A Prehistory of the Millennium Development Goals: Four Decades of Struggle for Development in the United Nations

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When the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Millennium Declaration in 2000, the goals and targets it set in the section on development ultimately became known as the Millennium Development Goals. However, the MDGs were not part of a new agenda, but an attempt to refocus years of debate, efforts and struggle to advance the economic and social development of the world's poorest nations.

Reducing poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education and promoting gender equality have always been at the forefront of the United Nations development agenda. The Assembly had over the years considered these and other related development issues individually or in combination, and had launched several campaigns to address them. However, the MDGs represented a more concentrated attempt to bring together all those activities, undertakings and initiatives in a common focus, underlining their interrelationships and the need to make progress on all of them in order to succeed in any one of them.

Development first became a central theme for United Nations action in 1960, when the Organization admitted 17 new members, the most in any one year. This was the first wave of newly independent countries that would dramatically change the composition of UN membership. The most urgent developmental concern at that time was reducing world hunger. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) led international action to address the situation of these new UN members from Africa, parts of Asia, and the Pacific and the Caribbean, as well as that of other members in similar situations, by launching on 1 July 1960 the "Freedom from Hunger" Campaign, which drew world attention to the problem of hunger, seeking support from Governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for national campaigns against hunger.

Persuaded that a more concerted action was needed, the General Assembly, on 27 October 1960 [resolution 1714 (XVI)], invited FAO to work out procedures for making available the largest practicable quantities of surplus food to help fight hunger in the least developed countries (LDCs). However, it did assert that the ultimate solution to hunger lay in an effective speeding-up of economic development. To deliver on the resolution's objectives, the Assembly, on 19 December 1961 [resolution 1714 (XVI)], established the World Food Programme (WFP) on a three-year experimental basis, with a voluntary fund of $100 million. The Programme, to be administered jointly by the United Nations and FAO, would be supported by a pledging conference to take place each year at UN Headquarters in New York. On 15 December [resolution 1521 (XV)], the Assembly also decided to establish the United Nations Capital Development Fund as an additional mechanism for addressing the capital-development needs of the LDCs.

Recognizing that the problem was much wider than just hunger, the Assembly on 19 December 1961 [resolution 1710 (XVI)], on a proposal by the President of the United States, proclaimed the 1960s as the "United Nations Development Decade". During the Decade, developing countries would set their own targets, of a minimum annual growth rate of 5 per cent of aggregate national income. The Assembly also called for accelerated measures to eliminate illiteracy, hunger and disease. To ensure that any international campaign that addressed development reflected their own concerns and perspectives, developing countries organized the Conference on the Problems of Economic Development, from 9 to 18 July 1962 in Cairo, Egypt (then known as United Arab Republic). After the Cairo Declaration of Developing Countries was adopted, on 18 December, the Assembly recommended that the United Nations system take into account the principles of the Declaration when dealing with economic and social development questions of developing countries.

To reinforce the goals of the Decade, the Assembly [resolution 1943 (XVIII)], on 11 December 1963, appealed for support for a World Campaign against Hunger, Disease and Ignorance, to be carried out by NGOs in the second half of the Decade. …