The world’s governments are to meet at a special session of the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25 to discuss how to accelerate progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and also to agree on a timetable for a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The MDGs, adopted in 2000, will conclude in 2015, to be followed by the SDGs, most likely for the period from 2015 to 2030.
The MDGs focus on ending extreme poverty, hunger and preventable disease. They have been the most important global development goals in the UN’s history.
The SDGs will continue the fight against extreme poverty, but also add the challenges of ensuring more equitable economic growth and environmental sustainability, especially the key goal of curbing the dangers of human-induced climate change.
Setting international development goals has made a huge difference in people’s lives, particularly in the poorest places on the planet. Sub-Saharan Africa has benefited enormously from the MDGs, and we can learn from that success in designing the SDGs.
To see the MDGs’ importance for sub-Saharan Africa, one need only compare the decade before their adoption with the decade after.
In the 10 years before the MDGs, economic growth in the region was slow, the poverty rate was high (and rising), and there was an increasingly heavy disease burden, including HIV/AIDS and malaria.
The adoption of the MDGs focused increased attention by African governments, non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, international donors, foundations and activists on the urgency of combating poverty, hunger and disease.
The MDGs also cast a global spotlight on the crippling debt burdens faced by many of Africa’s poorest countries, leading to a process of debt cancelation led by the IMF and the World Bank.
From 2000 to 2010, sub-Saharan Africa’s poverty rate (as measured by the share of those living on less than US$1.25 a day) fell to 48.5 percent, after having risen from 56.5 percent to 58 percent in the 1990 to 1999 period, while overall annual economic growth, which averaged 2.3 percent from 1990 to 2000, more than doubled, to 5.7 percent during the 2000-2010 period.
There were significant improvements in disease control as well. From 1990 to the peak year, about 2004, annual malaria deaths rose from about 800,000 to 1.6 million.
After that point, upon the MDGs-inspired mass distribution of anti-malaria bed nets, malaria deaths began to decline, to around 1.1 million per year in 2010, and perhaps lower now.
Likewise, as of 2000, there were still no official donor-supported programs to enable poor Africans to receive antiretroviral treatment for AIDS. Thanks in large part to the agenda-setting power of the MDGs, donor programs to fight AIDS began to be implemented, and more than 6 million Africans now receive antiretroviral treatment supported by official donor programs.
As special adviser to the UN secretary general on the MDGs since 2001 (to then-UN secretary-general Kofi Annan until 2006, and to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon since 2007), I have seen how seriously many African governments take the targets, using them to set priorities, catalyze stakeholders, increase public awareness and motivation, and hold ministries accountable.
Over time, the UN and the high-income countries’ donor agencies increasingly used the MDGs to help organize their own work in Africa as well. While the MDGs are not the only factor underpinning the improvements since 2000, they have played a huge role.