Struggling to Meet the Millennium Developmental Goals: Who Is to Be Blamed?

 By Iryna Kushnir (Staff Writer)

This article problematizes the process of the development of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and, their implementation in signatory countries.

The MDGs are a set of international developmental priorities for improving life of struggling or impoverished peoples across the globe, and were developed by the UN at the first Millennium Summit in New York in 2000. These MDGs were formed by the UN General Assembly, which adopted them based on certain values outlined in the UN Millennium Declaration [1]. A total of 147 heads of states signed the Millennium Declaration, committing their countries to taking action on these specific values. 

The following guiding values were identified in the Millennium Declaration: freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature, and shared responsibility. However, these values seem to have been somewhat forgotten, as the MDGs have taken priority at the New York Summit. Why has the focus shifted from the values to the MDGs, and who or what is to blame for the inconsistencies in the MDG implementation process?

The values outlined in the Millennium Declaration aimed to make international relations more efficient, and to improve life globally. However, these values were perhaps too abstract and broad to be achieved internationally. This explains why then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spelled out a concrete plan for the achievement of the values a year later. This plan resulted in the Road Map Towards the Implementation of the United Nations Millennium Declaration in 2001, which outlined eight MDGs [2]:

  • the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger;
  • the achievement of universal primary education;
  • the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women;
  •  the reduction of child mortality;
  • the improvement of maternal health;
  • the combat of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases;
  • the assurance of environmental sustainability;
  • the development of a global partnership for development.

Each goal was assigned one or more specific targets. Additionally, a number of indicators were established to evaluate the implementation process. Interestingly, the Road Map (in which the MDGs were outlined, and the 2015 deadline for achieving them was specified) was not signed by the heads of the states. This means that the MDGs are non-binding for state signees.

However, UN states were encouraged to commit to the implementation of MDGs on the understanding that they would only be strong suggestions rather than regulations. Per the Road Map, states need to demonstrate the political will to carry out commitments already given [meaning the values]’ (p.7), and this document ‘outlines potential strategies for action that are designed to meet the goals and commitments [again, meaning the values] made by the 147 heads of State and Government’ (p.2). This approach demonstrates that the UN was unwilling to enforce the MDGs with the same strength as the binding Millennium Declaration.

Kofi Annan and Mark Malloch Brown (administrator of the UN Development Programme) attempted to strengthen MGDs by organizing the three-year UN Millennium Project action plan in 2002 [3]. Its purpose was to accelerate progress towards the achievement of MDGs in UN countries by conducting research in the areas related to the values identified in the Millennium Declaration. The project report (2005) [4] states that MDGs, regardless of their global status, were country goals, and thus, countries were responsible for designing national strategies to reach them. This shifted the burden of implementing MDGs from the UN to individual countries.

The second and third Millennium Summits (which took place in New York in 2005 and 2010, respectively) followed the aforementioned Millennium project report. The purpose of these summits was to reaffirm the commitment of UN states to fulfilling the Millennium Declaration. In addition, many delegates expressed a desire for the timely achievement of MDGs, as evidenced by the outcome documents of these summits [5, 6]. Shifting the focus from values to MDGs is clearly shown in the outcome document of the 2010 Summit, where the progress towards the MDGs, rather than the values, is assessed. The implementation of MDGs in UN countries has received conflicting evaluations from academics and the media. Some recognize the MGDs as having propelled positive changes [7], while others criticize them as nothing more than ‘broken promises’ [8].

Along with delegating responsibility for developing strategies to individual states, it gave countries the flexibility to approach the implementation of MDGs individually. This caused many inconsistencies in the attempts of countries to implement the goals. One such inconsistency was missing data from some countries in the MDG progress reports. Another example of the problematic implementation of the MDGs was their reconfiguration by changing the essence and names of the goals suggested by the UN. All of this can be seen in the annual country reports published by the UN [6].

Particularly interesting here is the change of the actual number of MDGs, as demonstrated by Ukraine. Only six of the eight international goals were adopted, according to the national report in 2003 [6]. Goal 8 (Development of a global partnership) was left out altogether. Ironically, Ukraine did not recognize the assistance of the UN as important for their progress towards the achievement of the MDGs. Goal 4 (Reduction of child mortality) and Goal 5 (Improvement of maternal health) were merged into one Ukrainian Goal called ‘Improvement of maternal health and reduction of child mortality.’ Moreover, UN Goal 3 (Gender equality and empowerment of women) was moved to the last position in the list of Ukrainian MDGs. Finally, the words ‘empowerment of women’ were cast aside in favor of a goal which simply said ‘Gender Equality.’

Further inconsistencies between the international and Ukrainian set of MDGs can be seen in an analysis of the differences between their respective targets and indicators. Targets and indicators were changed for the following UN Goals: ‘Achieve universal primary education,’ ‘Promote gender equality and empower women’ and ‘Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.’ Moreover, the international MDGs were only adopted in Ukraine in 2003, as per the national report (2003). This means a delay in the work towards Ukraine ultimately meeting the MDGs this year.

This is just one example of the problematic implementation of MDGs in UN countries. Supposedly, many other states have faced similar challenges, and have been reshaping the MDGs in their own way to make them fit best in their contexts. Obviously, these issues create issues with evaluating progress towards meeting the MDGs, as well as comparing progress between member countries. However, these contextual factors were largely facilitated by the problems in developing the MDGs at the UN level.

The bumpy process of achieving the MDGs should be recognized as a common responsibility of all those involved in developing and working towards their implementation. This responsibility should be fully acknowledged, and strategies to avoid similar mistakes further on should be made. These are urgent concerns since the deadline is this year, and the Sustainable Development Goals (with the deadline of 2030) are going to expand the MDGs.

[1] UN Millennium Declaration (2000). Retrieved from (accessed April 24, 2015).

 [2] Official website of the Millennium Project (accessed April 24, 2015).

[3] Millennium Project Report ‘Investing in the Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals’ (2005). Retrieved from (accessed April 24, 2015).

[4] World Summit Outcome document (2005) (accessed April 24, 2015).

[5] World Summit Outcome document (2010) (accessed April 24, 2015).

[6] National Report of the MDGs (2003). Retrieved from (accessed April 24, 2015).

[7] UNDP, The Sustainable Development Goals: All you need to know (2014). Retrieved from (accessed April 24, 2015).

[8] The Guardian, Millennium development goals: big ideas, broken promises? (2015) (accessed April 24, 2015).