The Millennium Development Goals: Milestones or Millstones? Human Rights Priorities for the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Article excerpt

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

Albert Einstein


In September 2010, world leaders met for the High Level Plenary Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals ("MDGs Summit"). The MDGs Summit took place with great fanfare, attracting close to 140 heads of state and government, as well as leaders from civil society, foundations and the private sector. (1) It launched important aid initiatives and generated unprecedented agreement by Member States on the importance of human rights in efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals ("MDGs"). But how successful was this event, measured against its goals, and what are the human rights implications of the MDGs Summit with regard to future development and aid policy?

Global summits have not enjoyed an easy ride in the court of public opinion. (2) Global summitry has been a veritable industry since the 1990s, convened at great expense to the international taxpayer, generating (and recycling) a great wealth of largely pre-scripted and partially implemented promises to improve the human condition. Global promises are, it has been noted, "easily set but seldom met." (3) If past global summit commitments had been achieved, we would all have been healthy by 2000, trade would be "fair," and twenty-four thousand children would not be dying each day through poor sanitation and easily preventable causes. (4) Given this track record of unmet goals, why should the MDGs Summit continue to merit our attention?

Certain global conferences have enjoyed comparatively strong political support, have established institutional frameworks for long-term cooperative action, and, arguably, have contributed positively to global social progress. (5) The 2000 Millennium Summit (6) is especially noteworthy because in the first half of 2001, to prevent the Millennium Declaration from lapsing into oblivion, a U.N. inter-agency expert group extracted a small number of quantifiable human development commitments from the voluminous body of the Millennium Declaration, and established a global campaign and international monitoring regime under the auspices of the U.N. (7) These goals (the MDGs) encapsulate an important subset of internationally recognised socio-economic rights and set global targets from the baseline year of 1990 to (for the most part) a 2015 end date. While a global assessment of their impact is premature, the MDGs have undoubtedly raised the profile and popular awareness of development issues, changed the terms of international development policy, and helped to bring a stronger focus to neglected social rights, such as the right to food, education and health.

The key premise of this paper is to show that the agreed upon global summit commitments are alone insufficient; equally if not more important for progress is sustained political mobilisation and innovative use of the commitments. This paper begins with a short history of the MDGs initiative, along with an appraisal of its significance. A short analysis of the process and outcomes of the MDGs Summit follows, evaluated through the prism of human rights. The purpose is not to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of the MDGs Summit for its own sake. Rather, the purpose is to sharpen and strengthen arguments for integrating human rights in national MDG-based development planning, and to position human rights more clearly and strategically in policy debates for the post-2015 development agenda.


This Section begins with a short review of the historical origins of the MDGs and their significance for development policy and financing. It then examines some of the more pertinent human rights critiques, leading into an appraisal of the significance of the MDGs Summit outcomes. Afterward, priorities and proposals for the post-2015 development agenda are discussed.

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