that progress with interventions—then it is difficult to believe that significant progress can be made towards combatting the serious challenges still ahead.

At the end of the day, goals are effective motivators, something to strive for, that can yield both failure and success. It is only through clear goals and candid assessment that the best practices—of business, development, and individual life—can be uncovered. Creating a culture of “rah-rah” celebration aids the cause by raising the visibility of the on-going efforts to achieve these ambitious targets, but it also sacrifices the opportunities for learning and improvement along the way. As the who’s who of international development faces the launch of the SDGs and the fifteen years of work that are to follow, practitioners face a reflection point of learning within the community. I hope that with a commitment to testing, documenting, and sharing success and failure, the next decade of UN General Assembly weeks can become an opportunity to learn, grow, and innovate as much as to celebrate the great work this community has achieved together.

Featured photo: United Nations
Deirdre White

Deirdre White

Deirdre White is a globally recognized leader in building tri-sector partnerships to address the world’s most pressing challenges. As CEO of PYXERA Global, she has led the transformation of the organization to one that maximizes impact through strong and strategic partnerships.


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