MDG designer fears UN goals will ‘degenerate into wish list’

Arthur Neslen Sep 18 2013

 An architect of the UN’s Millennium development Goals (MDGs) says he fears that a lack of strong leadership at the UN could lead to its poverty eradication goals being replaced by an over-politicised and unachievable “wish list” after 2015.

Jan Vandemoortele told EurActiv that UN member states were becoming “uneasy” about discussions on a framework to replace the MDGs in 15 months time, which are due to begin in New York on 22 September

“I am worried that the [post-2015 targets] list is getting overly-politicised and member states are increasingly insisting that it should be limited to an inter-governmental negotiating process and even starting to signal that civil society participation should be toned down,” he said. “We need stronger leadership from somewhere.”

Hard choices had to be made but “in an inter-governmental setting, these decisions will not be taken and we will have an agreed international agenda but no meaning whatsoever,” he added.

Vandemoortele co-wrote the current eight UN MDGs, 18 targets and 40 indicators as a tool to communicate UN objectives emerging from the Millennium Summit in September 2000, such as eradicating extreme poverty and achieving universal primary education.

These were decided by measuring global trends in human development over a 25-year period from 1965-1990, and applying them to living standards over the 1990-2015 period, assuming that rates of progress stayed the same.

The MDGs were not intended to increase rates of progress in human development so much as maintain them. 

“If you demand anything more of that list we are going to get into an endless and unfocused agenda,” Vandemoortele said. “It is going to degenerate into a wish list and then it loses its communication power. If it is not clear, concise and measurable it will be neglected by everyone tomorrow.”

A UN High Level Panel (HLP) recently produced a report containing 12 ‘illustrative goals’ but skipped the more fundamental question of why a new set of targets was needed at all.

Another report at the table

“They just added another report to the table and that’s obviously not going to be the locus of leadership that is going to be needed,” Vandemoortele said, while supporting the panel’s decision not to propose new targets yet.

The HLP report called for five ‘big transformative shifts’ in the post-2015 framework:

  • Leaving noone behind by moving from reducing to ending poverty
  • Putting sustainable development at the core of policy
  • Transforming economies for jobs and inclusive growth, by involving the private sector
  • Building peace and accountable institutions through democracy and good governance
  • Forging a new global partnership which could, to some extent, shift responsibility for achieving goals from government to civil society

The Panel, which included British Prime Minister David Cameron and the EU’s development commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, also flagged a focus on inequality in the post-2015 debate.  

The world’s poorest 1.2 billion people account for just 1% of global consumption, while the richest billion consume a 72% share. Such imbalances present a structural obstacle to human development, and they stretch beyond the developing world.

Global inequality league tables

According to 2007 figures, just six American heirs to the WalMart fortune own more wealth than the bottom 30% of US society combined. The Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, last year quoted the US business magnate Warren Buffet, as saying: “There’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years and my class has won.” 

But, say civil society critics, this also raises questions as to what impact UN declarations can have on the problem.

Vandemoortele called for the introduction of global inequality league tables as a centerpiece of efforts to move the poverty eradication milestones on after 2015.

“Of course, the UN can’t influence [sovereign government policy] but we can use league tables and other things to bring the issue to the fore and hopefully national policy makers will start working on it,” he said. “If you look at the progress that Vietnam and China have made [towards meeting MDGs] it is phenomenal. But if you adjust for equity it is much less impressive.”

The former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan recently called for global tax reform but Vandemoortele insisted that redistributive taxation was a prescriptive measure that fell well outside the UN's MDG remit.

He gave short shrift to EU arguments that September’s New York Review Summit need only capture the media spotlight to be a success.

“We have had a wide capture of public attention already,” he said. “What we need now is some strong leadership.”  It was, however, “a moot question whether the member states will allow anybody to take leadership of this process,” he added.


  • 23 Sept 2013: UN Millennium Development Goal review summit opens in New York
  • 2015: Deadline for 0.7% ODA target to be met
  • 2015: Deadline for Millennium Development Goals to be reached