Researchers to examine the impact of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals

From left: Fukuda-Parr, Kercher, Yamin

October 17, 2012 — In the year 2000, the United Nations developed an ambitious plan to meet the needs of some of the world’s poorest people by setting out the Millennium Declaration. A year later, eight Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, were established as part of the effort.

Among them was a goal that called for achieving universal primary education. Like the other MDG goals, it was an admirable one. But some experts wondered: What about other aspects of education, such as secondary and higher education? What about the quality of education as opposed to simply making it universal?

In fact, say researchers Alicia Ely Yamin and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the MDGs’ focus on primary education effectively relegated some other worthy educational goals to the back burner, where they received less support—and less funding. Likewise, the other MDGs—aimed at addressing problems including poverty and hunger, maternal health, and child health—while admirable, also had unintended effects of marginalizing some issues that weren’t specifically mentioned in the list.

“One of the powerful things about the MDGs is that they set very specific goals, like cutting the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day by half, or reducing maternal mortality ratios by 75%,” said Fukuda-Parr. “These are all very important priorities and no one would disagree with them. But there are many other global goals that are important. So we need to ask, ‘What did the MDGs leave out?’ ”

Yamin, lecturer on global health in the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Director of the Health Rights of Women and Children Program at HSPH’s François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights, and Fukuda-Parr, professor in the international affairs program at the New School in New York, are leading a group of 17 researchers in the international development and human rights communities in examining the consequences—both intended and unintended—of the MDGs. The effort, entitled “The Power of Numbers: A Critical Review of MDG Targets and Indicators from the Perspectives of Human Development and Human Rights,” is being jointly sponsored by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR), the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, and the United Nations Development Programme. Participants held their first meeting on October 3, 2013 at the FXB Center at HSPH.

Thorough analysis of MDGs crucial, say experts

Those involved with the project—some of the leading thinkers on the different subject areas covered by the MDGs—hope their analyses will provide crucial facts to help inform the post-2015 global development agenda. Each will examine a particular aspect of the MDGs and produce a paper on the subject. All of the papers will be published together next year in a special issue of the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities.

Although much has been written about the MDGs, much of the attention has been focused on examining progress in terms of the indicators the MDGs set out. By contrast, there has not yet been a thorough examination of what difference the choices of those goals, targets, and indicators—as opposed to those set out in previous UN conferences—have made in the world. Julia Kercher, UNOHCHR policy specialist on human rights and poverty reduction, who attended the Oct. 3 meeting, said that this new study will be “a baseline to see what happened—what were some of the effects of choosing certain indicators in the MDG framework and what can we learn from that for the post-2015 MDG agenda that’s now being discussed.”

Said Yamin, “In global health, we talk a lot about the MDGs. This project is designed, in part, to answer the question, ‘What difference did these particular goals make not just to the discourse of development but also to funding? To sectoral priorities? To programs? To real people’s lives?’ ”

–Karen Feldscher

photo: Aubrey LaMedica