So What’s Wrong with the MDGs?

The State of the Middle East coverWith this week’s United Nations Summit underway, Dan Smith, author of The State of the Middle East, delves into the problems plaguing the UN’s MDGs, or Millennium Development Goals, on his blog. Indeed, what could be wrong with a “call for the rich to support the poor that has garnered the support of all UN member states and a glittering array of international stars and celebrities”? Smith explains in this post, reprinted below.


This week’s UN summit will call for a big renewed effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. But there are reasons for starting to think a bit further ahead. A new report from International Alert asks us to get ‘beyond the MDGs”.

At a launch meeting a couple of weeks back in London, the moderator – the BBC’s Bridget Kendall –  asked the report’s lead author, Phil Vernon, “You clearly seem to have a problem with the MDGs – what’s that about?”

Yes, what is it about? A call for the rich to support the poor that has garnered the support of all UN member states and a glittering array of international stars and celebrities – who could object? Or, more precisely, what’s the nature of the reservation that has been nagging away at some people for a decade since the MDGs were first articulated and is now starting to be aired in a variety of media and forums?

For me the problem with the MDGs comes down to five main inter-related issues:

1. They are not comprehensive so do not fully depict what developing countries should aim for – or what richer countries should assist them in. The MDGs include much that is of fundamental importance for development.* But among the key factors impinging on development that the MDGs wholly leave out are peace, the system of governance, security, law and order, justice, corruption, statutory law, human rights and education beyond primary level. Of course, setting out big development goals in a relatively concise form necessitated selection. However, the items that have been left out are not (or should not be treated as) mere after-thoughts or add-ons; these are some of the fundamental, determinative considerations of development.

Initially, it was the Millennium Declaration that set out the aspirations – a commitment to a better world defined through values, principles and basic goals (take a look at them in the footnote below).** The MDGs took two elements from the Millennium Declaration – #3 on development and poverty eradication and #4 on the environment – and re-fashioned them into eight global goals. The selectiveness of the MDGs, in short, was conscious, a point to which I return below. Even within a narrowly defined view of development, the MDGs are selective, with three focusing on health but none on agriculture, for example, while complex issues of trade, global finance and investment are wrapped up under the heading of MDG #8 on global partnership.

Read the full post on Dan Smith’s blog.