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The looming deadline for the Millennium Development Goals: 2015

The deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is in 2015, and several policy makers contend that it is time to begin thinking about the ‘MDG-plus’ agenda. On 23 June 2009, they gathered for a High Level Policy Forum --  After 2015: promoting pro-poor growth after the MDGs  -- in   Brussels.

As someone new to the high-level policy debate on MDGs, I came out of this forum reminded of the Indian parable of the six blind men of Industan - each defining the shape of an elephant by the respective body part he touched. The blind man who felt the tail argued an elephant to be very much like a rope. The one who touched the knee thought it to be like a tree.

What are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? Someone new to the debate would leave confused as to whether the MDGs are a paradigm, a set of indicators, a narrative, an advocacy tool, an agenda or simply a set of targets. A case was made for each in the conference.

What should the MDGs include? Here too, an exhaustive list of various components of development was proposed – ranging from accountability to knowledge creation to social protection. All seemingly reasonable, but all appropriate for the MDGs? The jury was evidently still out.

From a day of rich and interesting discussion, I took away three key messages:

  1. An expressed need to document and communicate success stories.  Although a wealth of information on success is available, it was evident from discussions that these have not yet been communicated in a comprehensive, systematic and accessible manner. This is particularly surprising, given the level of energy and resources spent on a Post-2015 MDG agenda. It became evident that in the run up to the 2010 review of the MDGs, an exercise coalescing and communicating success and lessons learnt is essential. Such an exercise may address key questions raised during the conference. What are the key successes with regard to MDG achievements? How have they been realised and sustained? What lessons have been learned? Why has under-nutrition in India, for example, remained stubbornly high, at almost 50%?
  2. The general consensus is that equity should be at the centre of our discussion on MDGs beyond 2015. A concrete example: when identifying lessons of success during an afternoon workshop, the suggestion of Rwanda was summarily opposed, given rising inequality within the country. Ditto with Vietnam, with India and a list of others. This message was echoed in the DFID conference on Eliminating world poverty and building a common future (page 34). Concrete proposals to integrate equity into the MDG agenda exists, let’s take them forward.
  3. A call not to rush, but be urgent. Several panellists and participants called for a ‘new’ paradigm, ‘new’ goals, a ‘new’ set of indicators, a ‘new’ agenda, a ‘new’ narrative. Others cautioned against reinventing the wheel. To reconcile these seemingly divergent views, there was a call to ask developing country stakeholders (including governments, civil society organisations and poor people) to define their needs and priorities, and subsequently to shape the post-2015 MDG agenda. This was encapsulated in the phrases ‘don’t rush but be urgent’ or to hasten slowly. This approach would promote ownership of the MDG agenda within developing countries.

Translated into action points, these three messages translate into a triple-C approach: First, a critical engagement in coalescing and communicating success stories; second, collaboration with partners (such as the Millennium Campaign) to integrate equity into the MDG agenda; and third, consultation with Southern stakeholders and linking into Southern debates on the MDGs. 

Comments on the post-2015 agenda would be welcome. Where do we, and where should we, go from here?