The creation of a new and more realistic post-2015 agenda to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is already happening with Geneva in the forefront. But how will the new SDGs be implemented and what can the international community do to ensure that they more effective – and different – and not just become another forum for blah-blah? Journalist and author Edward Girardet explores the issues at hand.


When the United Nations first announced its Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, in New York in September, 2000, the international community launched itself on a journey that was incredibly ambitious but also the equivalent of shooting itself in the foot. The eight MDGs included key issues such as reducing child mortality rates by two-thirds, ensuring primary education for all, and promoting environmental sustainability by 2015. While significant progress has been achieved in some areas, limited improvements and failure have characterised others. As one UNDP representative diplomatically noted: “The MDGs have not proven very successful.”

Even if considered primarily symbolic by pragmatic policymakers and aid specialists, the 2015 deadline often lent the impression that the world was seeking to completely “eradicate extreme hunger and poverty” or to “protect the vulnerable,” when clearly such goals were unattainable in the present climate. Furthermore, it was a top-down initiative that did not sufficiently involve people on the ground.

Explaining the MDGs to the public-at-large has not proven effective, particularly in the industrial world. All too often, their aims and achievements got buried in a morass of politically-correct palaver and acronyms. Few people, for example, including many who should know, are capable of explaining the UN’s Zero Hunger Challenge, which was launched in Rio in 2012 in a bid to support the MDGs.

Another problem is that while governments largely committed themselves to the MDGs, at least pro forma, their intentions were often marked by political or self-serving rhetoric that had little to do with reality, or genuine concern. At the same time, certain African countries have enthusiastically embraced the need for change and have pushed forward with initiatives aimed at developing greener economies, all of which fall in line with the objectives of the new follow-up SDGs.

Some critics, however, argue that much of what the MDGs allegedly have achieved is wishful thinking. Everyone is trying to look good now that 2015 is almost upon us. In many parts of the planet, vulnerable populations are clearly no better off even if their government delegations at UN and other conferences in Geneva and elsewhere steadfastly say they are.

Whether because of war, natural disaster, epidemics, human rights repression, economic deprivation or state-condoned corruption, crisis-affected civilians in places like the Middle East, West Africa, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Ukraine are by no means living in a safer or more sustainable world. Worldwide, corrupt governments, guerrilla movements, political thugs and criminal or human trafficking networks still seek to impose their own selfish visions or interests, regardless who is abused, raped, killed, made destitute, forced into exile or otherwise repressed. No MDG is likely to halt this.

While some UN agencies are reluctant to question government claims of progress, organizations, such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have not held back, a refreshing change within the UN and Bretton Woods community. This sort of candidness may prove a decisive start for more effective approaches in line with what the new SDGs could bring about as the post-2015 successor to the MDGs. For years, UNDP considered Tunisia an MDG model, but following the 2010 revolution, it became clear that the previous regime had been lying through its teeth. The current government now appears to be bending over backwards to ensure utmost transparency, precisely supporting what needs to be done if the SDGs are to succeed.

And finally, despite various UN and other blue ribbon reports on how progress is being made with the MDGs, something that numerous civil society organizations question, it is difficult to measure real change: statistics can be easily manipulated, particularly if provided by governments that wish to be seen in a positive light.

Furthermore, fundamental on-the-ground advances are often open to broad interpretation. The Robert Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe has unabashedly mis-represented itself in a manner that few African leaders are willing to criticize. Despite his racism, human rights abuses and murders, particularly against minorities such as the Ndebele and Whites, coupled with overt repression of dissidents and media crackdowns by his political thugs, Mugabe’s behaviour remains perfectly acceptable in the eyes of most of his continental counterparts.

Clearly, even with overt declarations of support for green economies and the SDGs, such positions remain meaningless if the bulk of Africa’s leaders are not willing to be held accountable. These include individuals such as Uganda’s Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. The same goes for the likes of Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose regime is responsible for crimes against humanity, repression of the press and ongoing abuses against the Tamil minority. Or Israel’s indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian populations in Gaza coupled with the continued illegal takeover of Palestinian lands in the occupied territories. And even China, which continues to threaten or otherwise undermine any form of dissent, whether at home or abroad, regarding Tibet, an independent country which continues to remain occupied by Beijing since being forcibly taken over in 1959.

How can the UN and the rest of the international community talk of universal SDG progress when such regimes continue to operate with impunity? As the UNHCHR points out, one cannot talk of genuine progress if governments continue to stifle basic rights enshrined in the UN charter.

The UN’s 2014 Millennium Development Report, which has relied largely on ‘official’ statistics furnished by member states, for example, maintains that several of the MDGs have been met, while substantial progress has been made in other areas. Most notably, the report states, “extreme poverty” in the world has been reduced by half. Over 700 million people have been “removed” from such conditions since 1990, when almost half the population in developing countries lived on less than $1.25.

Such transformation may sound wonderful on paper, but the harsh truth is that while some countries have moved ahead decisively, others have fallen behind. For someone in a Nairobi shanty-town, a Brazilian favela or a Kabul slum, the news that he or she is no longer living in “extreme” poverty may come as a surprise. Coupled with inflation and reduced purchasing power, other factors are constantly coming into play: environmental devastation, air pollution, water shortages, natural disaster, war… The struggle for survival simply continues.

On the other hand, more easily ascertained is the goal to halve the number of people in the world with no access to “improved” drinking water sources. According to the 2014 UN report, this was achieved in 2010, five years ahead of schedule for 2.3 billion people. But even here, the situation remains precarious. Too many wells in parts of Africa and Asia providing clean drinking water are at the same time depleting water levels, provoking severe salination. Many of these new water sources may prove useless over the next decade as population demands increase, aquifers drop and pollutants, notably sewage, seep in.

Another MDG objective is to improve health care and cut back on the number of deaths caused by malaria and tuberculosis. Both of the latter two diseases have been significantly reduced. Some 3.3 million malaria deaths, 90% of them African children under the age of five, were averted over a 12-year period since 2000, while a further 22 million lives worldwide are believed to have been saved from TB since 1995. HIV/AIDS, however, has yet to be averted in most countries.

When examining basic health care improvements or the situation of expectant mothers (empowering women is another MDG), matters become a bit more nebulous once one goes beyond the graphs and statistics. In theory, some countries, such as Afghanistan, have dramatically stepped up their access to health care with every Afghan now living less than an hour’s journey from the nearest clinic.

What these figures fail to note is that 70% of health care in Afghanistan is private. Most Afghans simply cannot afford to go to the doctor, and will certainly not indulge in preventive treatment, such as sending one’s pregnant wife for a check-up, a simple step that could save thousands of lives every year. Only in extremis will a husband pay to have his wife looked at, and then usually only when it is too late.

Education-wise, more children in 2014 are without doubt able to go to primary school. Once again in Afghanistan, over seven million pupils (only one third of them girls) are now attending classes, a radical improvement since the end of Taliban rule in 2001; but another seven million are still being denied the right to learn. Worldwide, an estimated 133 million young people cannot read or write. According to Oxfam, if current trends persist, more than half the world’s developing countries will not be able to guarantee their children a complete primary school education by 2015.

Overall, however, what the MDGs have achieved is to provide the world with direction. They have managed to highlight for governments, the private sector, civil society and the public-at-large the planet’s most critical concerns, such as climate change, the need for greener economies and, above all, more sustainable approaches for achieving food security. By placing these themes into the global arena, the MDGs have provided clear indicators of what needs to be done. Urgently. The have also shown that if real change is to be brought about, it has to be inclusive and from the bottom-up.

As a result of the Rio+20 summit in 2012, the MDGs are expected to be assumed from the end of 2015 onwards by the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Designed to be “action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate,” a 30-member Open Working Group (OWG) has recently concluded its negotiations and is set to present a proposal consisting of 17 Goals and 164 targets to the General Assembly in New York.  According to David Nabarro, Ban-Ki Moon’s Special Representative for Food Security and Nutrition, but now also dealing with the ebola outbreak, the working group is part of an “extraordinary political effort in the UN system” to make things work.

While the MDGs were designed more as development tools, the SDGs will be far more universal by accentuating 17 areas of focus and incorporate well over 150 specific aspects of human activity, such as obesity, food subsidies, energy, and health. A major goal will be to end hunger through more sustainable food systems, including better distribution and storage.

One clearly agreed upon aspect is that the SDGs will have to be far more cross-cutting, politically realistic and more environmentally friendly if they are to succeed. Nor should they be constrained artificially by a self-imposed deadline. Perhaps a surprise to some state delegations in the General Assembly, the SDGs need to represent the UN charter as a reflection of “we the peoples” and not “we the states.”

The overall objective is to make the SDGs more effective and to involve all players, whether governments, civil society, private sector, and military, but, above all, ordinary human beings. As Deborah Vorhies of the Geneva-based Global Social Observatory points out, it is time to “break the silos.” Far more than before, there is a recognised need to involve non-state actors, particularly business and NGOs, as a means of creating more sustainable strategies at local, national and global levels. Private sector involvement is critical, as this may prove the only way to pay for the SDGs. The question is whether business will play along. For some, the SDGs make perfect sense. For others, they still need to be convinced that such initiatives will not undermine profit margins.

The media, too, should have a crucial role not only to promote public outreach but to ensure appropriate accountability and transparency through independent, critical and informed reporting. For this to happen, however, there has to be more innovative and creative thinking around the media if the UN wishes to raise greater global awareness. This means training and associating journalists, particularly local and regional ones, more closely with the SDG processes.

As Nabarro maintains, the media industry needs to be “convened” by the UN system to discuss a possible role for engaging with the unprecedented challenges faced by mankind. Given the fear of some that General Assembly ambassadors may only seek to dilute the proposed SDGs, much in the same way the last UN reform process was watered down, it may be up to the press to ensure that states, regardless whether rich or poor, keep their promises.

Finally, it looks as if the SDG process will be based out of Geneva, not just as part of the UN but also the “International Geneva” community, which includes, finance, civil society and specialised agencies dealing with environment, communications, conflict resolution and humanitarian relief.

One such organization, the Millennium Institute, is expected to move its operations from Washington to Geneva in order to provide effective long-term policy planning tools on economic, social and environmental development. Hans Herren, CEO of the Millennium Institute explains that “the transition to green economies is a far more sustainable growth model in order to produce jobs and protecting the environment.”

Much will depend on funding, but both the Swiss and Geneva governments are interested. So is “International Geneva,” including the banks, international corporations and academic institutions, which is finally waking up to the extraordinary expertise and resources that the Lake Geneva region can offer. Together with the Zurich-based Biovision Foundation, an NGO working on sustainable agriculture, food security and poverty eradication, Herren’s organization now provides tools to develop “informed policies, and to deal with emerging uncertainties. This is the key,” he said.

Edward Girardet is a journalist, editor and author. A former foreign correspondent covering humanitarian crises, wars and environmental issues for The Christian Science Monitor and American Public Television, he is now based in Geneva where he is editor of Le News as well as the Essential Field Guide Series to Afghanistan and other issues. His latest book, Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan – is out in English and French.