Sounding off on the shortcomings of the Millennium Development Goals

A young child at a makeshift school of the Abdi Centre in Afgooye Corridor, Somalia. What were the factors that contributed to the international development community falling short on the MDGs? Photo by: Tobin Jones / UN Photo / CC BY-NC-ND

With less than 500 days to go before the deadline of the Millennium Development Goals, the time for taking stock has come. And if you ask Jacob Lief, founder and CEO of the Ubuntu Education Fund, the international community has come up way, way short of the MDGs’ lofty objectives.

The problem, Lief argued in an exclusive editorial for Devex, was that we didn’t set our standards high enough. For instance, improving education was measured based on the number of school constructed instead of literacy rates, suggesting a penchant for one-off interventions guised as sustainable solutions.

“We didn’t fail to achieve the MDGs because the objectives were too big, too idealistic. Quite the opposite. We failed to eradicate extreme poverty and reduce child mortality because our thoughts were too small,” he wrote last week.

As such, for the next set of goals, Lief recommended that we aim higher. It’ll require, among other things, accountability, innovation, knowledge sharing, honesty when we make mistakes and most of all, partnership.

Lief’s commentary stirred a debate among Devex readers.

A number of factors may have contributed to the international community falling short on several MDGs. A country’s culture and mindset of leaders play a role, noted Jacqueline Simone Ambrose, citing Tanzania as an example.

“Domesticating” international goals proved to be one challenge, another reader suggested. Governments will need help to contextualize and internalize the emerging post-2015 global development agenda to avoid that they merely end up overseeing the implementation by “outside agents” and foreign aid donors.

“Without these basic institutional changes the risks are high for a repetition of the same-old/same-old story,” a reader named JD said, highlighting the importance of structural, systemic and strategic reforms and the creation of a standardized approach to results-based development.

Lief’s recommendations would work well in relatively stable developing nations, but perhaps not so much in countries torn by conflict that have not achieved any of the MDGs, Kathleen Laurila argued.

“Until the next set of goals address war and violence as the underlying cause of poverty, no matter how large we make the new targets, it will not matter,” she said.

Were the Millennium Development Goals too ambitious or not ambitious enough? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

About the author

  • Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.