The Millennium Development Goals as part of the hegemonic discourse

Source: Pambazuka

The construction of geo-political inequalities between the nations of the North and those of the Global South are inherently racist. The relationship has been forged by the historical problematics of colonisation – the ongoing pillage of economic, cultural and social resources by countries of the South by the North.

Colonisation was not only enabled by the North’s military expertise in conjunction with unfettered greed, but also because of its illusions of cultural, racial and religious supremacy. Indeed, the trafficking of Africans to the colonies of Europe- where they were barbarically traded as slaves – was founded on the same racist philosophy. This geopolitical experience is reflected by international treaty bodies, global trade and economic relations, which emphasise the hierarchies between colonisers and colonised countries.

Prevailing patterns of globalisation reflect the unequal power relations between countries of the North and the Global South, whether they be in the area of finance, commerce or media. The MDGs, rather than subverting existing colonial power structures, bolstered them. Furthermore, they are a diversion from the more progressive alternatives that many African and other forces from the global South propose.


191 member states convened in September 2000, at the United Nations Millennium Summit, at the United Nations to decide on eight Millennium Development Goals for the world’s developing nations. Although the goals were intended to be completed by 2015, they have since become the focus for policy discussions and development orientated actions concerning economic and social development. Meetings and conferences on the goals under the auspices of the United Nations and the governing bodies of member countries have been held regularly since 2001, most recently at the 2005 Millennium+5 Summit. The aim of these gatherings has been to reiterate the goals and to reaffirm countries’ commitment to them. In addition these meetings provide an opportunity to measure the extent of progress toward their fulfilment.

Most of the Millennium Development Goals may seem at first sight appear innocuous. Nevertheless, they were not the result of an initiative from the South itself, but were pushed primarily by the triad (the United States, Europe and Japan), and were co-sponsored by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This begs the question of whether the goals are essentially an attempt to obfuscate neoliberal initiatives. Writers such as Samir Amin , S Fakuda –Parr and Su ming Khoo have all cited concerns in this regard. [1]

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted by acclamation in September 2000 by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly called “United Nations Millennium Declaration.” This process that was passed as “consensus,” stands in strong opposition to UN tradition, which always required that these sorts of documents be meticulously prepared and deliberated upon in detail at committees. This is emblematic of shifting tides in the global balance of power. The Quads- United States, Europe and Japan – exercise virtually unchallenged control over the hegemony and processes of a tamed and almost powerless UN.


The development model promoted by the official foreign aid donors, the Washington Consensus, reached climactic meeting point by the 1990s. This model was being criticised for overly emphasising free market reforms and economic growth as the driver of development, while disregarding the larger significance of addressing human livelihood, social inequality and environmental sustainability. In many ways, the international efforts of most civil society organizations to directly address such concerns resulted in the overwhelming support by world leaders of the Millennium Declaration in 2000 and its subsequent list of the MDGs to be achieved by 2015. One of the purposes of the MDGs was to bring social and environmental goals back onto the development agenda, as a counterweight to the narrow focus on free trade and market reforms of the preceding Washington Consensus model.

It is often claimed that MDGs follow up processes on the conclusions reached an apex over a series of summits convened in the 1990s. This is overstating the matter. The lead up engagements to these summits had attempted a new approach by inviting members of civil society organisations to break bread with the official state delegates. In spite of attempts to engineer the privileged space and access for larger and more politically malleable NGOs, many of which are recipients of donations and financial sponsorship backing from foundations and state funds, the attempt to prohibit the participation of popular social movements who were contending for more egalitarian and transparent processes was not entirely successful and more progressive voices were occasionally heard.

The interests of the economic hegemons known as the triad were deliberately separated from those of the Global South’s developing nations at global fora. This led to a standoff in Seattle where the North’s interests were rejected both by street protests and by government leaders from the South. The MDGs required the facade of credibility particularly because the South had become far more confident in rejecting unfavourable demands.

Doha represents yet another point at which Northern countries ascendancy was assailed. The only common ground was the pious albeit flimsy dream of poverty reduction. The prevailing official narrative of a bland, unaccountable set of virtually voluntary undertakings is the foundation on which the MDGs were constructed. The methodology of arriving at this false consensus utilised the top-down, ‘green room’ approach, which removed the drafting of the document from public scrutiny and located it within a nameless and faceless committee, which the broader assembly -particularly more radical voices – could not question or challenge. Any divergences were sanded down by the supposed amalgamation of the MDGs.

This approach does not scrutinise, challenge or demand any different options from the classical development model. It panders to the pillars of global capital and its neo-liberal instruments best characterised as the Washington Consensus. Indeed the process of constructing MDGs agenda appears to be devoid of the interests of the Global South particularly social, political and human rights. It does not articulate national economic priorities. The defenders of a rights-based paradigm are forced to reflect and reimagine the prevailing discourses of aid and development at the core of the MDGs.


Eight sets of goals were defined for the years 2000 to 2015. [2] The objective of each of the targets as specifically defined, is based on measurable indicators, generally acceptable as normative measures of success. Although each of these goals is commendable their definitions are often very vague. Moreover, debates concerning the conditions required to achieve the goals are often discarded. It is assumed without question that liberalism is perfectly compatible with the achievement of the goals. So for example Goal 1: Reduce extreme poverty and hunger by half is nothing but an empty incantation as long as the policies that generate poverty are not analysed and denounced and alternatives proposed.

UNESCO had devoted itself to the second goal (Achieve universal primary education) beginning in 1960, hoping to achieve it in ten years. Progress was made during the two decades that followed, but ground has been lost since. The almost obvious relationship between this lost ground, the reduction in public expenditures, and the privatization of education is neither examined in fact nor in theory.

Without discussion, declarations like Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women, are only empty talk. While the equality in question is reduced to access to education, the empowerment is measured by the proportion of wage-earning women. Goals 4, 5, and 6 are concerned with health. The means implementation in these areas are assumed to be completely compatible with extreme privatization and total respect for the “intellectual property rights” of the transnational corporations and, curiously enough, are recommended in Goal 8 concerning the supposed partnership between North and South!

MDG goal seven (Ensure environmental sustainability), asserts a broad idea (“to integrate the principles of sustainable development” into global and state policy frames), yet there is no clear or definitive articulation of how this should be pursued. Significantly any allusion to the United States’ refusal to advance a program to ensure ecological integrity is neatly avoided. Their ongoing refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol is not mentioned. This supposes that the rationale of capitalist economic strategy is compatible with the requirements of ”sustainable development”. This idea does not bear much scrutiny because the capitalist strategy rests on the notion of the rapid discounting of economic time (the lapse of interval that determines investment decisions never more than a few years).

The concerns of sustainability development as purported by the MDGs are future orientated, often anticipating development for decades and generations to come. The particular goals are thus diminished to almost nothing meaningful namely to reduce the number of people with no access to clean water by half and to enhance the living conditions of people who live in slums. The mechanism for monitoring the results including CO2 emissions do reduce environmental damage but do not curtail it. The authors are surprisingly reticent about denouncing the loss of biodiversity and only propose to ‘observe‘ the condition of land areas that are being destroyed.

In Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development, the authors immediately create a comparison between the partnership and the normative standards of liberalism stating that the goal is to create an open, multilateral financial and commercially orientated framework. As a result this goal seems to be in tandem with the demands of imperialist forces.

Advancement of shared market access is still judged by the volume of GDP share exports regardless of social impacts. The vexed question of subsidy reductions by the Quads requires a more comprehensive fight against poverty and this is the only ‘social’ goal in the final draft of the MDGs. Good governance as defined by the United States, a construct of the Washington Consensus, is not clearly defined and is treated as normative, universal and similarly for all nations. This is particularly problematic for countries outside Europe and the US whose development priorities are muffled by false consensus and co-opted into the Western characterisation.

Numerous targets are included to this totally contradictory goal, essentially to fill in gaps and make recommendations.


Fundamental examination around the crafting of MDG objectives and their the meaning is necessary and will probably prove that the MDGS are poorly framed undertakings that are not substantial contributions to an authentic, socially transformative process. Evoking a mantra of virtuous aspirations that commits no one, especially when the expression of these virtuous hopes is accompanied by conditions that essentially eliminate the possibility of their becoming reality. This requires us to ask whether the creators of the text were sincerely interested in poverty reduction? In this instance, the process can best be characterised as a hypocritical attempt to deceive those who are being cornered into ingesting the prescripts of liberalism. The ultimate beneficiaries are the hegemonic interests of global markets and transnational corporations.

The MDGs form one of a series of discourses designed to legitimise the instruments utilised by international capital and its proponents including Northern countries and to a far lesser extent, developing countries :

1) The pervasive speculation of the land appropriation agrarian areas. In common with rural and food commodities, land should also be subjected to the vagaries of market economics. The unyielding approach of market laws demands the policy of “enclosures“ which is similar to the English archaism -nooks-, which was in force for two hundred years and spread to Europe and beyond. This would pulverise the farming and peasant communities who comprise nearly half of the global population. The annihilation, which has been in progress, is already the significant reason for pauperization in Global South. This causes emigration from the fields to the urban settlements. This is of little interest to large-scale agri-business and supposedly mechanised rural producers. The slaughter of livelihoods, lifestyles and community life is not important in the scheme of massive returns.

2) Radical and un-negotiated privitisation, solely for capital expansion. This model of privitisation discredits the very notion of the state and subverts the existence of state owned property. The logic of this dogma is that these assets should be absorbed into the private sector, open markets and essentially ameliorate subsidised public service provision notably health and education. This is where the credibility of the MDGs regarding eradication of illiteracy and access to health fails. It seems clear that the trajectory to the privitisation of natural resources such as water and fuel which private companies make disproportionate use of not only marginalises household and small business user. It also renders any efforts towards sustainable development virtually pointless.

3) Complete deregulation and unfettered access for international, commercial ventures. This process is designed to lift all impediments to completely unequal trade relations. The intention is to create potentially even greater global inequality by enabling the prevailing influence over resources to be concentrated in international capital interests. This polarisation of global economic forces has already resulted in a small oligarchy that control raw materials and the agricultural sector. Less than thirty years ago, coffee makers were paid nine billion dollars and all the purchasers paid out twenty billion. These figures now stand at six and thirty billion. The coffee sector thus offers a cautionary tale of value chain devaluation and represents the unsuccessful social impacts of this decision. The chasm between the two represents the profits accrued to global cartels and their intermediaries. Under these circumstances, the honourable intentions of the fair trade movement are dwarfed by a larger machinery. The State must intervene through policy and political interpolations. The amendment of these diminishing terms of engagement for producers from developing countries must be determined by the explicit involvement of governments.

4) Unfettered mobility of capital. The fallacy of deregulation is misleadingly propelled as the prerequisite for attracting international capital. However, the Chinese government has maintained strict capital control over international speculation and yet presently attracts more investment than any other nation. In most other regions, foreign direct investment does little more than to enable capital driven plunder of assets. As a result, the International Monetary Fund enforced “capital accounts” to further enable the massive over-indebtedness of the United States. This has entrenched aggressive currency speculation and enabled systematic devaluing of developing country currencies. The only advantage of this malevolent form of speculation is that developing country assets can then be purchased by international capital for far below market value only to be sold for exponentially larger profits consequently.

5) Removal of the Nation State from intervention in economic management. Primarily, the function of removing the state is to reduce it to that of a client or facilitator of capital including debt service and public expenditure.

6) The negation of the Nation State is one of the most reprehensible features of the text and privileges the requirements of globalisation. In keeping with the market-orientated dogma, it insists that there are no viable options. The objective of this form of globalisation is to obliterate nations’ capacity to oppose the project of globalised capital expansion.

The MDG principles in their current form give very little purview for positive outcomes. At the outset they seemed more likely to reproduce global apartheid, deeply divided nations, profoundly unjust production patterns and denude State sovereignty. Indeed the reconstruction of strong, interventionist states and autonomy emerge as the underlying requirements for the MDGs’ successful implementation. This includes a revised definition of democracy and different avenues for active citizenship.

Transformation of the living conditions and aspirations of humanity can probably not be adequately contained in the goals constructed by the MDGs text. Other than a credibility deficit in their formulation, the outcomes are not democratic and are embedded in globalist approaches that have caused human regression for the past thirty years. While generously populated with standard rhetoric of ‘governance’, ‘development‘ ‘democracy’, the terms are insipid in light of the rapacious intent of the ideology in which they are embedded.

The thirty years that followed the Second World War were accompanied by unsurpassed growth, employment and social advancement. This was bolstered by instruments such as the Welfare State and subsidised social services –in other words a strong State. The creators of the MDG text have not necessarily made reference to these historical growth models and their impact on income distribution.

The notion of market regulation and state intervention has been repeatedly discredited as irrational and inherently corrupt by disciples of free-market dogma. The demise of regulation has inevitably resulted in increased unemployment , casualisation of labour , decreased access to life opportunities and the entrenchment of capital oligarchies.

In addition the text makes no allusion to the vexed and still unresolved colonial legacy. This bitter legacy and its many imperial mutations such as structural adjustment and globalisation are the cause of the ongoing and multiple forms of economic violence that many African countries are still experiencing. To reduce this to ‘inequality ‘ is a grotesque understatement and disservice.

In conclusion, I insist that a system of this type has a bleak future. The MDGs won’t make it possible to attenuate the seriousness of the problems and curb the resulting processes of political and social involution. The legitimacy of governments is diminishing and the context is absolutely optimal for new forms of power and counter-power. The possibility of new narratives and the reclamation of new language which frames people-centred development as constructed by popular social movements formations. We need to recognise the interdependent coalition of strong states , sovereign economic models and policies, new forms of power and emerging economic powers. Currently the MDGs are being evaluated and their efficacy as a global advocacy tool for equality punted. It is hoped that history will recall them as nothing more than a diversion from authentic, egalitarian demands for self-determined development.

– Amin S. The millennium development goals – A critique from the South. Monthly Review – an Independent Socialist Magazine. 2006;57(10) Retrieved from

– Fukuda-Parr S. Reducing inequality – The missing MDG: A content review of PRSPs and bilateral donor policy statements. Ids Bulletin-Institute of Development Studies. 2010;41(1):26–35. doi:10.1111/j.1759-5436.2010.00100.x.

– Khoo, S (2005) ‘The Millennium Development Goals: A Critical Discussion Trocaire Development Review, Dublin, April 2005 pp 43-56.

* Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is a scholar activist, public intellectual, social and economic commentator. Currently she is Managing Director and owner of a development consultancy called Four Rivers Trading. She serves as a board member in several organisations and is former president of the Business Women’s Association of South Africa, the Network of African Economists and the Association of Women in Development. She has been part of several African delegations to meetings of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and other UN conferences and has addresses the European Union and the United Nations.