The MDGs and SDGs: their significance and challenges for the development agenda – Fellows’ seminar by David Malone

5 March 2020

“The United Nation’s (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2001 marked a distinctive turn in the international community’s approach to the means of achieving development. They arose from several earlier waves of thinking on economic progress in developing countries, and the experience acquired during the early decades of international assistance and other development efforts. Thus, a look back may be useful, both in understanding some of the challenges the MDGs, a rather straightforward set of goals, targets and indicators, faced; and why the much more complex, interlinked and ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) face an uphill struggle now –  in part due to the different economic trends that mark their periods of implementation (2001-2015 and 2015-2030) respectively,” said David Malone, Rector of the United Nations University and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Tokyo, Japan.

STIAS Fellow David Malone during his seminar on 27 February 2020

“The MDGs arose in part from a realisation that aid as salvation to the developing world was no longer nearly sufficient and that there was a need to galvanise action through other channels, including internal ones” said Malone. “Civil society actors pushed the ideas of goals. The MDGs were therefore formulated with eight goals and 21 targets – making them relatively easy to grasp and achieve. From 2000 to 2015 the developing world experienced the first period of sustainable growth since decolonisation.  And it was this rather pedestrian, if hugely important, fact that led to most of the MDGs being achieved.”

However, the feeling among campaigning groups and many government representatives at the UN was that the MDGs were not ambitious enough, having been achieved (a paradoxical position, in Malone’s view, and inter-governmental negotiations produced the SDGs consisting of 17 goals, 169 targets, and 233 indicators – largely ignoring advice from a UN High-Level panel led by three heads of state or government and also from the UN Secretary-General that a more streamlined approach might be easier to manage and to  achieve.

Examining how the goals were respectively designed and negotiated will be part of the story underpinning a monograph (The UN and its Discontents) which Malone is currently writing that aims to take a semi-sociological approach to the UN.

During his seminar at STIAS, he highlighted some of the major historical developments that underpinned the compilation of these goals.

“Most people assume that development has always been with us,” he said, “but it only really emerged as a collection of new ideas in Latin America in the 1930s and 40s when Raul Prebisch and others realised that no matter how good their countries were at commodity exports and agriculture, they could always be second-class citizens in a global economy in which manufactured products were valued more highly. Decades later arose calls for a new economic order.”

During World War II there was a great deal of thinking about international economic relations and how these could be re-formulated post-conflict with the aim of avoiding another war. Many felt that the punitive effects of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I had so disempowered Germany that it was no surprise it soon embarked on a march towards war, World War II.

“Roosevelt, in particular, as of 1941, was thinking a lot about the post-war order. He was confident that the US would play a big role in shaping the future rules.  He believed in a more generous approach to the defeated powers and also in the end of colonisation,” said Malone.

Three institutions were agreed in 1944 prior to the end of the war – the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (forerunner of the World Bank) and the International Trade Organisation, which proved initially stillborn, but emerged as the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the early 1990s.

“The idea was to fix the global economic dispensation to avoid a third war,” said Malone. “But much of the impetus still came from the industrial North. Developing countries – many of which were still colonies – were not yet seriously involved in global decision making, several Latin American countries excepted.”

For countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka decolonisation proceeded relatively quickly.

“But Britain had left these countries desperately poor and in pretty bad shape,” said Malone. “Good initial leadership pulled these countries through.”

In 1950 the Colombo Plan was established as the first significant post-World War II aid programme. It represented an intergovernmental effort involving about 10 countries to strengthen economic and social development in South Asia.

Malone described the 1950s as characterised by technical co-operation and experimental aid projects, mainly in the industrialisation and agriculture fields. “Lots of these were very useful but, most importantly, they powered the belief in large-scale development. Industrialisation often failed due to the lack of trade infrastructure and hence markets for industrial goods from newly independent countries. Agriculture fared better, heralding a brief golden age rewarding agricultural research.”

Advocacy for the global South

As decolonisation proceeded – especially in Africa – it created a wave of new members to the UN system – new members whose rallying cry was a right to development.

“This led to a significant voice for development by the global South.”

The 1960s and 70s were characterised by borrowing by developing countries from industrialised countries as well as borrowing from the World Bank and IMF, several new regional development banks and private-sector lenders.

“It was taken for granted that these loans would be repaid but, for many countries, the aid received was never sufficient for the task at hand. By the early 1980s, a major debt crisis in much of the developing world was emerging.  It took a long time for commercial and official creditors to agree to a joined-up approach to addressing it, eventually involving significant debt rescheduling and forgiveness.”

Meanwhile, a highly restrictive, indeed economically repressive, policy framework developed by the IMF and the World Bank known as structural adjustment, backfired and  was eventually challenged by the emergence of  the UN Human Development Report, drafted by a team led by Mahbub ul Haq, a close friend and professional associate of Amarta Sen, in 1990. It  aimed to shift the focus of development in a more people-centred direction. Initially these ideas were met by skepticism but, by the late 1990s, had become more generally accepted.

“Thinking also turned to a new mix of funding sources for developing countries – financial remittances from developing country workers abroad today being a very important one, seriously outstripping foreign government aid,” said Malone.

These are some of the very complex historical shifts which led to the development of the MDGs in 2000 and SDGs in 2015.

“The MDGs were implemented in varying ways across the developing world, but, in terms of growth, were most spectacularly achieved in Asia, pulling hundreds of millions out of absolute poverty.  But their attainment was uneven across goals and targets, on the one hand, and regions on the other,” said Malone.

“The SDGs, as mentioned earlier, much more ambitious and sprawling, if integrated relative to each other, constitute a real challenge for many governments,” he continued. “Some ministers (like those in health and education) love the SDGs because they see their mandate reflected in them, but generally planning and particularly finance ministers don’t cleave to them, as, in fact, countries tend to pick and choose what to focus on, not being able to afford a focus on 169 specific goal-related UN targets.  The prioritisation of the MDGs was lost in the more extensive SDGs. But they do have uptake in civil society, many universities, some business associations and, in principle, among many governments.  It is moving from principle to practice that is proving challenging.”

“The sychronised global economic slowdown since 2015 has not helped in their implementation.  There is also the challenge of having the same SDGs for all countries – enabling or disempowering conditions vary tremendously across global regions and within them.  There is a need for regional differentiation and prioritisation.”

One helpful background agreement underpinning SDG achievements has been the Addis Ababa Action Agenda of 2015, a response by the world community to the need for mobilisation of greater financial resources for development.  It draws on multiple potential funding sources rather than simply assistance from richer countries (which in real terms has been declining gently for some years, with loans often substituting for grant aid, risking another debt crisis).  The Agenda aims to provide a framework for financing sustainable development by aligning financing flows and policies with economic, social and environmental priorities.  And sustainable development is now the rallying cry due to fast-growing international concern over climate change.

“There are as many different interpretations of development as there are people,” said Malone. “Development is also paradoxical in nature. Change always provokes reaction, especially when it affects deep-rooted social conventions. We underestimate the attachment to convention and traditions. Change is always resisted by those who will lose by it or risk losing from it.”

“This is a moment of significant change. A number of developing countries have now succeeded enough to worry the industrialised West. For example, China is now challenging the USA in terms of global economic leadership.  I don’t know where this will end up but it will be interesting.”

“It’s a complex picture,” he continued. “It’s tempting to be catastrophist  in discussing development, but the longer I live the more I notice change, including much change for the better, even if it’s just at a local or individual level.”

“International organisations get it wrong when they stick too hard and fast to a single idea of intellectual construct,” he continued. “These are fast overtaken.  We should always be looking for the people with the next good idea rather than being bound by conventional wisdom. Failure also often prompts new, better ideas. The older I get the more I believe in the power of individuals and the unpredictability of what will work (and why).”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw



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