Do international agreements on social development make a difference?


By Moizza Sarwar (Contributor)

International development lore holds that a group sat down in a basement of the UN building in New York in the first decade of the 21st century and came up with the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Goals (on poverty, education, health, gender equality, environment and global partnerships) were set as benchmarks against which to measure global progress for the next 15 years. The deadline for the achievement of MDGs came in December 2015 with a mixed report card. [1]

In 2016 the goals have been replaced by 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): a product of numerous inter-country negotiations, international development debates and side meetings. Although the journey to the SDGs has been different from MDGs in the degree to which national governments have been consulted, it is similar in that it is a non-binding international agreement on development goals that – at in least in theory – cannot be imposed on national governments.

A recent piece of research I carried out at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) took an exploratory look at the connections between international MDGs and national engagement with them. The aim was to try and understand when and why non-binding international agreements are adhered to by governments when they could just as easily be ignored. Interviews with key government officials involved in the MDG process in Liberia, Turkey, Nigeria, Mexico and Indonesia showed the response to MDGs unfolded in similar ways in the five countries over the period 2000-2015.

The impact of MDGs on policy language occurred fairly quickly after 2001, as evidenced by country national and sector planning documents. However, actual institutional commitments to the MDGs became more visible around the 10-year mark, two thirds of the way to of the deadline for the goals. This was roughly the time Indonesia established the President’s Special Envoy on MDGs to strengthen ministries’ efforts to integrate the MDGs in national policy. Also at this time Mexico established a Specialized Technical Committee of the Millennium Development Goals Information System , and Nigeria formed a committee to report on MDG progress on a quarterly basis.

The 10-year gap in the development of institutions and the establishment of the goals could be because countries were already working on targets they had set before 2000, and the MDGs only gained political traction once it was time for previous priorities to be renewed. The greater visibility of MDGs may, on the other hand, have been the result of UN-led efforts (in response to worries that the global targets would be missed) through an MDG Acceleration Framework established in 2010, and adopted in country offices since then.

In the case of the low-income countries I studied, it was clear that their external relationships with international donors and development partners led them to invest in making political signals that showed an overt (if not wholly accurate) interest in furthering MDG objectives. For example, despite the fact that there was lots of money available for the MDGs in Nigeria, an analysis of public expenditure allocationsby federal and state governments and local government authorities  suggested that the annual funding gap to meet them was as high as $17.7 billion. This finding supports commentary by interviewees that Nigeria’s work on the goals was driven by international development assistance, and language in the country’s planning documents indicates a reliance on overseas development assistance to fund planning targets relevant to the MDGs.

Similarly, middle income governments in this small sample also invested in signaling their commitment to MDGs internationally with the aim to further their regional standing. In the case of Turkey, progress was often  the result of policies formulated and implemented in order to meet the requirements for European Union (EU) accession rather than to meetMDG targets. In Indonesia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonoattended a number of international MDG events, and in 2012 was appointed co-chair of the UN High Panel on the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals. This was in large part due to his endeavor to raise the profile of Indonesia as a global player.

These questions on the nature of national engagement with, and adoption of, MDGs cannot yet be definitively answered. But with the SDGs in mind, governments, donors, and think tanks working on the goals in the next 15 years can draw on five key points from this work:

  1. Countries are more likely to succeed in those international goals where they already have priorities in place. MDGs in both low and middle-income countries have been used to reinforce existing policies. Scott and Lucci (2015) have noted that, for the SDGs, more work will be needed in areas that are highly politically contentious (such as climate change) to ensure that international targets are echoed in national targets.
  2. International monitoring agencies will need to be realistic about how long it takes for progress attributed to international commitments to become visible. Countries already have plans in place that are unlikely to be superseded by international goals, and the review in this paper has shown that national governments made serious arrangements to integrate the MDGs only after a 10-year time lag. Given that the development of the SDGs has been a broadly consultative process, and countries have already been implementing MDGs, it is possible that the post-2015 era will see a much quicker implementation response. However, civil society organisations will have a significant job to keep up the pressure on national government, particularly given that the SDGs cover a wider range of targets than the MDGs.
  3. Given how national priorities can and are often different from the needs of local areas, an important point of discussion is whether the MDGs would have had more political traction if engagement with the goals had been more localised. The cases of Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey demonstrate tensions between national and local engagement with MDG targets because of regional inequality in relation to different goals. It is possible that poorer and more deprived regions could use political language around the MDGs to mobilise resources from the centre to address the targets they have done less well on.
  4. The motivations for middle income countries (MICs) in adopting the MDGs is different from that of the LICs studied in this paper. MICs engaged with the MDGs to further strategic regional interests. Meanwhile, LIC governments’ subscription to the language and process of the MDGs appears to be linked to accessing ODA linked to the MDG targets. For the SDGs this implies that international donors need to engage in different ways accordingly, and that national civil society organisations will be important in furthering the SDG agenda.
  5. Finally, there has been a dearth of research on the implementation of MDGs within national contexts. Monitoring the pace of and political drivers behind adoption and prioritisation of SDG targets on a regular basis would provide crucial data for reviewing and evaluating the SDGs.


Moizza B Sarwar specialises in processes of policy formulation and implementation, public institutions and bureaucracy and qualitative research methods. She holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford and is currently working with the Growth, Poverty & Inequality unit at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). She has taught at the Department of Social Policy (University of Oxford) and with the Blavatnik School of Government (University of Oxford) You can contact her at 

[1] People living in extreme poverty declined by more than half (most of the progress came from India and China) and gender parity in primary school enrollment was achieved in most countries. However the goals on maternal mortality and gender equality have shown very slow progress.