Lessons learned from the MDGs

Development Policy07 May 2013Saskia Hollander, Cheshta Panday

The deadline for the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is approaching. A number of actors from the UN, regional organizations, academia, the private sector and civil society are involved in drawing up a post-2015 framework, which will formulate the future global development agenda. Here, The Broker sketches an overview of the process and will follow it in the period to come.

The current UN development agenda consists of a framework of eight globally agreed goals, officially established following the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. In 2010, the High Level Plenary Meeting of the UN General Assembly, during which the MDGs were reviewed, decided that progress on the MDGs should be accelerated and that the international community should formulate a new development agenda beyond 2015. Several initiatives have been taken to develop this post-2015 framework. A overview of the events is presented in the Timeline box below.

The multi-level and multi-actor negotiation process for developing the post-2015 framework represents a clear move away from the MDG process, which was criticized for being above all too technocratic and non-transparent. The MDGs were developed in a political vacuum, with little citizens’ involvement. To arrive at a more participatory process, in addition to several UN advisory groups being set up, eleven global thematic consultations and various national and regional consultations were organized, all coordinated by the UN Development Group (UNDG).

A second contrast with the MDG process is the emergence of two parallel negotiation tracks in the run-up to 2015. The follow-up to the MDGs has become closely linked to the process of developing a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as it has been recognized that the ‘old’ agenda of poverty reduction cannot be separated from environmental challenges. A specific working group was established to integrate the sustainability agenda and the successors to the MGDs in one single framework.

Timeline of main events

January 2012: establishment of United Nations Task Team (UNTT) → May 2012- April 2013: thematic consultations coordinated by United Nations Development Group (UNDG) → 20-22 June 2012: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Rio+20) → 31 July 2012: establishment of UN High Level Panel (HLP) → June 2012: publication of UNTT report ‘Realizing the Future We Want for All’ → 25 September 2012: first meeting HLP in New York, USA → 31 October-2 November 2012: second meeting HLP in London, UK → 22 January 2013: establishment of Open Working Group (OWG) → 30 January-1 February 2013: third meeting HLP in Monrovia, Liberia → March 2013: publication of UNTT report ‘A Renewed Global Partnership for Development’ → 14-15 March 2013: first meeting OWG → 25-27 March 2013: fourth meeting HLP in Bali, Indonesia → 17-19 April 2013: second meeting OWG → 22-24 May 2013: third meeting OWG → 30 May 2013: publication of HLP report with its vision for the post-2015 agenda → June 2013: fourth meeting OWG → September 2013: opening of 68th UN General Assembly → 25 September 2013: UN General Assembly Special Event to Follow up Efforts Made Towards Achieving the MDGs → January 2015-December 2015: Intergovernmental negotiations process in UN General Assembly on post-2015 → July/September 2015: UN General Assembly Post-MDG Review Summit

See for an extended timeline here.

Below is an overview of the several initiatives taken to formulate a more inclusive and integrative global development framework beyond 2015.

The High Level Panel

On 31 July 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a High Level Panel (HLP) of 27 leaders from government, civil society and the private sector to advise him on the post-2015 development agenda and contribute to the overall political process. The HLP is co-chaired by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom. It will identify key global development challenges while also building on the lessons learned from implementing the MDGs.

To ‘guide the panel’s work and consultations’, the HLP designed 24 framing questions. These questions are set up around five subthemes: a review of the MDGs, the form of the post-2015 framework, the themes and content of the new framework, partnership and accountability for development, and the process of reaching global consensus for the new goals.

The HLP met four times in a period of eight months. During these meetings the members consulted various stakeholders from government, business, civil society and academia to enable them to prepare their recommendations. The first meeting of the HLP was held in September 2012 in New York (United States). During this session the general working programme was outlined. The second meeting was held in October/November 2012 in London (United Kingdom) and concentrated on household poverty and inclusive economic development. The third HLP round was held in February 2013 in Monrovia (Liberia). During this session, the members made the case for a fundamental transformation of the global economy and agreed that such a transformative agenda should create jobs, develop the proper infrastructure, raise overall productivity, improve competitiveness and promote sustainable production and consumption. The final meeting of the HLP before preparing its report was held in March in Bali (Indonesia) and focused on global partnerships. During this meeting it was recognized that social development and poverty reduction should be combined with an environmental agenda at a structural and political level. This, arguably, could only be achieved by stimulating global partnerships across all development processes. As the communiqué states, the post-2015 framework should above all be ‘coherent and mutually reinforcing’.

Following these four High Level meetings, and with the input described below from the UN System Task Team, the various consultations, and other activities undertaken by HLP members, the panel began to draft its final report, which will be presented on 30 May 2013.

UN System Task Team

To support the preparations for developing the post-2015 agenda, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established a UN System Task Team (UNTT) in January 2012, chaired by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The UNTT brings together over 60 UN agencies, international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, think tanks and representatives of academia. Its predominant role is to provide the HLP and multi-stakeholder consultations organized by the member states and regions, with analytical input.

In its first report to the Secretary-General, Realizing the Future We Want for All, published in June 2012, the UNTT outlines its vision for the post-2015 development agenda. The report extensively lays out the strengths and weaknesses of the MDGs. In addition, the UNTT calls for a more holistic approach and points to the need for transformative change to address current global challenges, stating: ‘Business as usual thus cannot be an option’. Above all, the report emphasizes inequalities and environmental degradation as systematic stalls to development, saying: ‘Persistent inequalities and struggles over scarce resources are among key determinants of situations of conflict, hunger, insecurity and violence, which in turn are key factors that hold back human development and efforts to achieve sustainable development.’ It highlights four main dimensions around which the post-2015 framework should be organized: inclusive economic development, social development, environmental sustainability, and peace and security.

In its second report, A Renewed Global Partnership for Development, published in March 2013, the UNTT outlines the political dimension of the post-2015 agenda. By building on MDG8 on establishing global partnerships, the report provides clear recommendations on a renewed framework for global partnerships and a system for mutual accountability. These partnerships should above all include explicit commitments from all countries and be based on a clear distribution of tasks between developed and developing countries.

Open Working Group on Sustainability

From the reports and preliminary recommendations of the various advisory groups follows a widely shared recognition that poverty reduction cannot be separated from environmental challenges. While the ‘S’ factor was largely lacking in the MDGs, in the run-up to 2015, sustainable development became the common denominator between the anti-poverty agenda of the MDGs and environmental challenges. At the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 (the Rio+ 20 summit) it was decided that the SDGs should build on the MDGs and be integrated within the post-2015 development agenda. For this purpose, a UN Open Working Group (OWG) was established on 22 January 2013 to prepare a set of SDGs and prepare recommendations for such an integrated framework.

The OWG consists of 30 seats shared by 69 Member States.  1 The majority of the seats are shared by at least two countries, with the exception of five in Africa and one in Eastern Europe, which are not shared. The OWG is co-chaired by Csaba Körösi, Permanent Representative of Hungary, and Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of Kenya. The first meeting of the OWG was held in March 2013 in New York and the second in April. Before the summer recess, two other meetings are scheduled in May and June of this year. The OWG will prepare a report proposing SDGs for consideration by the 68th session of the UN General Assembly. On 25 September 2013 in New York, during the Special Event to Follow up Efforts Made Towards Achieving the MDGs, the proposals of the various advisory groups as to how to integrate the sustainability agenda into the post-2015 framework will be presented.

Sustainable Development Solutions Network

On 9 August 2012 the UN Secretary-General announced the launch of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Under the leadership of Jeffrey Sachs, the SDSN brings together the expertise of academia, civil society and the private sector in twelve thematic groups in order to find global, national and local sustainable development solutions. It provides input for both the HLP and the OWG.

Citizens’ consultations

As the MDG process was criticized for its lack of citizens’ involvement, several attempts have been made to involve ordinary citizens and civil society organizations in the negotiations on the run-up to the post-2015 agenda. In May 2012, the UNDG started global thematic consultations started around eleven themes: inequalities, health, food security and nutrition, energy, governance, education, conflict and fragility, growth and employment, environmental sustainability, population dynamics, and water. These consultations were coordinated by the UNDG and set up around formal and informal meetings with various stakeholders around key current and emerging global challenges. The first global consultation was held on growth, structural change and employment in Japan in May 2012, and the final consultation on energy in Oslo in April 2013.

In addition to these global thematic consultations, national and regional consultations have been organized. The national consultations were held in 100 selected countries, coordinated by UN teams under the leadership of the UN Resident Coordinator. They were set up around meetings and conferences, and broad online discussions with multiple stakeholders from government, civil society, the business sector, media, academia, and think tanks. These national consultations were finalized in March 2013. The UN Regional Commissions have convened a series of regional and sub-regional consultations to develop and articulate regional perspectives on the post-2015 development process. The box below provides a short outline of these regional initiatives.

Regional consultations

To date there have been four regional and sub-regional consultations in Africa, namely in Accra, Mombasa, Dakar and Tunisia. These consultations have been coordinated by the African Development Bank (AfDB), the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the Africa Union Commission (AUC) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The final report of the consultations identifies four main development priorities: structural economic transformation and inclusive economic growth, innovation and technology transfer, human development, and financing and partnerships. The document will be endorsed by African ministers and ratified by heads of state at the African Union Summit in May.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) prepared a report on the outcomes of the consultation held in Bogota in March 2013. It highlights the specific issues of the region, such as the demographic transitions, the dynamics of human settlement in cities, public safety, disaster risks and declining official development assistance in middle income countries. The conference was preceded by the Caribbean Forum, which urged governments to recognize the particular characteristics of vulnerable middle-income countries, to reduce dependence on traditional development assistance and instead strengthen relations with the emerging economies of the ‘South’. In addition, in April 2013, ECLAC organized a regional consultation with civil society and members of the HLP to develop a Latin American perspective on the post-2015 agenda.

The Economic Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), in cooperation with the Arab NGO Network for Development, conducted an Arabic Regional Consultation on the post-2015 development agenda on 14 March 2013 in Beirut, Lebanon. The Declaration of Civil Society Organizations from the Arab Region sets out the special circumstances of the Arab Spring, demanding an end to all forms of exclusion. It argues that the central role given to economic growth must be set aside and make place for social and economic rights. Other distinguishing points for the region set out in the declaration relate to the rights of refugees and displaced, gender equity, an end to foreign occupation, a critique of international support for previous dictatorships, and maintaining of social cohesion.

The Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) organized several regional and sub-regional meetings from August 2011 to February 2012 in the Cook Islands, Kazakhstan, Fiji, Bangkok, Cambodia and Dhaka. During the international conference in February in Timor-Leste the Dili Consensus was adopted, which emphasized the importance of including fragile and conflict-affected countries in the development debate. Issues at stake in the Pacific are poverty, the food, fuel and financial crises, gender-based violence, lack of women’s representation in parliament, non-communicable diseases, gaps in data on environmental sustainability and unequal access to markets for countries’ exports.

These consultations were largely set up to involve civil society in the process of formulating the post-2015 agenda. However, the initiatives taken by the UNDG have been criticized by civil society organizations for being largely dominated by the ‘usual suspects’, i.e. NGOs from the North. Several NGOs argued that, to have any credibility and legitimacy, the HLP must listen to the poor and marginalized. A number of joint initiatives have been undertaken by civil society organizations. For example, ‘Beyond 2015’, a global campaign bringing together more than 600 organizations all over the world to formulate a joint position. It is collaborating with the UK Institute of Development Studies (IDS) on a research initiative called Participate to embed participatory research in global policy-making.

In order to involve ordinary citizens in the process, a web platform ( was launched in September 2012 to serve as input for the global, national and regional consultations, as well as for the various activities of the HLP. The discussions were organized around the eleven themes outlined by the UNDG. Besides the online discussions, an online survey was developed to ask citizens to submit their top six priorities for a better world. The respondents highlighted proper education, better health care, honest and responsive government, and access to clean water and sanitation as key development priorities.

While this broad consultative and participatory process clearly contrasts with the top-down approach of the first MDG round in the late 1990s, it is arguable whether it has been truly participatory and representative. Only approximately 300000 people (0.0042% of the world’s population) voted in the My World survey, with half of the votes being cast in Nigeria.

The UNDG published a preliminary report The Global Conversation Begins in March 2013 to evaluate both the civil society and online consultations. The report was prepared before the consultations had been finalized. The final report will be published in June 2013, and will provide a detailed review of the consultative process. Background papers, interim reports and conference outcomes on these themes and other selected development priorities can be searched in the World We Want database.

The European Union

The European Union started off slowly with a public consultation that ran from 15 June to 19 September 2012. European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs is one of the 27 members of the HLP. After this process of public and internal consultations in Brussels and with EU delegations, the latest Communication entitled ‘A decent life for all: Ending poverty and giving the world a sustainable future’ enabled the European Commission to reclaim a role, though hardly an essential one –in the ongoing debate. The Communication underlines the importance of sustaining progress towards achieving the MDGs and celebrates the EU’s role as an aid donor and trading partner for developing countries. The proposal introduces principles for one overarching framework that covers the MDGs and SDGs, and aims at achieving a common EU position within the global debate.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) contributes to the post-2015 process predominantly by providing statistical evidence on countries’ progress on achieving the MDGs. It has a long-term expertise and experience in measuring development results with adequate targets and indicators. In addition, the OECD organizes a series of Global Fora on Development (GFD) in Paris to promote a better understanding of what the shifting dynamics of poverty mean for poverty reduction policies. The GFD in April was the first in a series of three to be held over the next three years. Furthermore, the OECD’s annual report addresses one of the main challenges to be faced by the next agenda: inequality and the lack of cohesion.

Final steps

The efforts of the various advisory groups and consultations will come together during the 68th UN General Assembly, which will open in September 2013. On 25 September, during the MDG Review Summit, the conclusions of both the HLP and the OWG will be discussed. The General Assembly will then start its intergovernmental negotiations to finalize the formulation of the post-2015 framework. Up till now, this process remains open-ended. While it can be expected that the environmental agenda as set out by the OWG will be integrated with the economic development agenda – a view that has become broadly accepted among UN member states – both the shape and content of the framework remains uncertain. The Broker will closely follow and analyze the next steps to be taken during this final stage.


  1. The African regional group: 7; the Asian group: 7; the Latin American and Caribbean group: 6; the Western European and Others group: 5; the Eastern European group: 5.