It’s time to celebrate with old friends. In our case, those old friends are the Millennium Development Goals: the hopes and aspirations for global poverty and health that were established fifteen years ago.
Now, they’re out of a job. After fifteen years, they’ve been replaced by a new set of hopes: the Global Goals, which world leaders agreed upon earlier this year. It’s a good time to celebrate what was achieved through the MDGs, and think about what worked—and why it worked… Because a huge amount is at stake with the Global Goals.
The MDGs were pretty successful! “The global efforts to achieve the goals have saved millions of lives and improved conditions for millions more around the world,” the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said earlier this year.
The biggest success for the MDGs has been goal number one: extreme poverty. “Only two short decades ago, nearly half of the developing world lived in extreme poverty,” said the UN when it reported back on this earlier this year. “The number of people now living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half, falling from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015.”
That’s amazing progress. There are some other terrific achievements, too: More girls are now in school, and women have gained ground in political representation. The number of children dying before their fifth birthday has declined by more than half, and the proportion of women dying in childbirth has come down by nearly half. New HIV infections fell by approximately 40 per cent between 2000 and 2013, while the global malaria mortality rate has fallen by 58 percent. (Read more amazing progress in the UN’s July report on the goals.) All of these, and more, were anticipated in the MDGs.
Now, the goals didn’t do all of this by themselves, as much as we love the goals. That’s not how goals work. Goals are things we set out to do, though, and putting that kind of attention on things really matters.
The MDGs also encouraged people to keep count—and what gets measured gets done. “Experts said the most important contribution made by the Millennium Development Goals was establishing yardsticks for measuring what countries have and have not done for their people,” said The New York Times when it looked at the MDGS, “not just in broad-brush economic indicators but in concrete measures of well-being, like how many women die in childbirth or how many children are clinically malnourished.”
“It’s a data revolution, and that’s important in and of itself,” Nancy Birdsall, the president of the Center for Global Development in Washington. We couldn’t agree more. Data is key to development. Keeping count and aiming high is important.
The Global Goals will keep that effort going. There are more Global Goals than MDGs—more than twice as many, 17 to eight. That may be too many to some people, but each of them represents something that people care about. The MDGs were dreamed up behind closed doors while the SDGs came about through a more open (and sometimes messier) process. And they’re for everyone, while the MDGs were really aimed at developing countries only.
Not all the MDGs succeeded. Some succeeded more than others. It’s easy enough to see that hoping to find a job for everyone, or to establish gender equality, are big, big tasks that will take time, energy, sweat, imagination and money, not necessarily in that order. It’s a fact that the poorest people still struggle and that a huge amount remains to be done now: the MDGs only got us part of the way.
Some people see big goals as inherently unrealistic, and they’re critical of them. We disagree. The MDGs helped change the way people think about development at a critical time. They have scored some amazing successes, and by aiming high, they showed the world what truly global ambition looked like.
It was a different time when they were conceived in the basement of the UN in New York. Mark Malloch-Brown, then an advisor to Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, says they came out of the optimism of that era. “It was a benign, optimistic time, before 9/11 and the Iraq war, when peace and harmony was not thought to be impossible,” he told The Guardian.
It’s a very different world fifteen years later. But the optimism, the vision fused with practicality of the MDGs helped to keep the world heading in the right direction for the intervening years, even while so much in the world seemed wrong.
The MDGs are our heroes: We will celebrate their retirement by raising a glass to them this New Year’s Eve as we count down the hours to 2016, and as we start work with their successors.