Development and Its Discontents: Assessing the Limits and Future of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals

The achievements said to have been accomplished since the turn of the century under the mandate of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) include cutting global poverty in half, enabling some 90% of children in developing countries to have access to primary education, and assisting some 2.3 billion people in gaining access to clean drinking water.

Revealed to the public following the optimistic prose of the UN’s Millennium Declaration in 2000, the MDGs were encapsulated in eight objectives to be achieved in a 15 year-long global fight against poverty, hunger and inequality.

But with the 2015 deadline for their fulfillment rushing ever closer, the UN is considering a new agenda for global growth and development. Despite successes, over half of the MDGs remain unfulfilled, leaving UN officials facing the hard truth that malnutrition, destitution and the abuse of human rights remain a reality for much of the world’s population.

Missed Opportunities?

In a series of frank admissions, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has cited a series of setbacks. Child mortality in poorer nations remains an issue, as does environmental destruction and greenhouse gas emissions. Sporadic and unsteady employment is also still a burden for many nations, with aid from developed nations to the global south falling in 2011 for the first time in a number of years. According to the UNDP report of 2014 regarding MDG progress, 1.2 billion people are still mired in “extreme poverty.”

With less fanfare than witnessed through the Millennium Declaration, a summit on the progress of the MDGs held in 2010 laid the foundation for a development plan extending past 2015. Two years later the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development convened in Rio, Brazil. Dubbed the Rio+20, a potential program of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was proposed, allegedly to compliment and build on the original MDGs and assist in formulating a renewed international development plan.

But what are the SDGs, and will they be able to pick up where the MDGs have failed, if they failed at all? 

“The SDGs capture all of the issues that were included in the MDGs and more,” said Shannon Kindornay, a researcher for the North-South Institute (NSI), in an interview for Toward Freedom. “They build on the MDG framework and add issues that were missed, like inequality and objectives related more closely to economic growth. Like the MDGs, they will be time-bound (to be achieved by 2030) yet unlike the MDGs, they have been developed through a much more inclusive and consultative manner – they will be universal instead of fixated on developing countries with an emphasis in affording countries flexibility to identify their own priorities.”

The SDGs thus constitute an attempt to extend global development schemes past and beyond the perceived shortcomings of several of the as-yet unfulfilled MDGs. Currently under renewed discussion by the UN General Assembly, the SDGs extend the mere eight goals of the MDGs to encompass 17 objectives with 169 targets, with a greater sense of urgency for areas such as climate change.

A prime obstacle that has developed since the drafting of the Millennium Declaration has been the impact of fiscal restraints on aid budgets, as well as, according to the NSI, a general “re-thinking of the role of aid” in the face of a renewed emphasis on the private sector and official NGOs. The MDGs themselves are an earlier attempt to create a development program with real substance that would stand above and beyond previous agreements that had often stayed within the realm of rhetoric. Following a period of alleged “summit fatigue” in the 1990s, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forged ahead with laying some preliminary objectives for a renewed global growth plan. 

Although allegedly drawn from previous declarations on economic development, these early goals gained traction with state leaders which, although voluntary, were arguably a step forward in giving various nations a set of objectives to aspire to. With the political and propaganda value of marking the passing of the millennium with a real proposal for world development, the Millennium Declaration was seen as a concrete foundation for a plan of action. With the creation of a special advisory body, the Millennium Project, in 2002, and the support of over 170 government leaders for the MDGs at the 2005 UN World Summit, there were real grounds for optimism.

Yet the gloomy prospects for several MDGs in the run-up to 2015 are prompting a more far-reaching critique on the very nature of global economics. “The Millennium Development Goals were not developed as a global agenda for development,” claimed Yilmaz Akyuz, Chief Economist of the South Centre, at a workshop for the G77 in 2013. “MDGs are based on a donor-centric view of development with a focus on poverty and aid. They do not embrace a large segment of the population in the developing world, notably in the middle-income countries, which fall outside the threshold set in the MDGs but still have their development aspirations unfulfilled.”

In a strikingly similar theme, an editorial for the March/April 2014 issue of Third World Resurgence claimed the MDGs were always intended to be implemented for the benefit of developed nations looking to “limit their development obligations to the South.”

New Approaches

Could the SDGs be different? At a glance, material on their potential involves a considerable amount of “reaffirming” in regards to previous development strategy. In the UN document “The Future We Want” – itself a General Assembly Resolution in the wake of the Rio+20 – numerous references are made to previous declarations and target-setting agendas on economic progress.

Yet according to Akyuz, international development after 2015 cannot simply “extend the MDGs” or adopt a program of “reformulating the goals, dropping one or two and adding a few in areas such as environment and human rights.”

What needs to be created, he argues, is a new method that instead focuses “on global systemic reforms to remove main impediments to development” in order to “secure an accommodating international environment for sustainable development.”

This may entail a renewed focus on framing any potential SDG program within the stated needs of individual nations. Martin Khor, himself Executive Director of the South Centre, stated in a UN Panel in March 2013 that the “choice of SDGs should be in line with what developing countries want to achieve” and should not constitute “a set of  goals for only developing countries to undertake as a kind of conditionality or new obligations applying only to them.”

A clue as to the validity of this statement can be found in MDG number eight, the objective of which is the rather ambiguous target of instigating a “global partnership for development.” According to the NSI, MDG eight is far from being achieved in light of developed nation’s reticence to compromise on issues pertaining to debt relief and tariff reform. 

“There is plenty of research out there that shows states act within their own best interests,” explained Kindornay of the North-South Institute. “Take my home country, Canada, which has more recently been promoting economic diplomacy as a top priority in foreign policy in terms of cultivating trade relationships and the Canadian private sector abroad. While these objectives and development in the sense of the MDGs are not necessarily a zero sum game, there is no question which priority holds trump.”

Introducing an element of “choice” as outlined above would therefore imply strengthening the autonomy of developing nations, particularly in relation to their economic interactions with the global north. Without such a process, it seems difficult to imagine how the global south is to achieve MDG objectives prior to next year, or whether any potential SDG program can flourish.

Human Rights and Development

If the MDGs are a success or failure then a telling indicator may be to what extent they have assisted in safeguarding the fundamental rights and freedoms of the global population.  

The organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has played a sizable role both in the formulation and implementation of the MDGs. A glance at OECD perspectives highlights a discrepancy, however, between current MDG objectives and the rhetoric of the original Millennium Declaration. The latter document reaffirmed the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as well as everything from “civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights” to International Humanitarian Law and “meeting the special needs of Africa”.

A look at the eight existing MDGs highlights a certain loss of the rights-based rhetoric detailed above, with MDG two and three arguably being the only goals to deal specifically with human rights in relation to women’s representation and education.

The differences arguably revolve around practicalities, with some sources even claiming that development agencies have been found to be uncomfortable with implementing the rights-based vocabulary inherent in the Millennium Declaration into the MDGs.

Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, in his capacity as a special advisor to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, remarked upon this attitude, claiming the MDGs represented a “business as usual” outlook on development instead of any radical drive to implement human rights treaties specifically. 

Indeed, under existing policy the implementation of civil and political rights involving freedom of speech and democratic participation has tended to take second place to economic development. In the case of China, itself an economic success story in regards to industrial and financial growth, the lack of a human rights-focus in the MDGs is a clear example.

The Case of China

Between the late 1970s and 2009, the number of Chinese citizens living in poverty dropped from 250 million to just under 14 million, with the disposable income of its urban residents increasing by roughly 39 times. China was the first among nations to achieve its poverty reduction and educational requirement for the MDGs, prompting overly-optimistic projections from some quarters that the proportion of its population in poverty would drop below five per cent by 2015. 

Yet over the period of 2009-2012 over sixteen thousand Chinese citizens were executed. In 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed torture remains “endemic in China’s criminal justice system as well as by other branches of Government.”

The organization Human Rights in China, when presenting reports during China’s appearance before the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review hearing last year, also noted the continued use of unofficial “black jails” and “enforced disappearances” targeting political dissidents.

Intimidation of defense lawyers was said to remain extensive, with a report dated from 2012 citing government requirements that all lawyers swear an oath of loyalty to the Communist Party rather than to their clients. Legal advisors involved in “sensitive cases” relating to Tibetan independence activists, Falun Gong practitioners, proponents of land reform and even HIV victims were also noted as enduring “severe repression” in their work. 

In an incident reported by Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year, several lawyers attempting to represent clients detained in an unofficial “black” prison in Heilongjiang province were themselves arrested. One of the lawyers, Zhang Junjie, claimed to have been tortured while held captive for two weeks.

In the economic sphere, the slowing of China’s previously impressive growth rates (in the doubt-digits in the previous decade and still a healthy nine point two percent in 2011) has led to renewed difficulties for much of the workforce.

While China still has a relatively glowing report from the UNDP in terms of MDG achievement, unrest in its manufacturing sector is on the rise. According to the China Labor Bulletin (CLB) – a workers’ rights group focusing on the Chinese trade union movement – capital flight and relocation is increasing, with enterprises shifting elsewhere, notably to inland provinces or to Cambodia and Bangladesh, in order to take advantage of yet cheaper labor pools and production costs.

According to a 2014 CLB report, from June 2011 to December 2013 there were 470 strikes/protests by factory workers across China. Eighty five percent of these were said to have taken place in private sector enterprises owned out of Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macau. The bulk of these incidents revolved around calls for compensation over forced redundancies due to factory relocation, as well as wage increases and demands over withheld pay.

“The Chinese economy is in a state of transition and there is a lot of uncertainty in the manufacturing sector in particular,” Geoff Crothall, Communications Director for the China Labor Bulletin, told Toward Freedom. “While it is true that many manufacturers are moving to low cost areas, new employment opportunities are opening up in other sectors in China. The big task now is to match the needs of the workforce with the needs of business. Currently employers routinely complain that they can’t find decent workers and workers complain that they can’t find decent jobs. And it is this disconnect that policy makers need to address.”

The Chinese government still refuses to ratify the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights (ICCPR), an issue which caused ongoing concern during the nation’s last appearance before the UN Human Rights Council. Despite being urged by several other governments to finally take the ICCPR into account, Chinese state authorities seem disinclined to listen. 

“In terms of political rights, freedom of speech, freedom of association, civil society etc, there clearly is cause for concern at present,” says Crothall. “There seems to be a determined effort under the leadership of [Chinese President] Xi Jinping to reassert the power of the Communist Party and this is making life difficult for lawyers, journalists and academics that raise a dissenting voice. In terms of workers’ rights, however, the impact has been less severe. There is no evidence that the workers’ movement is slowing down; workers are more determined than ever to ensure their rights are protected and that they get decent pay for decent work – all of which is ultimately in-line with the (Communist) Party’s goals.”

The Future Sustainable Development Goals

Can it be said that China stands as an example of how economic growth alone is not conducive to a broader flowering of human rights? Would this be something to be addressed by the future Sustainable Development Goals?

“China is an obvious example that many point to,” explained Kindornay of the North-South Institute, “but we could also point to South Korea and show how economic growth has led to greater demands for human rights recognition. Yet I don’t think the SDGs will necessarily be sufficiently linked to the international human rights framework.”

Unless development after 2015 looks goes beyond material growth and looks back to the original spirit of the Millennium Declaration, the UN is likely to fail in meeting the fundamental needs and freedoms of the world’s population.

“I think it would be a step forward for human rights if the SDGs made use of international human rights law and mechanisms,” said Kindornay. “Politically though I don’t think this will happen. I imagine we will end up with a framework, in the end, that very much reflects the structure of the MDGs but broadened to include more issues. There will be reference to human rights in the introductory paragraphs of the goals that emerge, but I doubt we will see explicit reference to human rights and human rights monitoring mechanisms in the goals themselves.”


Dan Read is a freelance journalist with a BA in journalism and an MA in human rights. He is based in Britain.Twitter: @DanRead2