Why you should care

The sequel to the Millennium Development Goals will involve poor, middle-income and rich countries alike.

Bill Gates adores them. Bono extols their virtues. So do Bill Clinton and Ted Turner. What are these magical things, beloved by rich, powerful men?

Nope, they’re not dollar bills. They’re the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, as the acronym-addicted wonks who work in international development call them. Chances are you’ve never heard of the MDGs — just 10 percent of Americans have, according to a 2010 survey — but they’ve been mightily important to the world’s 2.4 billion people who live in poverty. Created in 2000, the MDGs set eight goals mostly for poor countries, including reducing hunger and extreme poverty by half, combating disease and getting many more kids to school.

The MDGs set eight goals, including reducing hunger and extreme poverty by half, combating disease and getting many more kids to school.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 15: Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Earth Institute participates at a panel dicussion on the fifth anniversary Global Handwashing Day on October 15, 2012 in New York City. Celebrated in over 100 countries, Global Handwashing Day is an an

Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University

Source Shaul Schwarz/Getty

The MDGs will expire in 2015. Some development goals, notably in health and education, will be met in some countries. Some, like halving extreme poverty, will not. But overall, they’re considered successful enough as an agenda-setter that the international community is working on a sequel. The new goals’ scope and content are TBD, and their draft name is Sustainable Development Goals. We’ll jump the gun and call them the SDGs.

The SDGs will likely entail a couple of big changes from the MDGs, according to researchers and policymakers. First, while the SDGs will still focus on alleviating poverty, they’ll also aim at environmental sustainability and social inclusion. Second, all the goals will apply to all countries, not just the poor ones. Thus, come 2015, Americans, Europeans and others might know as much about the SDGs as Ethiopians do about the MDGs.

“The U.S. will have to answer for its environmental policies, its social context and its environmental context the same way as any other country,” says development economist Jeffrey Sachs, a fierce advocate of the MDGs and a prominent voice on what’s being called “the post-2015 development agenda.” Sachs hugely favors that shift, “especially because high-income countries are not achieving sustainable development right now.” Sustainable development would mean reducing inequality and greenhouse gas emissions, among other things.

Among the biggest criticisms of the MDGs was that only one goal, MDG 8, involved rich countries. MDG 8 invokes a “global partnership for development,” including fairer trade and aid and debt relief. Performance on it has been “lousy,” says Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who studies the MDGs. “And it’s not surprising that it’s a lousy one, because it would commit rich countries to something.”

Kenny generally supports the MDGs as a development tool. But this time around, he’d like to see rich countries commit to more substantive goals, such as removing agricultural subsidies, setting higher targets for emigration from poor countries and “not trying to strengthen intellectual property rights on the backs of the poor.” And, like Sachs and other progressive development wonks, Kenny wants some language on reducing inequality within and among nations.

The SDGs will focus on alleviating poverty, but they’ll also aim at environmental sustainability and social inclusion. And the goals will apply to all countries, not just the poor ones.

Kenny admits all this is unlikely. “In my dreams and only in my dreams, all that stuff is there,” he says.

The problem? It’s easier for rich countries to dictate obligations than take them on. It doesn’t matter that the SDGs, which bureaucrats and diplomats are now negotiating in acronym-laden conferences around the world, will not be binding. Rich countries may balk anyway.

Sachs acknowledges this. “I’m worried about powerful interests and vested interests blocking this process somehow, or just useless fights, or cynicism,” he says. But then again, he recalls that early in the MDG process, the goals were “viewed very skeptically by NGOs (nongovernment organizations), for example. ‘Why these eight? Why not this? Why not that? What’s the use?’”

These days, Sachs says, “There’s a low level of cynicism about the MDGs. There’s cynicism about promises by rich countries, there’s cynicism about many governments in poor countries, there’s cynicism about development assistance. But there’s not so much cynicism anymore about the goals themselves.”

And perhaps that trajectory — from skepticism to can-do-it-ness — was the MDGs’ most notable achievement.

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