It's Over: The Tragedy of the Millennium Development Goals

08/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The United Nations today issued its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Report 2009. To make a long story short, the accompanying press release says:

The assessment, launched today by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Geneva, warns that, despite many successes, overall progress has been too slow for most of the targets to be met by 2015.

Let's face it: it's over. The MDGs will not be met (the above statement was based on trends BEFORE the economic crisis hit, see crisis discussion below).

What went wrong? The UN was very successful in getting lots of people interested in global poverty who had not been interested previously. An enormous advocacy campaign resulted (see the video from YouTube above). The enthusiasm of the young and of many public figures was deeply inspiring.

What was the theory of social change behind the advocacy of the MDGs? Political advocacy is most successful when you can identify WHO is to blame for an injustice, and WHY (according to what principle) the situation is unjust. This points to WHAT the WHO should do.

The trinity of WHO/WHY/WHAT worked for positive social change, for example, for movements such as the American Revolution, the abolition of the slave trade, slave emancipation, the extension of the vote to the working class, the women's rights movement, the end of colonialism, the civil rights movement, and gay rights.

WHO is to blame for missing the MDGs? Advocates enthusiastically advertised that 189 leaders signed the Millennium Declaration in 2000, but that was actually a sign of weakness rather than strength. Does an agreement have teeth when EVERYONE agrees -- including many oppressive governments who had no more interest in alleviating poverty than in promoting Brussels sprouts? And if the agreement is broken, how can you find WHO is to blame, when 189 leaders (not to mention dozens of international organizations and NGOs) are COLLECTIVELY responsible?

The WHY and the WHAT were also murky, since there is little consensus on what causes poverty and how to end it. The responsibility is put on governments (see the YouTube video, for example), but the rest is unclear (WHICH one? WHAT should they do?)

The MDGs only content is that certain outcomes should be achieved by 2015, but all of these outcomes depend on many other factors besides government actions. The effect of the current crisis is a case in point. No doubt the crisis will be used as the excuse for the MDG failure (as the UN MDG 2009 report is already doing). But the MDGs' attainment depended all along on global and national economic growth. How can you hold somebody accountable for something they don't control? -- that's not true accountability at all. (Even someone as dense as yours truly pointed out this flaw long before the current crisis came along.)

The inspirational enthusiasm and increased efforts surrounding the MDGs probably did contribute to progress on specific efforts and some partial success stories (mainly in health and education), as pointed out in the UN MDG 2009 report. That can give some hope for the future and some solace to the hard-working and deeply committed participants.

But the point of the MDG campaign was that it precisely defined success and failure using specific goals. So on its own terms, it is a failure.

The MDGs will go down in history as a success in global consciousness-raising, but a failure in using that consciousness for its stated objectives. What a tragedy for all of those who contributed such effort and enthusiasm to the MDG campaign. And a much larger tragedy for the world's poor.

Why waste any more effort on the MDGs, now that we know they will not be met? The next effort should get the WHO/WHY/WHAT clear. Here's one suggestion for starters: the WHO is aid agencies, the WHY principle is that they are responsible for these funds entrusted to them to reach the poor, the WHAT is transparency on whether the funds did reach the poor. It is unjust that funds intended for the poorest of the poor wind up enriching somebody else not poor. Let's have a movement protesting THAT injustice.