Global Development Institute Blog

By Professor David Hulme

The UN has been setting goals to combat poverty for the last 50 or 60 years, but this gathered pace since 1990, following the end of the Cold War. Hundreds of different goals, from those regarding child and women’s rights to hunger and the environment, were agreed upon. However, while this led to increased attention on various issues, most goals weren’t systematically implemented by either rich or developing nations.

Concerned by declining government budgets and public support for international aid, the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee consolidated some of the goals to propose the ‘International Development Goals’ in 1996. These goals were framed around economic wellbeing, social development and environmental sustainability but, with some exceptions (such as in the UK), achieved little international traction.

Keen to avoid being driven by a security, peacekeeping and emergency response agenda, in 1998 the new UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed to make poverty reduction central to the UN’s mission at a ‘Millennium Assembly’. This marked a tipping point at which the mainstream international development agenda would become less about national development (growth and general welfare improvements) and become synonymous with targeted poverty reduction.

With the IMF, World Bank and OECD in tow, Annan effectively reiterated the International Development Goals as the basis for a UN Millennium Declaration, which gained unanimous approval from UN members in September 2000. Under the guise of being a purely technical committee, the international organisations drafted eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focussed on a set of targets designed to substantially reduce poverty by 2015.

Agreed last week, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are very different. They are global goals, for all countries. We’re no longer simply monitoring poorer countries and their ‘improvement’ according to poverty levels. The SDGs are conceived as universal, on paper at least committing rich countries to address poverty, inequality and environmental sustainability both within their own countries and internationally.

The MDGs played a powerful role in making the possibility of eradicating global poverty an international norm. They helped to make the existence of extreme poverty less acceptable. The big hope for the SDGs is that they too can shift international norms, promoting a broader, more holistic conception of development.

The SDGs break from the past by asserting that extreme inequality, unsustainable consumption, climate change and gender imbalances – as well as poverty – are unacceptable. Success for the new Goals will be less about targeting a particular measure of poverty and more about changing values nationally and internationally.

The MDGs were successful at generating sympathetic media coverage, particularly in rich nations, which helped to build support for aid and development. Today there is much wider recognition that, whilst poverty is slowly being eradicated, inequality is rising – which is a bad thing. The Sustainable Development Goals will provide more of a focus on poverty AND inequality in every country, rather than just extreme poverty in developing nations.

There is growing recognition that by tackling inequality we will be able to reduce poverty far more effectively. It is argued, for example, that a redistribution of just 0.33% of global income to the world’s poorest would eradicate extreme poverty. This is also true of the issue of climate change. This time around, the Goals go beyond poverty and also take sustainability and the environment seriously, acknowledging their interrelationship with inequality. There are now clear targets on climate change, and conservation of land and sea life.

This is partly a reflection of the change in process of the development of the Goals. Pre-2000 the negotiations around the Goals were led by developed countries, mostly behind closed doors. The MDGs were then pressed on developing programmes as part of aid programmes and soft conditionality.

This time, developing countries have been far more involved in the process, and it has been developing countries such as those in Latin America that have really pushed for the inclusion of environmental sustainability. This collaborative, more inclusive way of working is new, demonstrating just how fast the tectonic plates of international relations are shifting.

The goals also now include looking at cities and increased urbanisation. Thinking and research on poverty has often focussed on rural poverty, but as numbers and proportions of poor change in rural and urban areas, it becomes increasingly important to consider issues of population, overcrowding, housing, water and sanitation in more depth. This will involve grappling with policies that have exacerbated urban problems, taking the SDGs beyond being simply a vehicle for focussing aid, as the MDGs perhaps were.

The SDGs also recognise the relationship between climate change and poverty. The wealthy have more resources in order to adapt to climate change and its consequences. The parts of the world with the highest concentrations of poverty – sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia – will experience a greater share of the negative consequences of climate change than will the middle to high-latitude regions. Climate change heightens the complexity of poverty eradication efforts, and the outcome of the UN Climate Summit at the end of November could determine how seriously the SDGs are taken overall.

The SDGs can be and are being criticised – 17 goals are very hard to remember (can they all be priorities?) and 169 targets are too many for most low-income countries to collect data on. But, the SDGs do show that times have changed. International development is no longer framed as an aid-financed gift to the poor. It is now an activity that all countries can participate in defining.

Read David’s earlier post: If we don’t get a strong climate deal, the SDGs are doomed.