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Getting to Zero: Finishing the Job the MDGs Started

The coming three years through 2015 will amount to a crossroads on the path of long-term global cooperation. They will contend with the principal needs of humanity, affecting billions among the least advantaged people on the planet. Foremost among the challenges is the fight to end extreme poverty in its many forms. Underpinning this lies the imperative for environmental sustainability. These problems can be solved only through proactive efforts – spanning countries, organizations and citizens.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been the central reference point for global development efforts since they were established as international targets in 2000. As the first global policy vision based on mutual accountability between developing and developed countries, they set a compelling agenda to cut many forms of extreme poverty in half by 2015.1  Over time, the MDGs have gained traction far beyond the walls of government. Bill Gates has called them “the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that [he has] ever seen”. But the MDGs will expire in 2015 and they only mark a halfway point. The world must begin to prepare now for the post-2015 era.

In this context, Members of the Global Agenda Council on Benchmarking Progress worked on ideas to inform a post-2015 framework. This included the convening of a private session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2012 in Davos-Klosters to prompt discussion and solicit feedback from a broad range of global development stakeholders. The product of this effort is the paper “Getting to Zero: Finishing the Job the MDGs Started”.2 The Council has been deliberately bold: the new goals should reflect the ambitions of the international community to end the many forms of extreme poverty within a generation, i.e. by 2030. The paper’s key messages are presented below.

Why the MDG Framework and Goals Have Been Successful and Where They Need Improvement

Strengths of the MDG framework

The MDGs have helped to advance policy debates, spur advocacy, reinforce cross-stakeholder development collaboration and, above all, strengthen development implementation. Some of the goals’ best attributes are as follows:

  • Ambitious. The MDGs are framed around a highly motivating concept of tackling the challenges of the world’s poorest people on a large scale and on a generational basis.
  • Simple. The MDGs distil the challenges of extreme poverty and sustainable development into a simple suite of goals that are easy to understand and advocate.
  • Integrated. The integrated nature of the MDGs has played a major role in removing “false competition” between development priorities.
  • Longer term. The 2015 time horizon has helped governments and development institutions look beyond immediate financing or electoral cycles to focus on medium- and long-term priorities for change.
  • Quantified. The numerical targets underpinning most of the MDGs allow them to be tractable at every policy level and motivate many non-traditional stakeholders to engage.
  • Deadline driven. The 2015 deadline provides a clear mechanism by which political leaders can be assessed against metrics for success.
  • Focused on Partnership. The MDGs have prompted a broad recognition that all stakeholders need to play a major role and share a common set of anti-poverty objectives.

Where have the MDGs been most successful?

Anchored in these strengths, the MDGs have helped motivate and galvanize many development breakthroughs, perhaps most prominently for global health. These advances have been backed by major increases in official development assistance, often accompanied by developing countries’ own significant increases in domestic revenue mobilization. And broad progress is real. Indeed, although the figures are subject to debate, extreme poverty (i.e. the share of the population living on less than US$ 1.25/day) is estimated to have fallen globally from 43% in 1990 to 22% in 2008, and it is projected to fall to 14% in 2015.3  In fact, since 1990 the world has made progress on seven key MDGs – income poverty, primary education completion, gender equality in education, nutrition, child mortality, maternal mortality and drinking water – and progress on several indicators has accelerated since 2000.

In aggregate, three of the key MDGs are very likely to be met at a global level – halving income poverty, achieving gender parity in primary education and increasing access to water. Three other goals – halving malnutrition, universal primary education and reducing child mortality – are still within reach. Of course rates of progress are uneven across priorities and vary across regions and countries. Further, throughout the developing world, fragile states as a group have experienced little progress against the MDGs.

Concerns and areas where the new goals need improvement

The MDGs have their limitations. Critics argue that they oversimplify and do not directly address the defining drivers of poverty, or issues of risk and vulnerability. These complexities highlight a very fundamental policy challenge for the future goals, to enhance the existing framework without sacrificing the simplicity that has been essential to its success to date. In that spirit, the following is a non-exhaustive list of key priorities for a post-2015 framework:

  • Weak environmental targets. The targets under goal 7 have struggled with definitional issues and gaining political attention. They lack clarity, comparability and robustness. The Global Agenda Council recommends the upcoming “Rio+20” summit identify key priorities for new environmental targets with a 2015 deadline for agreeing on specific targets and launching the new measurement systems.
  • Very narrow targets for gender equality. Attaining gender equality requires a more integrated approach to targets and tracking progress. The Council recommends UN Women to launch a process to identify specific targets and agreements on measurement.
  • Messy goal structures, targets and indicators. The goals have a range of proportionate targets and many of the indicators suffer from a variety of data gaps and analytical imperfections. The post-2015 framework needs much crisper logic linking its goals, targets and indicators.
  • Lack of accountability. No one in any system is specifically responsible if any of the goals are not achieved. The future goals need a clearer definition of responsibilities at the country and global levels.
  • Data poverty. The poor quality and availability of data remains a major challenge and means that progress cannot be properly measured and tracked over time. Targets for data quality and availability should be explicitly incorporated in the post-2015 framework.
  • Missing and emerging priorities. The goals have major substantive gaps, including in 1) secondary education; 2) quality issues, especially for education; 3) economic growth and job creation; 4) climate adaptation; 5) access to energy and infrastructure; and 6) population growth.
  • Public advocacy cumbersomeness. The clunky “MDG” acronym and complex logic speaks to those with policy knowledge rather than to general populations or to the poor themselves. Future goals need to be crafted with clarity for communication across diverse constituencies.
  • “Top-down” perception. Any post-MDG framework will need broad input from non-governmental stakeholders if new goals are to have necessary traction for implementation.

Importantly, the Council had differences of opinion on how best to approach the topic of governance in a post-2015 goal-setting process. All agreed that better governance contributes to better development outcomes, ranging from child survival to literacy to incomes and equality. However, views diverged on how and whether explicit governance targets merit inclusion in a global poverty target framework

Thinking about “Getting to Zero”

The critical role of process

Post-2015 success will hinge both on the establishment of sound goals and on a legitimate and globally inclusive process leading up to that agreement. The Council stresses the importance of the following elements for a successful process:

  • Establish common principles. Shared principles should be identified as soon as possible, preferably around an aspirational framework of “getting to zero”.
  • Maximize MDG progress to 2015. The process to launch new goals cannot distract attention or resources from closing efforts to achieve the MDGs.
  • Empower inputs from global publics. Fast-evolving and expanding technology can empower new forms of public consultation and crowdsourcing of input. Indeed, the future goals could be the first globally elected policy framework.
  • Involve all key stakeholders early. Consultations will need to engage structurally and equally with representatives from business, philanthropy, non-profit organizations and scientific research institutions.
  • Do not shy away from difficult issues. An open discussion on sensitive issues ought to be encouraged.
  • Ensure multi-layered intergovernmental coordination. While the UN is unquestionably the forum for intergovernmental agreement and consultation among member states that will need to sign off on the goals, intergovernmental coordination will be needed across the UN, the G20 and regional bodies.

Current underlying trends towards 2030

How close is the world “getting to zero” on the current trajectory and how much additional progress is needed? One published estimate suggests that the number of people living on less than one dollar per day could be in the range of around 450 to 750 million people in 2030, or only 5-10% of the world’s population, which is estimated to be roughly 8 billion people by that time. Much faster progress is needed for the number of extreme poor to reach, for example, 2% or 1% of world population. Wherever the line for a new target is drawn, a large portion of humanity will still likely be living on less than US$ 2/day, so an ambitious policy goal will also be needed to tackle that challenge.

Another new study estimates that in 2030, based on historical trends, secondary education completion in developing countries will reach 23%, child mortality will fall to 28 per 1,000 live births, maternal mortality to 129 per 100,000 live births, undernourishment to 13%, and average life expectancy will rise to 71 years of age. 4 However, on all of these measures, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will lag behind considerably, so these regions will likely require prioritized attention in post-2015 efforts.

What will the new goals look like?

An overarching focus on “getting to zero” against extreme poverty by 2030 implies goals set in absolute rather than proportionate terms. Global goals become de facto national goals, and absolute values can facilitate a more active targeting to achieve equality and universality across groups, including those disadvantaged by geography, ethnicity, socio-economic strata and gender. Of course, the concept of “getting to zero” should not be constrained by a literal interpretation of zero. Some areas will merit near-zero targets and others (e.g. child mortality) should be assessed by today’s advanced economy standards. Others goals will merit ambitious positive targets, e.g. universal access to secondary education.

Debate among Council Members highlighted divergences as to what should be included in the new framework. Some see it as an opportunity to include more goals, while some favour a more “conservative” approach that builds on the current framework and continues to focus on extreme poverty. The question of whether the future goals should be exclusively about the ends or also about the means is likely to be the object of a fierce debate among those taking part in the UN-led process.

With humility and full recognition of the need for active and inclusive consultation and deliberation, the Council proposes the following basic structure:

  1. Zero goal for income poverty
    1. Zero target for eliminating US$ 1.25 per day extreme poverty
    2. Ambitious target for reducing US$ 2 per day poverty
    3. Target for job creation in line with labour force growth
  2. Zero goal for hunger
    1. Zero target for child stunting
  3. Goal of basic health for all
    1. Ambitious target for child mortality (e.g. 20 per 1,000 live births)
    2. Ambitious target for maternal mortality (e.g. 10 per 100,000 live births)
    3. Ambitious target for reproductive health
    4. Ambitious target for non-communicable diseases
  4. Goal of education for all
    1. Zero target for illiteracy
    2. Target for universal secondary education
    3. Ambitious target for post-secondary education (e.g. 20%)
    4. Target for learning outcomes
  5. Goal of gender equality
    1. Targets for political, scientific and corporate leadership
    2. Elimination of gender disparity in ratio of female to male births
    3. Elimination of earnings disparities in the labour market
    4. Targets for female political participation
  6. Zero goal for infrastructure
    1. Zero target for lack of access to safe drinking water
    2. Ambitious target for lack of access to irrigation (e.g. 50%)
    3. Zero target for lack of access to sanitation
    4. Zero target for lack of access to modern energy sources
    5. Universal access target for broadband mobile telecommunications coverage
  7. Goal of clean and sustainable environment for all
    1. Ambitious target for air quality
    2. Ambitious target for water quality
    3. Ambitious target for chemical and toxic exposures
    4. Ambitious target for waste management
    5. Ambitious target for biodiversity
    6. Target from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process on greenhouse gas emissions
  8. Goal of global partnership and good governance5
    1. Ambitious target for data quality and availability
    2. Ambitious target for transparency in all public sector budgets
    3. Target for domestic resource mobilization (towards above goals)
    4. Target for official development assistance
    5. Ambitious target for civil society efforts, including private sector, scientific and non-governmental “citizen goals”


The Council’s work has already fed into preparatory discussions and consultations, and is supporting outreach efforts in a variety of settings, including among the UN community in New York. It aims to inform ongoing policy discussions that will continue to take shape in the coming months, including the “Rio+20” summit in June 2012. Such efforts include:

  • January 2012: The Council organized a high-level private session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters with 25 ministers, heads of UN agencies, international organizations, NGOs, foundations and academia. Moderated by John McArthur, this conversation was one of the very first opportunities for some of the development community’s most prominent actors to share their views on the post-2015 framework. A draft of “Getting to Zero” was circulated.
  • January 2012: At the Annual Meeting, John McArthur ran an IdeasLab session on the future of the MDGs.
  • April 2012: The UN Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion in New York on the theme of “‘Getting to Zero’ and a post-2015 framework”.
  • April 2012: The Forum published the paper, “Getting to Zero”, to support advocacy efforts and raise awareness on the topic.
  • April 2012: Invited by the World Policy Institute, John McArthur presented the paper “Getting to Zero”, as part of their Political Salon series.
  • June 2012: A private session took place at the World Economic Forum on East Asia, following the same format as the event in Davos-Klosters.
  • September 2012 (TBC): The International Standard Organization (ISO) will host a workshop in Geneva with the heads and senior representatives of Geneva-based international organizations and NGOs, and academia.
  • In addition, several Global Agenda Council Members participated, and will participate, in various fora on the topic (details upon request). They also commented on the topic through different channels, including in the context of the “Rio+20” summit.

Next Steps

The intent is to bring the discussion on the post-2015 framework to the newly formed Global Agenda Council on Poverty & Sustainable Development. In particular, the Council might propose an overarching set of policy recommendations for how best to transition from the MDGs to post-2015 targets, in light of the forthcoming outcomes from Rio+20, which could establish the intergovernmental framework for Sustainable Development Goals. The Council might also identify options for public, private and civil-society stakeholders to engage in post-2015 targets for both “zero poverty” and “global sustainability”. This would include government goals, industry goals, philanthropic goals and even citizen goals.


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.