MDGs and SDGs: Are the Concepts Compatible?

By Dr. Markus Loewe (German Development Institute)
02:12 PM, July 14, 2014

1 Introduction

For the last 20 years, the international development debate has been dominated by two trends that seem, at first, to be heading in a similar direction. However, under closer scrutiny, they differ with respect to their focus and underlying philosophies. On the one hand, there is the agenda of reducing poverty in developing countries in its various dimensions, which found its expression in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). On the other hand, there is the idea of sustainability that became popular at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and that, at the Rio+20 summit in 2012, generated a parallel concept to the MDGs: the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As a result, two separate processes started within the United Nations (UN) system: one of them to discuss whether there should be a new global development agenda after the term of the MDGs ends in 2015, and what such an agenda should entail; and the other to compile a list of possible SDGs. Fortunately, the UN took a decision in September 2013 that there should be only one post-2015 list of goals that has both an SDG and post-MDG agenda.

The challenge is, however, to design such an agenda that fulfils the aspirations of both the proponents of the MDG concept as well as the proponents of the SDG concept. This article suggests that the post-2015 agenda should consist of two separate but mutually referring sets of goals – one concentrating on human development, the other on global public goods.

2 Emergence of the MDG concept

The MDGs are the result of a process that began in the 1980s that aims at making aid more effective and focusing it more on poverty reduction. In addition, it started to look at poverty as a multi-facetted phenomenon rather than just a lack of income. In a number of world conferences, long lists of goals in the areas of education, food, child development, and more were adopted. The most important of these goals were consolidated in the UN’s Millennium Declaration, from which the MDGs were taken in 2001.

The strength of the MDGs is that they constitute a manageable number of straightforward goals that are easy to understand and measure, and they offer a clear deadline. This made it possible to rekindle the interest in development issues in the countries of the North and strengthen the willingness to put more resources into aid. Further, the MDGs have increased the accountability of all relevant actors of international development, which has contributed to greater results-orientation and effectiveness of development policy.

3 Limitations to the MDG concept

Critics argue, however, that there are too many limitations to the MDG concept.

First, the MDGs are an incomplete agenda. They originated in the Millennium Declaration but cover only two of its chapters (on development and the environment), completely leaving out the chapters on disarmament and good governance.

Second, the MDGs neglect distributive issues. Inequality is a severe obstacle to many aspects of development. Nevertheless, the MDG agenda contains only one indicator (under the heading of MDG 1) capturing one aspect of distribution: the share of the poorest quintile in consumption. In addition, the focus of MDG 1, at least, is on the most deprived individuals in society. In contrast, MDGs 4 and 5, for example, call for improvements in mean values of mortality rates, thereby ignoring who benefits from such progress. As a consequence, many governments may be tempted to reduce child and maternal mortality rates for social groups that already enjoy below-average rates (such as, e.g., the urban middle class). Progress for these groups may be cheaper and easier to achieve than for the most deprived groups, who often live in squatter and rural settlements, thus making it more difficult for healthcare services to reach them.

Third, some MDGs measure outputs or inputs rather than outcomes or impacts of development. MDG 2, for example, measures only the intake of education, regardless of its quality or relevance for economic, social, and political life. Its existence has led to a significant acceleration in the rise of school enrollment rates. But in many countries this has been at the expense of the quality of education: More children went to school, but the number of teachers and the space in school buildings did not increase correspondingly.

Fourth, some MDGs cannot even be measured – either because no indicators or targets were set, or because no data is available for certain indicators.

Fifth, the MDGs cannot easily be transformed into national objectives. They were originally formulated as global goals, but without modification they were increasingly seen as national objectives in order to create national accountability. This interpretation constitutes a particular challenge to the least-developed countries, which tend to have started out in the baseline year of 1990 with much poorer performance levels than other countries with regards to most MDG indicators. Therefore, it has been especially hard for them, for instance, to achieve MDG 1c, which calls for a reduction by half in the share of malnourished people between 1990 and 2015. Countries that start with a higher share of people with malnutrition have more difficulties in achieving the goal than other countries, because the goal implies the need for a much greater reduction in the absolute number of people with hunger.

Sixth, some goals at the global level were unrealistic right from the start (e.g., MDG 2, which demands total enrollment in primary education worldwide), whereas others demonstrate low ambitions, at least at the global level (e.g., MDG 1, which seeks to halve the share of people suffering from income poverty and hunger across the globe).

Furthermore, many criticize the MDGs as well for being too focused on the social sectors and neglecting the production sectors and economic development. This judgment, however, is unfair for two reasons: First, the MDGs do not focus on particular sectors, but on goals of human development. Achieving the health goals (MDGs 4–6) may well require investments in healthcare, but it may also (and often even more) call for investments in the education or water sector. Second, economic growth, transport infrastructure, and a functioning private sector tend to be essential as preconditions for long-term poverty reduction and the achievement of the MDGs. But they are not ends in themselves and should therefore not have a place in an MDG agenda.

4 Emergence of the SDG concept

Proponents of an SDG agenda further criticize three other aspects of the MDGs: (i) They are not global goals and ultimately put obligations on the developing countries; (ii) they are generally short- to medium-term, and thus run counter to policies that are oriented toward sustainability, which necessarily have to be inherently longer-term; (iii) central areas of sustainable policies – chiefly environmental objectives – are not reflected sufficiently.

These points of criticism are justified. The first one can be addressed by formulating goals in a way that takes the stages of development of individual countries into account. The other two question the MDGs more generally. However, current proposals for a future SDG agenda so far have not created an alternative to the second criticism. It, too, envisions a rather short-term horizon, and the indicators suggested so far do not include aspects of sustainability. The proposed agenda differs from the MDGs mostly in that there is a wider range of goals that matter from a sustainability perspective.

Of course, the MDGs are not a purely socio-political agenda, and neither would potential SDGs be just focused on the environment. Both approaches involve similar ideas. They differ mostly with respect to their underlying thinking: Whereas the MDGs are mostly inspired by improving the living conditions of the poorest people, the main concern of SDGs is shaping development sustainably.

5 Consequences for the post-2015 agenda

There needs to be coordination when incorporating the agendas of the MDGs and SDGs into the post-2015 agenda. Indeed, it is necessary to design an integrated agenda for post 2015 that takes the poverty as well as the sustainability debates into account.

Such an agenda should have the strengths of the MDG concept while avoiding its weaknesses. Its goals should hence:

  • be relevant in both objective and subjective terms like the MDGs;
  • contain once again only a limited number of easy-to-understand goals;
  • be goals for people, such as the MDGs, that is, final end-goals rather than instruments;
  • be SMART (specific, measurable, agreed, realistic, time-limited);
  • be more comprehensive than the MDGs (i.e., include additional dimensions of development / well-being such as, e.g., political, socio-cultural, and protective capabilities);
  • consider distributional issues;
  • avoid inconsistencies (all targets should focus on outcomes rather than inputs or outputs);
  • be truly universal, that is, defined on the global level but relevant and applicable nationally for all countries;
  • be binding for all countries, though;
  • be ambitious but realistic and fair – globally and for every single country; and
  • ensure the sustainability of development.
Infographic: UN Global Compact

6 Selection of goals

A major issue in the negotiations on a future development agenda, which started in early 2014, is the question of which goals should be included. The discussions on this issue should be guided by the selection criteria listed in the previous section.

In any case, it is almost beyond any dispute that the issues concerning reduction of income poverty, food security, education, health, family planning, and gender equality will show up again in one way or another. In addition, it is a good idea – agreed upon by most countries – to include a goal infrastructure that will encompass the already included sub-goals of water and sanitation, as well as adequate housing and energy supply.

Further, there might possibly be agreement on a goal concerning resilience that refers to human and social security – that is, the protection of human beings against social risks; economic risks; natural and ecological risks (e.g., earthquakes, floods, drought); man-made ecological disasters (e.g., river pollution, deforestation, nuclear disasters); and social and political risks (e.g., theft, rioting, resettlement, war, coup d‘état).
In spite of possible opposition from certain countries, it would also be desirable to introduce a framework for political and socio-cultural capabilities (e.g., human rights, good governance, peace, social inclusion).

In addition, it would be desirable to take distributive issues into consideration. This does not mean introducing an additional goal distribution but rather measuring achievements toward each goal separately for different population groups. It would be even better to give results different weight according to the segments of the population (rich and poor, women and men, urban and rural, disadvantaged and privileged, etc.) in order to avoid that countries as a whole make sufficient progress toward goals that are due to fast progress by some population groups and stagnation by others.

Most controversial is what can be done to improve the status of environmental goals. The Rio+20 Declaration suggests a number of objectives for a prospective SDG agenda. Many are already included in the MDG agenda as sub-goals or indicators (i.e., biodiversity, protection of forests, reducing carbon emissions), but their status and the commitments made to them could be strengthened. Others are outcomes of development, and thus could easily be included in a new agenda (such as protection against desertification or soil degradation). But the same is much more difficult to accomplish for goals that cannot be measured according to indicators at the micro-level and that, strictly speaking, are not actually final goals, but rather instruments, that is, “enablers” of development, for example climate stability. Without them, many final end goals of development cannot be achieved in the long term.

7 A two-part agenda

Because of this instrumental relationship, it makes sense to differentiate between them and final goals of human development (see Figure 1). It would be conceivable to establish an international development agenda in two parts: one of which would concern itself with final goals of human development, and the other with the creation / protection of global public goods that are key enablers (preconditions) of human development. The latter would build on MDG 8 and also contain all those goals that the world community can only achieve by working together. The former would include MDGs 1–7 and some sustainability goals that are now missing in the MDG agenda. Such a division makes sense because (i) the goals on either side of the agenda are conceptually different; (ii) improvements for the former can be measured at the national and sub-national levels as well as globally, whereas for the latter in general they can only be measured globally; (iii) the goals of both parts are instrumentally linked.

Moreover, this would also take into account the concerns of proponents of a new MDG agenda as well as those in favor of SDGs. Such a division into two parts would limit the marginalization of goals for poverty reduction, while the second part would ensure that the most important criteria of sustainable development would at least be taken into account. MDGs and SDGs would be combined to form a unified agenda, living up to the expectations of the paradigms of both poverty and sustainability.

The objectives of this agenda should be global in every sense of the word: The goals of the second part are global by definition, as they refer to global public goods and can thus only be measured globally. But those of the first part should also apply to all nations rather than just the developing countries, as is the case with the current MDGs. This will require differentiation to transform the global goals into national objectives, making them both achievable but also ambitious, according to each country’s capacities. This will encourage the reduction of poverty, mortality, and school dropout rates in the rich countries as well.

Whether such an agenda will come together has yet to be seen. After all, more important than its actual manifestation is that it needs to be accepted by all governments and societies. In contrast to the inception of the MDGs in 2001, the developing countries need to be fully involved in the elaboration of the new agenda right from the beginning, and the concerns of governments and NGOs both in the North and the South need to be considered in equal measure.

About the Author
Loewe, Markus

Dr. Markus Loewe works for the German Development Institute, Bonn

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect CSR Manager's editorial policy.
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