MDGs, SDGs and All That: Deciphering the New Development Agenda

Children in school in Bhutan.
Children in school in Bhutan.

By Anuradha Rajivan

In two months we will finally know the final Sustainable Development Goals. But how did we get here, and what does this framework mean for global development efforts? Let's get to know the SDGs a bit better.

You’ve all heard about the Millennium Development Goals or MDGs. From 2001 to 2015 we had the MDGs, and they are about to conclude at the end of this year. After that, from 2016 to 2030 we expect to have the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.  Let’s get to know them a little better.

The SDGs will be especially significant for ADB as we start work on a new strategy to follow Strategy 2020. All multilateral development banks, including ADB, are getting prepared ahead of time to take them into account in their strategies and operations.

The MDGs that emerged from the Millennium Declaration of September 2000 were unique in the history of international development. For the first time we had a structured framework of development goals-targets-indicators.  There were 8 goals, 18 targets and 48 indicators, which facilitated the regular tracking of progress in a comparable manner across countries. Why “Millennium”? Because the MDGs were to run from the start of the new millennium. As they were time-bound, they had a concluding year as well in 2015. Unlike what is sometimes believed, they are not “UN” goals, although the Declaration was approved by UN member states. Of the 8 goals, the first 7 were largely about reducing deprivation by specific degrees: poverty and hunger by half, child mortality by two-thirds, etc. Goal 8 was about global partnerships – what development partners could do in support of goals 1-7.

So how did multilateral development banks respond? Like most development partners, it took them some time to accept the MDGs or take any meaningful action. The MDGs, nevertheless, have become the overarching framework for international development, establishing human well-being as the end of the global development agenda, rather of GDP growth per se. It was a few years down the line, around 2005-06, that there was a concerted effort to integrate the MDGs into national planning frameworks in developing countries. So, overall, they are a relatively young enterprise, with partners only partly on board.

While it is not easy to establish what impact they had on results, the MDGs did help rally political support for a global effort to reduce poverty in its many dimensions. The clarity, concreteness and simplicity of the MDGs engaged the early naysayers in due course. Many countries undertook MDG-costing exercises to identify funding gaps and ODA requirements. Almost all Asia-Pacific countries prepared national MDG reports to assess progress against the goals using comparable targets and indicators. There is also regular regional and global monitoring – all of which triggered renewed recognition of data deficits and a focus on official statistical systems as well.

The limitations of the framework were recognized, too. Simplicity meant that complex challenges—like environment or gender—were only partly articulated. Standardization facilitated international comparability, which helped donors, but not developing countries. Many Asian countries proceeded with country-customization by adapting rather than mechanically adopting the goals: Mongolia added a goal on anti-corruption, Vietnam targets on women’s land titles, Cambodia a goal on demining and unexploded ordnance. The idea of “MDG+” allowed using the same framework to customize and raise standards. MDG 8  was the most criticized as being weakly formulated and hard to track. Overall, there is a consensus that the MDG framework proved to be useful to countries and partners, and thus it needed to be continued and strengthened when the MDG period concludes.

So what can we expect after the MDGs? With growing attention to sustainability of development gains, the successor goals on the table are already being called the SDGs. In contrast with the clarity and concreteness of the MDGs, a huge agenda is being included going forward. The intense consultations—led this time around by member states themselves and only facilitated by the UN—to articulate the new goals has resulted as many as 17 SDGs, compared to the 8 MDGs.

A mother and her newborn child in a public health clinic in Bangladesh.

The number has more than doubled. And what an odd number – 17! Why not 10 or 15 or even 20? And the goals are to be backed by as many as 169 targets! Moreover, this agenda is supposed to be relevant for all nations — not just developing ones. The global development enterprise has ballooned, and while there is appreciation of the far more inclusive consultative process this time, we still don’t know how many indicators would be needed to track this enormous number of targets.

So what are the perspectives from Asia and the Pacific? One message is that the some of the new goals are really principles or processes rather than goals – inequality, economic growth, industrialization, production and consumption patterns. These could be separated out and the goals limited to development results that are well defined and measurable. Another is customization – the SDGs could set minimum global standards and countries could locally adapt them as they have done during the MDG period.  

This explosion in ambition has been the result of the validation of the MDGs and the large number of interest groups that participated in the articulation process. It’s not as if the decision makers are unaware of the problems in meaningfully responding to the SDGs. We will have to wait until the UN General Assembly in September to see what the final SDGs will be.

Meanwhile, countries in Asia and Pacific—and we at ADB—are getting prepared for the SDG period. The first major challenge is the money – where will the funds for this greatly expanded agenda come from? Clearly, ODA can no longer be the main source of development finance. This challenge will be the focus of this week’s 3rd International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa.