The Post-2015 Development Agenda: the millennium development goals in perspective

May 20, 2011 - nr.74

Summary and recommendations

In this report the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) answers the questions posed by the Dutch government and formulates the core of the analysis of the strategic value of the 2000 Millennium Declaration and the advantages and disadvantages of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Part A addresses the lessons learned and what these should mean for a post-2015 system. Part B explores a new approach to development. The AIV advises the government to strive for a renewed strategy for development and development cooperation for the period after 2015, provisionally the final year of the MDGs.

The AIV believes that the Millennium Declaration is still relevant and specifies a number of important conditions for achieving development. The reviews of 2005 and 2010 added a number of significant issues in areas like gender and social security (question A1).

The Millennium Declaration was operationalised in the form of a number of quantitative goals (MDGs) to be achieved by 2015. These goals are subdivided into targets with measurable indicators. The agreed goals refer to income (MDG1), universal participation in primary education (MDG2), equal participation for girls and boys (MDG3, later expanded to embrace gender equality), child mortality (MDG4), maternal mortality (MDG5), infectious diseases (MDG6) and a sustainable environment (MDG7). Lastly, under pressure from developing countries, a final goal was added: a global partnership (MDG8) on Official Development Assistance (ODA), debt relief, a fair trade and financial system, extra attention for vulnerable countries, and access to medicines and new technologies. A number of themes were not expressed in terms of quantitative goals, including peace and security, human rights and good governance, the special position of Africa and global governance (questions A1 and A3).

The MDG system has been successful in communicating a complex development problem to a wider public, but has in many cases not led to achievement of the goals themselves. This is partly because of the limited operationalisation of the goals for developed countries (MDG8) and a failure to comply with international pledges, in relation to ODA and reform of the trade and financial system, for instance.

One of the MDGs’ strong points is that they can give rise to a substantial discussion on why certain goals have been achieved and others not, and who can be held responsible for that.
The AIV attaches great importance to the Millennium Declaration and, with others, concludes that the process in which the declaration was translated into concrete goals failed to operationalise a number of important themes, either because there was no international consensus or because it was difficult to express the problems in question in these terms.

Besides not including a number of important themes, the MDG system is often criticised for not being based on an underlying economic theory of development processes and structural change, and that the choices made therefore have no theoretical basis. In addition, the goals were not formulated or interpreted correctly for deprived parts of the world that need to do more to achieve them without extra financial resources. Criticism is also levelled at the lack of any reference to the role that achieving human rights plays in efforts to fulfil the MDGs. Both civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights (education, work and gender equality) are important in achieving the MDGs. The goals do no justice to a holistic view of sustainability. The indicators attached to the goals and targets are also subject to criticism, because they measure only quantity and not quality. Nor do the indicators take account of inequality (particularly income inequality) within and between countries (question A3).

The progress reports on the MDGs offer mixed accounts of the progress made. On one goal (access to safe drinking water) there has been more progress than planned; poverty has also declined since 2000, but the number of people suffering from hunger has increased to a billion. The question whether all progress since 2000 can be attributed to the MDG strategy cannot be answered wholly scientifically. It can be concluded that, in the majority of countries, only 20% of the trends aimed at achieving the goals have speeded up since the introduction of the MDGs in 2000. The other 80% have remained constant or have even slowed down (question A1).

The extent to which the MDGs have contributed to a reduction in poverty is unclear. Studies show that achievement of the MDG target to halve poverty can largely be attributed to the reduction of poverty in China and to a lesser extent in India, trends that had started before the MDGs were formulated. The MDGs have certainly contributed to greater attention for the various dimensions of poverty, but have also eroded the concept of poverty by compartmentalising policy and ignoring the structural changes and social processes required to escape poverty (question A2).

The impact of the MDGs on actual donor policy also presents a varied picture. Donors list the MDGs alongside their own priorities instead of adopting them as guiding principles, aid has not increased significantly and donor coordination does not operate along the lines of the MDG system. The link is seldom made between the resources required for development and the MDGs. The MDGs are seen more or less in isolation from the 0.7% norm, despite it being explicitly mentioned in MDG8 (question A4).

It is difficult to determine what the MDGs have meant for policy development in developing countries. Donor-dependent countries tend to say what their donors wish to hear. Some developing countries have adapted the MDGs by, for example, adding targets for human rights or extra relevant indicators such as diseases that occur in their part of the world. The Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRSPs) that still dominate policy in poor countries generally refer selectively to the MDGs but, despite reforms, they are still considered by many to be donor-driven (questions A5 and A7).

Changes in global governance, such as a greater role for the G20, are the result of the financial crisis, rather than being initiated by the MDGs. Negotiations on a non-discriminatory trade system have also been at stalemate since the world summit in Doha. Some progress has been made in mitigating the debt burden of some countries. The climate problem demands much more intensive cooperation than has currently been agreed in the post-Kyoto regime. All in all the desired global partnership is still a long way off (questions A6 and A7).

One goal that has certainly not been achieved is the agreed increase in development aid. Although aid increased as a percentage of GNP until 2005, it has fallen again since then, and is now lower than in 1990 and far from the international target of 0.7% of GNP (question A8).

Since 2000 there have also been great changes in the form of economic, financial and food crises, which have shaken the international order to its foundations. In addition international power relations are shifting and we are seeing the emergence of economies that are manifesting themselves as donors, while a large part of their own populations still live in poverty. A significant percentage of the ‘poor’ live in middle-income countries and not in ‘poor’ countries. The AIV considers it important to consider newer insights on development in order to examine the completeness and contemporary relevance of the Millennium Declaration and the MDGs (question B1).

After studying the advantages and shortcomings of the current MDGs on the basis of important developments in society since 2000 and of newer insights into development thinking, the AIV concludes that the MDG system needs to be redesigned. At the same time, the Council believes that it would be irresponsible to make a radical break with the current system, which was based on a major international consensus on a development agenda.

In this report the AIV therefore makes suggestions for a post-2015 system for international cooperation (referred to below as the ‘post-2015 system’) that tries as far as possible to preserve the positive aspects of the MDGs. However, the Council would like to note directly that one of the main shortcomings of the current MDG system is that it has been primarily a donor-driven process. Obligations for the developed countries, as in MDG8, were only added at a later stage, but without the clear indicators that typified the other goals.

Perhaps the most significant recommendation in this report is therefore, in the run-up to a post-2015 system, to promote a consultative process with countries in different stages of development, and with civil society and the private sector. In such a process the roles and responsibilities of all those involved must be made clear and they must be held accountable for fulfilling them. For this reason the AIV is reluctant to propose an all-embracing blueprint for a post-2015 system and believes that the Millennium Declaration should be preserved as the basis of a future strategy. It should, however, incorporate the new elements of the reviews of 2005 and 2010.

A consultative process on the post-2015 system should preferably be led by a prominent individual from an emerging country. This is of great importance for the global acceptance and success of the follow-up to the MDGs in an improved system. The Netherlands can play an active role in this.

Taking this into account the AIV summarises below the main themes and identified shortcomings of the current Millennium Declaration and MDG system, together with the outlines of a possible post-2015 system.

The AIV observes a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the MDGs. Because no dominant theoretical basis underpins the MDGs, they were never intended as a ‘one size fits all’ policy. Nevertheless, for many people, the MDGs have become a mantra for an all-encompassing development ideology. They have become absolute targets backed up with the reasoning that whatever is not in the MDGs is no longer important. As a consequence, every self-respecting group has tried to get its area of activity included within the MDGs. This fixation with bringing everything under the umbrella of the MDGs has resulted in too much attention to detail, sometimes at the expense of the realisation that sustainable and participatory economic growth with a conscious policy of structural change and redistribution can just as easily contribute to social progress as direct attention to the social sector.

To achieve a better post-2015 system the AIV considers it important take the criticisms of the current MDGs and recent global developments into account, and to consider the extent to which a number of newer themes that have until now received insufficient attention in development thinking make changes necessary (question B1). Ongoing globalisation, recent global developments and, especially, the financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009 call for improvements to the international trade and financial system after 2015.

In the context of new forms of development thinking, the AIV would first of all like to note that a post-2015 system would have to be based more firmly on the capabilities approach of Nobel Prizewinner Amartya Sen, which also underpinned the Millennium Declaration. Sen’s theory equates development with more freedom. Sen identifies five essential freedoms: (1) political and civil freedoms, (2) social and (3) economic opportunities, (4) transparency in governance and economic life, and (5) protective freedoms (social security and upholding the law).

The AIV endorses Sen’s approach, especially as subjective welfare theory shows that, when asked, people specify these freedoms as crucial to their happiness. A post-2015 system can contribute to this, by improving ways of measuring prosperity, striving to reduce inequality within countries and giving more attention to human rights principles, peace and security, and effective state institutions – elements that are lacking in the current MDGs.

In a post-2015 system a basic level of security will have to be included as a condition for development. Security sector development or reform (SSR) is essential in strengthening security levels, and should therefore constitute an inseparable element of a post-2015 system for fragile states. A peace and security goal cluster could also contain indicators for early warning of conflicts.

The discussions on sustainability must lead to a post-2015 system that contains long-term targets for a sustainable model with a rolling agenda that measures progress every five or ten years and uses these measurements to make regular modifications to the strategy. In this way, the post-2015 system will be a ‘dashboard’ with indicators for sustainability, for this generation and the next.

Three principles from the human rights approach are especially relevant and should be incorporated in a post-2015 system: non-discrimination, participation and accountability. It is also important to refer to general human rights conventions to ensure compliance with other relevant human rights obligations. Although, in an ideal world, an explicit and globally endorsed human rights approach should be in force, the AIV sees this, as yet, as politically unfeasible in a post-2015 MDG system. Yet there are opportunities to do some justice to the rights-based approach. The AIV therefore proposes that:

  1. the run-up to a post-2015 strategy should be as participatory as possible, including a role for marginalised groups with the greatest stake in the system;
  2. the above-mentioned three principles be incorporated in the methodology for pursuing each component of the post-2015 strategy, and:
  3. globally endorsed human rights remain firmly embedded in the strategy through explicit reference to agreements made at global summits and in UN human rights conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The gender approach, according to which equality between men and women is indispensable to balanced development, requires indicators for all goals as well as a separate heading for gender. We also consider it necessary to specify gender-specific dimensions in new goal clusters for, for example, peace and security (violence against women) and effective governance (participation of women in running society).

One of the tasks of global governance lies in the area of global public goods: goods that are relevant to everyone and from which no one can or may be excluded (question B2). However, the concept of global public goods touches on matters of responsible sovereignty. Emerging and developing countries are concerned about erosion of their national sovereignty, while developed countries are afraid that they will have to finance many of the global public goods. The AIV believes that, although the debate on global public goods should be conducted with the utmost care, it is important to establish a clear link between the MDGs and global public goods, because no one can or may be excluded from either. In this way, the MDGs can also contribute to the creation of a ‘global social floor’ – in other words, a minimum level of existence that is worth pursuing and on which there is a global consensus. The need for such a minimum was once again demonstrated during the recent global crisis, as was recognised at the MDG summit in 2010.

In funding global public goods, a distinction should be made between socially oriented global public goods (with the 0.7% ODA norm as guiding principle) and other public goods, for which national resources other than ODA and innovative international funding methods will have to be mobilised.

Recent theories – such as Nobel Prizewinner Elinor Ostrom’s analysis of commons, which identifies seven principles for effective local governance (‘common resource pools’) – can play a role in the management of global public goods and, if these ideas are extended to apply to global governance, offer a good guideline for a post-2015 system.

The (renewed) debates on global governance offer a good guideline for the post-2015 system. The AIV considers it important that preparations for the post-2015 period link up with the development agenda proposed by the G20, as expressed in the 2010 Seoul Declaration. It is also essential to take account of the new, rapidly growing network society, which operates horizontally and does not allow itself to be controlled vertically (‘top down’). International cooperation has become a multi-actor affair and multilateral institutions could perhaps play a more prominent role in focusing and coordinating it.

More detailed recommendations for a post-2015 system can be found in chapter A.V and specifically in section A.V.4.

Advice request

Mr F. Korthals Altes
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on International Affairs
P.O. Box 20061
2500 EB The Hague

Date 18 November 2010
Re     Request for advice on the development agenda after 2015

Dear Mr Korthals Altes,

The General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously signed the Millennium Declaration in New York in 2000. For the first time in history, measurable development goals were agreed: the Millennium Development Goals for 2015. It is now 2010 and much has been achieved. The MDG Review Summit was held in New York in September to take stock of the situation and to see how progress could be speeded up in the five years that remain.

The first international discussions have now been held on the development agenda after 2015. The Netherlands is taking part in them.

In this connection, I would request the Advisory Council for International Affairs (AIV) to draft an advisory report that will enable the government to determine its position in the debate on the post-2015 development agenda. This request does not concern Dutch policy on the MDGs in the 2011 to 2015 period. I would invite the AIV to provide the government with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the current approach and to trace the outlines of a new approach, in so far as it is emerging from the international discussions referred to above and publications such as the recent report by the Advisory Council on Government Policy (WRR), Less Pretension, More Ambition.

At this stage, I believe that a exploratory advisory report would be the most useful. However, I may request a follow-up advisory report at a later stage.

In its response to the WRR report, the AIV has already pointed out that the MDG approach originated in response to the Washington Consensus and the Structural Adjustment Programmes. Publications appeared in the 1980s and 1990s on methods of measuring prosperity and wellbeing that were not only based on purely economic indicators, but also devoted attention to matters such as human dignity and personal development. Thinking of this kind underpinned the series of Human Development Reports launched in 1990, and was reflected more recently in the work of the Stiglitz Commission.

The Millennium Declaration has worked as a catalyst, leading to a broad international consensus on development. The MDGs identified a number of persistent problems that hinder development, such as the subordinate position of women, HIV/AIDS and maternal mortality. Much has been achieved in the fields of education and health care.

However, the current MDG framework is frequently criticised for devoting too little attention to the economic agenda, good governance, participation, empowerment and other political dimensions of the development issue. Criticism has also been voiced about implementation of the MDG model, in particular that the principles on the effectiveness of aid, as set out in, for example, the Paris Declaration, are not always put sufficiently into practice.

I would request you to examine the questions below from the perspective of both developing countries and donors.

Lessons learned

Main question: What has been the value for development of the Millennium Declaration and the concept of the Millennium Development Goals?

The following subsidiary questions could help focus the answer to this question.

  • Has the Millennium Declaration proved sufficiently successful in addressing the problems that hinder or block development?
  • Has the Millennium Declaration contributed to the focus on poverty?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of the way in which the targets have been formulated? With respect to the disadvantages, what issues have been neglected in the past ten years?
  • To what extent has the concept of the Millennium Development Goals influenced donor policy in terms of decisions about the allocation of resources and choices of themes and sectors? To what extent have developing countries been able to influence decision-making by donors? To what extent have the Millennium Declaration and the MDGs been a common enterprise of the states that signed the Declaration?
  • The goals are formulated in general terms. Has that been an obstacle to country-specific action? Has it affected developing countries’ ownership of their own development?
  • Has the concept of the Millennium Development Goals contributed to greater policy coherence for development and coordination of aid? If so, how significant was the contribution?
  • How did the concept of the Millennium Development Goals influence the evolution and implementation of the development agenda in donor and partner countries?
  • To what extent has the Millennium Declaration proved to be a catalyst in increasing donor countries’ financial commitment (towards the 0.7% norm)?

Towards a different approach?

In 2000, the MDG targets were set for a period of 25 years, with a baseline in 1990. The international balance of forces has changed considerably in the past ten years. Various interconnected crises have occurred. The question is whether developing countries each carry enough weight at international level to pursue their own policies in a time of cross-border crises. Some countries’ policy space seems to be shrinking rather than increasing. Given this context, we might expect that development goals should more often be seen in relation to global challenges such as security, the international legal order, health, environment, water and climate, trade and knowledge development. What are the implications for a new agenda?

I would request the AIV to carry out an objective study of emerging themes in international thinking about development, in order to give the government a better understanding of the possible contours of a new international development agenda: one that inspires, mobilises and is based on consensus between North and South.

Does the AIV’s analysis of the lessons learned, the changing international context and current developments in international thinking on development lead it to expect the international development agenda to take on a completely new form after 2015?

The following subsidiary questions might be useful in answering this question.

  • What ideas are currently shaping international thought about development and development processes? Does the AIV believe that they could serve as a starting point for a new global development agenda? (If so, why; if not, why not?) Or does the AIV believe that the current approach (possibly with some adjustments) should be continued?
  • Could issues that are linked to interdependence, such as the distribution of and access to global public goods, form the basis for development goals after 2015? If so, what role will development cooperation play?

I would request you to complete your report by February 2011.

Yours sincerely,

Ben Knapen
Minister for European Affairs and International Cooperation

Government reactions

To the President of the
House of Representatives of the States General
Binnenhof 4
Den Haag

Date: 1 November 2011
Ref.:  DEC-253/11
Re:    AIV advisory report on the post-2015 development agenda

Dear Madam President,

Please find below the government response to the advisory report ‘The Post-2015 Development Agenda: The Millennium Development Goals in Perspective’, drawn up by the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV).

In 2015 we will reflect on the success or failure of our efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs were drawn up in response to the UN Millennium Declaration (2000). It seems likely that not all the MDGs will be achieved by 2015. A number of them, for example halving the percentage of people living in poverty, were only ever intended as interim objectives. Moreover, the international context has altered considerably since 2000. We therefore need to consider the steps to be taken post-2015. Will the MDG approach be useful post-2015? Or would it be better to reshape the development agenda?

On 18 November the government requested the AIV to draft an exploratory advisory report. The main questions were: (1) What has been the value for development of the Millennium Declaration and the concept of the Millennium Development Goals? (2) Does the AIV’s analysis of the lessons learned, the changing international context and current developments in international thinking on development lead it to expect the international development agenda to take on a completely new form after 2015?

The advisory report on the post-2015 development agenda was presented on 16 May 2011. It is thorough and in-depth, painting a clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the MDGs (in part A) and putting forward useful suggestions regarding how the development agenda might be taken forward post-2015 (in part B).

The government agrees with the AIV that the Millennium Declaration and the MDG approach have had a positive effect. The Netherlands has done its utmost to achieve the MDGs and will continue to see them as a key guiding principle in the years ahead.

The government broadly shares the AIV’s analysis regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the MDG approach. However, the analysis should be modified in some areas. The AIV rightly observes that the development budget was not increased to the intended level. But there is good news, too. For example, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals Report 2011 states that in 2010 ODA reached a record high of USD 129 billion, an increase of 6.5% compared to 2009. The Netherlands will continue to encourage more European and other countries to achieve the norm of 0.7% of GNP.

The government will explore further the AIV’s suggestion that a cluster-led approach be employed, but at the same time will guard against bundling all development themes within one complex framework of objectives and sub-objectives and indicators. We need to focus, by choosing those objectives which will represent in an appropriate and practical manner the development cooperation agenda in the post-2015 period. After all, development is country-specific. The Advisory Council on Government Policy made this case very clearly in their report Less Pretension, More Ambition. The aim must be to achieve broad international consensus, with details being determined at country level.

The AIV is too negative when it claims that in most developing countries only 20% of the trends aimed at achieving the MDGs have speeded up since the goals were introduced in 2000. The MDGs and the Millennium Declaration were not just a starting point but, rather, a milestone in an ongoing global process of promoting consensus on objectives and indicators and of influencing policy. The process began with a series of UN meetings in the 1990s; this raises the question of whether 2000 should be taken as the base year for measuring trends. As a whole, developing countries are more or less on schedule on a number of key MDGs (e.g. access to safe drinking water and education, and halving poverty). Those that are lagging behind and require extra assistance are usually the poorest countries (often fragile states) and the poorest communities within countries. Emerging countries such as China and India are proving more and more capable of tackling poverty and disadvantage without outside help.

The second part of the advisory report refers to a wide range of important development themes which, in the AIV’s opinion, should feature in the global post-2015 development agenda The AIV has opted for a broad approach looking beyond aid alone, as did the Advisory Council on Government Policy in Less Pretension, More Ambition. In the government’s opinion, a global development agenda needs to meet a number of general principles, focus and goal-centeredness being the most important. Current government policy is the starting point for determining the Netherlands’ position on the post-2015 development agenda. There will be greater emphasis on encouraging self-sufficiency through economic development. The aim is to enable countries to combat poverty themselves. In addition, the Netherlands seeks to play an appropriate role in tackling global problems. Further to the motions submitted by MPs Kathleen Ferrier and Sjoera Dikkers on policy coherence for development and the globalisation agenda, and by Arjan El Fassed on quantifying ‘public bads’, the aim is to increase policy coherence for development.

It is not yet the right time to determine in detail the Netherlands’ position or to take a position on all the AIV’s recommendations; the government deliberately asked for an exploratory advisory report. The international debate on the post-2015 development agenda has only just begun. It is important to stay open to new ideas, particularly those from developing and emerging countries.

Ideally, the post-2015 agenda should be implemented by a broad coalition in which developing and emerging countries play a prominent role. The government expects that the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, which will be held in Busan the last weekend of November, and the Rio+20 Conference, which will be held in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, will be opportunities for further shaping this discussion. Once it has been decided which form the international consultative process on the post-2015 global development agenda and architecture will take, the Netherlands will participate in it actively. In 2012 the government will draw up a more detailed vision for the post-2015 development agenda and indicate the strategy the Netherlands will follow to achieve it, drawing on the AIV’s valuable advisory report.

Yours sincerely,

Ben Knapen
Minister for European Affairs and International Cooperation


See also: The Dutch vision for the post-2015 development agenda

Press releases


Advisory Council calls for follow-up to Millennium Development Goals

The Hague, 20 May 2011

The Millennium Development Goals, drafted in 2000, deserve a follow up. That is the core of the latest report by the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV). But the eight international agreements on tackling poverty and promoting development need to be updated. In fact, the process would be a unique opportunity to thoroughly overhaul the international development agenda. And in contrast to the MDGs, this time developing countries should have a major role. The advisory report was presented to the Minister for European Affairs and International Cooperation this week.

The Millennium Development Goals are eight time-related, quantifiable international agreements to make real progress in reducing poverty and promoting development by 2015. An international conference will be held on the status of the agreements in Tokyo on 2 and 3 June 2011.

The AIV produced the advisory report ‘The post-2015 development agenda: the Millennium Development Goals in perspective’ at the request of the government. The current government also regards the MDGs as a pillar of development policy. But with 2015 fast approaching, it needs to take a position in the debate on the post-2015 development agenda.

The report concludes that the Millennium Declaration, which forms the basis for the MDGs, is still relevant, and still has strategic value. The AIV goes on to present the advantages and disadvantages of the MDGs, and identifies lessons to be learned for the period after 2015.

Because they shed light on the various dimensions of poverty, the MDGs have proved very useful as communication tools. The goals serve as an international framework for setting norms. Measuring progress on the basis of indicators, grouping issues and holding actors responsible for achieving – or failing to achieve – results have proved effective in some cases, but have not always led to achievement of the goals themselves.

After more than ten years, some goals clearly need updating and amplifying. The AIV refers, for example, to issues related to peace and security, and to good governance. But gender relations, inequality (particularly income inequality), food security, sustainability and human rights should each feature in a new development strategy.

Up to 2015 we should of course be focusing on achieving the MDGs, says the AIV. But we need to start thinking now about the follow up. International political and socioeconomic relations have changed radically since 2000. And, in the wake of the economic, financial and food crises, we need some fresh thinking on development and on how the world should be governed. That calls for timely reflection and analysis.

The AIV advises the government to work with developing countries to take the lead in forging an international consensus on an updated post-2015 development strategy. The initiative should preferably be driven by a prominent figure from a developing country. By involving developing countries, we would be making up for a major failing of the current MDGs, which were formulated by Western donor countries and international organisations.

The AIV believes that the updated MDGs should be part of a new system of global governance that ensures access to global public goods. These are the goods that matter to everyone and from which no one may be excluded. The AIV also suggests ways of funding such a system.