The Millennium Development Goals: The Road So Far

by Oliver Authreid

Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan spoke with the media at the United Nations Office at Geneva following the June 30, 2012 Meeting of the Action Group for Syria. © US Mission in Geneva

Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan spoke with the media at the United Nations Office at Geneva following the June 30, 2012 Meeting of the Action Group for Syria.
© US Mission in Geneva

In the year 2000, when the Millennium Summit convened, the economic inequality was not as serious as it is right now, but there was a broader consensus in the international community to overcome that problem. And so a policy was set, which was to become known as the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), an ambitious 15-year plan to tackle (and overcome) some of the world’s most difficult problems by 2015. As the deadline approaches, there has been progress in, for example, improving maternal health, reducing child mortality and access to clean water. But the record of success is mixed, and current negotiations for a successive policy to the MDGs reveal that some of these pending crises—from migration and climate change to food supply—require urgent solutions.

All UN agencies, offices and programs committed themselves to achieve the MDGs by the year 2015. When the World Summit in 2000 adopted the Millennium Declaration, and later the MDGs, the UN was able to convey the importance of a comprehensive development approach. The mistakes learned from 1990s peacekeeping and the inability to prevent two genocides in less than two years, combined with the loss of a whole state to chaos, were, with this ambitious development agenda, intended to be avoided in future.

So the Millennium Summit in the year 2000 was more like a last chance for the UN to prove the relevance of its role in the 21st century. On September 8, 2000, all the UN member states signed the Millennium Declaration which forms the basis for the Millennium Development Goals, adopted shortly thereafter. In December of that same year, the General Assembly passed the eight goals, which were to eradicate extreme poverty, to achieve universal primary education, to promote gender equality, to reduce child mortality, to improve maternal health, to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, to ensure environmental sustainability and to develop a global partnership for development.

The history of the MDGs, however, is much older than the Millennium Declaration and the World Summit in 2000. In the 1990s, several UN conferences addressed topics such as human dignity, security and human rights at the highest political level. Those eventually became the Millennium Development Goals. Starting with one of the defining treaties of the 21st century, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio resulted in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development which was intended to guide the future of sustainable development. Later on, at a 1994 conference in Cairo, the issue of population and development, including facets of immigration and infant mortality, was addressed. In 1995, the fourth World Conference on Women, which was held in Beijing, effectively developed the framework of what would later become one of the 8 Millennium Development Goals, namely gender equality.

These major conferences in the 1990s were unprecedented in both scale and scope. Many states, however, took a more cautious approach toward international conferences. Each of them lasted for weeks and did not necessarily enhance multilateral cooperation or development policy. Yet, the world was facing economic and ecological crises of an intensity hitherto unknown. This combination of rather small steps and huge efforts led to a form of conference fatigue.

Boys sit on a boulder overlooking the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya on Friday December 18, 2009. © Gates Foundation

Boys sit on a boulder overlooking the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya on Friday December 18,
© Gates Foundation

For Kofi Annan, who had assumed office as Secretary General of the UN on January 1, 1997, states avoiding broad consensus at international conferences posed a threat to his personal agenda, and yet they were to provide an opportunity to bring world leaders back for an ultimate gathering. Having attended the three major World Conferences in the 1990s as a UN Staff member and Special Representative, including a short spell in Yugoslavia, Annan knew the importance of the issues on the negotiating table and the difficulty of fostering cooperation among Member States.

However, Annan’s personal experiences and failures in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia meant that he harboured a personal desire to put things right. Thus, organising and pushing world leaders toward the Millennium Summit was not only a question of moving development issues forward, but also of amending the shortcomings of one of the United Nations’ darkest eras. Somalia, where traditional peacekeeping measures had failed, had demonstrated the need for a more comprehensive approach to security policy in combination with human rights and economic development. Similarly, the horrific genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica proved the UN’s inability to provide the necessary conditions for peaceful cooperation.

As of yet, no genocides have occurred in the 21st century. But insecurity has been constantly on the rise. The MDGs, which serve as a guideline for all adopted projects, have contributed to the improvement of the living standard in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, not all regions have enjoyed an equal share of the improvements. The eradication of extreme poverty is advancing in relative terms. Still, it has increased in absolute numbers. Only recently did UNESCO state that the second MDG , universal primary education, is far from being met in Sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia, despite claims that it would be achieved. Although it has been achieved in other regions, a large portion of the world’s population has yet to receive primary school education.

Currently, the successor to the MDGs is being negotiated. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as they are called, are intended to replace those eight targets from 2000, taking a more advanced approach than before. Every aspect of human life is covered under the SDGs, which are to be adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015. One thing is certain—current world crises underscore that 2015 is not only the “Time for Global Action,” as the UN has phrased it, but also the time to decide what “Global Action” will mean in the future.

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