The Millennium Development Goals: milestones or millstones? Human rights priorities for the post-2015 development agenda.

Author:Darrow, Mac

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

Albert Einstein


In September 2010, world leaders met for the High Level Plenary Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals ("MDGs Summit"). The MDGs Summit took place with great fanfare, attracting close to 140 heads of state and government, as well as leaders from civil society, foundations and the private sector. (1) It launched important aid initiatives and generated unprecedented agreement by Member States on the importance of human rights in efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals ("MDGs"). But how successful was this event, measured against its goals, and what are the human rights implications of the MDGs Summit with regard to future development and aid policy?

Global summits have not enjoyed an easy ride in the court of public opinion. (2) Global summitry has been a veritable industry since the 1990s, convened at great expense to the international taxpayer, generating (and recycling) a great wealth of largely pre-scripted and partially implemented promises to improve the human condition. Global promises are, it has been noted, "easily set but seldom met." (3) If past global summit commitments had been achieved, we would all have been healthy by 2000, trade would be "fair," and twenty-four thousand children would not be dying each day through poor sanitation and easily preventable causes. (4) Given this track record of unmet goals, why should the MDGs Summit continue to merit our attention?

Certain global conferences have enjoyed comparatively strong political support, have established institutional frameworks for long-term cooperative action, and, arguably, have contributed positively to global social progress. (5) The 2000 Millennium Summit (6) is especially noteworthy because in the first half of 2001, to prevent the Millennium Declaration from lapsing into oblivion, a U.N. inter-agency expert group extracted a small number of quantifiable human development commitments from the voluminous body of the Millennium Declaration, and established a global campaign and international monitoring regime under the auspices of the U.N. (7) These goals (the MDGs) encapsulate an important subset of internationally recognised socio-economic rights and set global targets from the baseline year of 1990 to (for the most part) a 2015 end date. While a global assessment of their impact is premature, the MDGs have undoubtedly raised the profile and popular awareness of development issues, changed the terms of international development policy, and helped to bring a stronger focus to neglected social rights, such as the right to food, education and health.

The key premise of this paper is to show that the agreed upon global summit commitments are alone insufficient; equally if not more important for progress is sustained political mobilisation and innovative use of the commitments. This paper begins with a short history of the MDGs initiative, along with an appraisal of its significance. A short analysis of the process and outcomes of the MDGs Summit follows, evaluated through the prism of human rights. The purpose is not to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of the MDGs Summit for its own sake. Rather, the purpose is to sharpen and strengthen arguments for integrating human rights in national MDG-based development planning, and to position human rights more clearly and strategically in policy debates for the post-2015 development agenda.


    This Section begins with a short review of the historical origins of the MDGs and their significance for development policy and financing. It then examines some of the more pertinent human rights critiques, leading into an appraisal of the significance of the MDGs Summit outcomes. Afterward, priorities and proposals for the post-2015 development agenda are discussed.

    1. History and Significance of the MDGs

      The MDGs comprise eight time-bound, measurable human development goals, with eighteen globally agreed targets and forty-eight indicators. (8) Examples include: (1) between 1990 and 2015, halving the proportion of people suffering hunger and living on less than USD1 per day; (2) achieving universal primary education; (3) halting and beginning to reverse HIV/AIDS by 2015; and (4) reducing by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio. Significantly, in MDG 8, donor countries agreed to a number of commitments in connection with aid, trade, debt relief, access to essential medicines and technology transfer. (9) The inclusion of donor commitments in this global compact for poverty reduction helps to explain why the MDGs have attracted broader support than their predecessor, the "International Development Goals" produced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the 1990s. (10) Secluded from public view in the months following the MDG Summit, the architects of the MDGs could scarcely have imagined their eventual impact on the global development discourse, if not development policy on the ground.

      The MDGs bring a number of advantages to development work, and indirectly also to human rights. Notably, the MDGs embody a wide international consensus, and provide a framework for mobilising resources to help realise a small but significant number of socio-economic rights. The manageable scope and quantifiable character of the MDGs theoretically makes them amenable to "costing" at the national level, which in turn facilitates analysis of the "fiscal space" and resources required for their realisation, including through official development assistance (ODA), (11) where domestic resource constraints so require. At least implicitly, in these respects, the MDGs challenge "Washington Consensus" economic policies and ideologically-driven fiscal conservatism, (12) which have imposed unwarranted constraints on domestic policy space and budgets for social spending in many poorer countries. (13)

      The MDGs harness the power of numbers to provide a framework for evidence-based policymaking and the power of simple ideas to mobilise public opinion. This is supported by a global Millennium Campaign. The MDGs provide global benchmarks for accountability, and facilitate cross-country comparisons of human progress. Some have claimed the MDGs have improved data collection, statistical methods and monitoring of important attributes of human well being beyond crude surrogates such as per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP). (14) Some have also claimed the MDGs have facilitated cross-sector collaboration in development work. (15) Perhaps more controversially, the MDGs have also been credited as the catalyst for increased pro-poor public expenditure, debt cancellation in over thirty countries, steady increases in aid levels, improvements in child mortality, education enrollments, and representation of women in parliament, and helping nearly half a billion people escape "dollar-a-day" poverty. (16) As to their normative attributes, it has also been argued that the MDGs--interpreted in line with other international declarations and world summit outcomes--have strengthened the claims of certain socioeconomic rights as binding norms of customary international law. (17)

      Some claim that high among the MDGs' virtues are their simplicity, statistical rigour, and feasibility. (18) In principle, a relatively small list of human development goals more readily mobilises public opinion and political action than a lengthy list. With a number of notable exceptions, as will be demonstrated later in this paper, the issues included in most MDGs are clear, and have solid indicators with robust data sets at the national level with which to facilitate monitoring. This serves to reduce interpretation bias. The "feasibility" of the MDGs is said to draw from the fact that the (usually) 2015 endpoint for the various goals is defined by reference to the rate of progress that actually occurred between 1965 and 1990. (19) In other words, the operative assumption is that if the world was able to achieve aggregate progress at a certain rate between 1965 and 1990, continued progress at the same rate through to 2015 should be "feasible."

    2. Human Rights Critiques of the MDGs

      Notwithstanding the suggested benefits outlined above, not everybody sees the MDGs as an unalloyed boon for human development, let alone human rights. Derided by their most ardent detractors as "Major Distracting Gimmicks," critics of the MDGs have pointed to the secretive circumstances of their birth, their technocratic and reductionist nature, their lack of ambition, their failure to address root causes of poverty, their failure to factor in legal obligations pertaining to social rights, their gender-blindness, their failure to address poverty in rich countries, their weak accountability mechanisms, their limited uptake by social movements in the Global South, the potentially distorting character of target-driven policymaking, and the propensity of the MDGs to "crowd out" attention to important issues that didn't make it into the global list, for example, social security or social protection. (20)

      These critiques are relatively well rehearsed, however there are a number of trenchant problems that deserve particular attention when considering the lessons to be drawn for the post-2015 development agenda. These are: tensions between MDG progress and authoritarian governance; procedural and legitimacy concerns; problems relating to poor specification; inappropriate scale of ambition based upon unreliable and arbitrary assumptions about feasibility; misinterpretation and misapplication of the MDGs at the national level; the failure to address growing inequalities; tensions with international human rights legal standards; and colonisation of the MDGs by economic growth and aid lobbies.

      1. The MDGs can provide a fig leaf for authoritarian regimes

        Recent events in the Middle East, and what has...

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