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The MDGs, A Decade On: Keeping the Promise, Fulfilling Rights

Ten years after the optimism of the 2000 Millennium Summit, as the international community feels the encroaching 2015 deadline, there are decidedly mixed results across regions on meeting the targets of the MDG framework.

On September 20-22, 2010, the Millennium Development Review Summit will serve as a key meeting to review progress over the last decade and to discuss the next phase of the goals' implementation. At this inflection point, and with five years left to meet the MDG benchmarks, CESR assesses some of the data on MDG progress from a human rights perspective. Viewed through a human rights lens, progress has been unreasonably slow and has not benefitted the most disadvantaged. An approach grounded in human rights is essential if results are to be accelerated and transformed to meet expectations.

The framework of MDG commitments has rightly been criticized as flawed and unambitious from a human rights perspective. In many respects the highly selective goals and targets fall short of states' pre-existing obligations under international human rights standards. The omission of explicit reference to human rights in the architecture of the MDG framework has long raised alarm about how the MDGs would then be implemented and evaluated by states. Since the inception of the MDGs, there was apprehension that the framework failed to incorporate key human rights principles such as accountability, participation and the obligations contained in international standards on economic, social and cultural rights.

Nevertheless, the MDGs have galvanized attention to the intolerable levels of poverty and deprivation which characterize the world today. They have therefore created renewed political momentum for the struggle for economic and social rights, including the rights to education, food, health and housing, the right to decent work and to an adequate standard of living. In particular, the time-bound MDG objectives offer a widely-accepted benchmark for assessing whether states are progressing swiftly enough in fulfilling economic and social rights.

Slow Progress, Stagnation and Regression

Unfortunately, progress has been too slow along many of the goals even to meet the MDGs' modest 2015 targets. In some cases, in fact, performance on the MDG goals has gotten worse or has stalled in the 2000s in comparison to progress made in the 1990s. While the world may be "on track" on some of the MDGs, progress has been uneven and change is often so slow that it borders on stagnation. In some countries, significant growth in GDP over time has not necessarily resulted in corresponding improvements on even some of the most crucial targets, suggesting that the maximum available resources have not been employed in the fulfillment of ESC rights and attainment of the goals.

Right to an Adequate Standard of Living

The most galvanizing target under MDG 1 on extreme poverty-to halve the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day-may be met by 2015. However, China, which dropped from 60% in 1990 to 15.9% in 2005, accounts for almost all of the world's reduction. In sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, very little progress was made: one in two people continue to live in extreme poverty. At this rate, the region will not achieve the target until 2076.

The truth behind the numbers on global poverty:
There has been a significant drop in the absolute number of people living in poverty around the world, according to global figures. Excluding China from the global estimates, however, the data shows that the number of people living in poverty has increased. This means that China accounts for most of the world's extreme poverty reduction in absolute figures. Global estimates that include China are masking how little progress has been made on the MDG 1 poverty target.
The dollar-a-day yardstick provides a misleading picture that the world is "on track" to reduce poverty. The total number of people in the world living under $2 a day (the median poverty line in the developing world) is about the same as in the 1980s. A truer picture of the scale of poverty worldwide becomes apparent when examined at the national level.

The MDG targets risk encouraging the lowest common denominator of progress by focusing on inadequate benchmarks:
In many countries, the $1.25/day measure of extreme poverty covers only a fraction of the population, while the number of people estimated to be living under nationally-defined poverty lines is far higher. This suggests that the one-size-fits-all nature of some of the MDGs do not allow them to be localized to their context to meet the real needs of the poor.

More and more workers are living in extreme poverty in many parts of the world. The effects of the 2008 Financial Crisis have yet to be captured in the data, but estimates are not promising. In many countries the proportion of employed people living below $1.25 a day is rising, or has fluctuated so greatly that progress is ambiguous or is at the same level as in the 1990s. In others that have seen reductions, greater drops were made in the 1990s than in the last decade.

Right to Food

Overall progress to halve hunger has stagnated over the last 10 years. In several regions, including Western Asia and East Asia (excluding China), the proportion of the population which is undernourished has increased since 1990. Globally, the number of undernourished people has grown by more than 10 million since then. Progress worldwide in reducing child malnutrition has been insignificant: the proportion of children under five who are underweight for their age decreased by only 5%.

Right to Health

The health-related goals (MDGs 4, 5 and 6) could justifiably be seen as the most urgent priority, as they directly implicate the right to life, as well as core obligations under the right to health. Regrettably, progress in reducing preventable deaths-whether in infancy and early childhood, or during pregnancy and childbirth-has been painfully slow. The rate of child deaths has fallen, but not at a sufficient pace to meet the 2015 target. Sub-Saharan Africa has by far the highest rates-one child in seven does not reach their fifth birthday. At current rates of progress, the region will not achieve its target for MDG 4 until at least 2031.

The worldwide reduction in the maternal mortality rate is still well short of the 5.5% annual decline needed to meet the MDG target. Part of the problem appears to be the slow progress in ensuring women in developing countries receive skilled assistance during delivery as well as access to emergency obstetric care and to other reproductive health services. While the proportion of women who had access to skilled birth attendance rose from 53% in 1990 to 63% in 2008, at this rate full coverage will only be achieved in 2075. Progress was especially slow in sub-Saharan Africa (a mere 4% increase since 1990). In the 10 countries that account for almost two-thirds of all maternal deaths in the developing world, only two have made enough progress to ensure that at least half of all births are assisted by skilled personnel. Progress in expanding the use of contraceptives has slowed and advances in reducing adolescent pregnancy have stalled or even reversed in some regions. The proportion of overseas development assistance on health that is dedicated to reproductive health care and family planning is a tiny fraction of what it should be to truly accelerate performance on MDG 5.1

One of the targets for MDG 6 was to achieve universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS for all those who needed it by 2010. However, the rate of new infections outstrips expansion of treatment by a ratio of five to two. The latest data shows that average treatment coverage worldwide increased by about 5% per year. At this rate the target will not be met until 2020-10 years late.

Right to Water and Sanitation

Half the population in developing countries continue to live without basic sanitation. In India, for example, sanitation is a vast challenge: just 31% of the population has access to an improved sanitation facility. Urban sanitation rates have hardly changed since 1990 (from 49% to 54%) despite fast urbanization and significant economic growth. This contrasts unfavourably with the progress made by India's poorer neighbors, notably Bangladesh and Nepal.

Economic growth does not necessarily translate into improvements in people's lives:
Despite the fact that India experienced more economic growth, its regional least-developed-country (LDC) neighbors were able to make more progress on providing improved access to sanitation to their population, suggesting that India is not using its maximum available resources to fulfill MDG 7's sanitation target.

Right to Adequate Housing

MDG 7 aims for "a significant improvement" in the lives of at least 100 million slum-dwellers world-wide. Yet the latest State of the World's Cities 2010-2011 report by UN HABITAT reports that the number of slum-dwellers worldwide amounted to 827 million as of 2010. This is an increase of 171 million slum-dwellers since 1990.2 In many countries, slum rates have actually increased. One of the most striking numbers comes from war-torn Iraq, whose slum rate went from 16.9% in 2000 to 52.8% in 2007. In Zimbabwe, the slum rate went from 3.3% in 2000 to 17.9% in 2005.

The world is failing to meet even an unambitious target on housing:  
MDG 7's slum target calls for the "improvement" in the lives of 100 million slum dwellers by 2020. Although UN HABITAT suggests that 227 million people have "escaped the slums," other data collected by the agency shows that the world has actually seen an increase in the absolute numbers of slum-dwellers since 1990 even though in percentage terms this number has been falling.

Persistent and Widening Disparities

One of the strongest criticisms of the MDGs centers on their lack of attention to inequality within countries. Inequalities can occur along many dimensions: male/female, urban/rural, across regions, wealth quintiles or different ethnic and racial groups. Discrimination on grounds of disability is also a critical factor fueling inequality, though frequently overlooked in the context of the MDGs. The effects of inequality are multiple and complex, and operate in a cross-cutting way among the MDGs.

The common use of averages and aggregate data in both global and country-level MDG reporting has tended to make such inequalities invisible. Disaggregated information on the MDG indicators often paints a very different picture of progress, and is crucial for an adequate policy response in compliance with human rights obligations.

Glaring and persistent disparities between different population groups point to a lack of attention to the principle of non-discrimination, and a failure to tackle inequalities in access to relevant programs and services in the delivery of the MDGs. Many states appear to have preferred to "pick the lowest hanging fruit" to more easily meet the MDG targets. As a result, the poorest of the poor and the most disadvantaged have been left marginalized from benefits resulting from a country meeting certain MDGs. Reducing inequalities must, therefore, be a key aim under each of the MDGs in future.

Disparities between socioeconomic groups

Three times as many out-of-school children worldwide are from the poorest 20% of the population as those from the richest 20%. Across all quintiles, girls are more likely than boys to be out of school and the gap widens with increasing poverty. By secondary school, half of all girls in the poorest three-fifths of households is out of school, compared to a quarter of girls in the wealthiest two-fifths.

Despite great variation, access to maternal health services has increased in about 80% of countries.3 In most countries for which data is available, vast inequalities exist between the richest and poorest women in their attendance by skilled personnel during birth. Instead of narrowing, these inequalities appear to have widened in many countries during the MDG process. This suggests that policy-making has focused on increasing access to services among the already better-off population rather than reaching the most deprived women.

Progress in the MDG goals has targeted those who are easier to reach:

The MDG targets have encouraged a focus on the "low hanging fruit," with interventions that target those who are better off, rather than trying to reach the poorest and most marginalized. In Bangladesh, improvements have been made in extending care during childbirth, but mostly for the more wealthy population, with the poorest 20% seeing little improvement. 

Gender Disparities

While the average gap between females and males in education enrollment in developing countries has narrowed at all levels, there are still large gender disparities in education in Western Asia, Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, gender disparities in tertiary education in Sub-Saharan Africa widened from 71 women per 100 men to 67 women per 100 between 1999 and 2008.4  In many countries, the effects of gender discrimination are compounded by discrimination on grounds of ethnicity and residence. For example, indigenous, rural women in Guatemala have by far the lowest literacy rate compared to their urban, male and non-indigenous peers.

Disaggregated data is essential to reveal wide disparities that are masked by national averages:

The focus on averages omits the importance of inequality reduction in the MDGs and undermines their intent by failing to ensure that progress improves the lives of the most marginalized. Compound discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, geography and gender are reflected in the fact that rural indigenous women have by far the lowest literacy rates in Guatemala. The MDGs should require states to ensure they abide by principles of non-discrimination, disaggregating data on outcome and process indicators so as to challenge disparities and inequalities across the population.

Gender disparities are also striking in terms of rising youth unemployment rates in the context of the economic crisis. The unemployment rate for young people aged 15-25 years has risen faster than the total unemployment rate.5 In the Arab world, where youth represent a large proportion of the population, around a quarter of Arab youths were unemployed after 2005, figures that have likely risen since the financial crisis.6 The male-female gap for youth unemployment is one of the highest of all regions

Targets for decent work are not being met, especially for women:

MDG 1 sets a work target for decent work for "women and young people." This graph shows how in Egypt, youth unemployment amongst those seeking work is rising, with young women affected more by unemployment and by volatility and uncertainty in the labour market.

The need to combat gender inequality cuts across all goals, not simply those relating to women's access to education and to political representation (MDGs 2 and 3). HIV/AIDS prevalence rates show glaring disparities between men and women. In 28 of the 33 countries for which gender disaggregated information is available, women outpaced men in the percentage of the population living with the virus. In five of the countries with the highest prevalence rate, women on average had an 8 percentage point higher rate than men. In Swaziland,  one in five men is HIV/AIDS positive, whereas one in three women lives with the virus.

Eliminating gender disparities must apply to all the MDGs:

Reducing gender disparities has been reduced to one target in MDG 3, but should be addressed in all of the MDGs where disaggregated data reveals huge gender inequalities in reaching the MDG targets, such as in HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Rural-Urban Disparities

Rural children are twice as likely to be out of school as children in urban areas and the rural-urban gap is wider for girls than for boys.7 Children in rural areas are twice as likely to be underweight as their urban counterparts and are less likely to receive treatment for malaria (30% to 41%) in sub-Saharan Africa.8

Even in China, which has led and inflated global progress on MDG 1, income disparities between rural and urban areas are growing. In 2003, urban per capita disposable income was more than three times that of rural per capita income.9 Widening rural-urban disparities are part of the broader pattern of increasing inequality in China, whose gini-coefficient index (a measure of income inequality) has now surpassed the international alert line, increasing by 50% from .30 in 1982 to .45 in 2002.10

Even among countries recognized by development practitioners as the highest achievers in either absolute progress or progress relative to the MDG targets,11 stark rural-urban differences exist on the fundamental poverty target. In a sample of these countries, huge disparities existed related to the latest figures on the percentage of the population below the national poverty line.

Huge rural-urban disparities in poverty even among the best MDG performers:

Even in countries doing well overall on the MDGs (according to the latest report card by the Overseas Development Institute and the Millennium Campaign), poverty is felt strongest in neglected rural communities.

Fundamentally Flawed?

"The shortfalls in progress towards the Millennium Development Goals are not because they are unreachable or because the time is too short, but rather because of unmet commitments, inadequate resources, lack of focus and accountability, and insufficient interest in sustainable development." ???Report of the UN Secretary General, Keeping the promise: a forward-looking review to promote an agreed action agenda to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015

The MDGs were designed to garner maximum political support by focusing on a few targeted, measurable development objectives that would make achievement of the vast structural challenges of poverty seem tangible, manageable and depoliticized. Although the MDGs have framed an agenda, thus expediting efforts, it is fundamentally flawed. The lack of reference to human rights principles has meant that key human rights concerns such as tackling discrimination have been neglected.

The MDGs are overly selective in their choice of goals and indicators. For example, MDG 2 overlooks critical human rights considerations such as the quality and adaptability of education, and the need for primary education to be free and compulsory. As many countries are finding, an increase in enrollment can result in an imbalance on the student-to-teacher ratio, actually worsening the quality of education, if proper resources are not scaled up to increase the number of properly trained teachers and provide education in indigenous or minority languages, where appropriate. The compartmentalization of the goals, both in their framing and implementation, is also an obstacle to recognizing the interrelated nature of the rights underpinning them.

Perhaps the most narrowly-selective goal is MDG 3, seeking to promote gender equality and empower women. The containment of gender equality within one goal sidelines its relevance to all the goals. As the data on HIV prevalence shows, gender parity should be one of the core objectives incorporated into the entire MDG framework so that each goal is implemented in a manner complying with the principle of non-discrimination. The targets focus, reductively, on gender parity in education enrollment. Saudi Arabia reports that it is on track to meet MDG 3 since it will reach the goal's target on gender parity in enrollment rates by 2015.12 This is despite having one of the lowest Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) values in the world and gross wage disparities (women's average income is one-sixth that of men).

The MDG targets and benchmarks often set the bar too low. For example, MDG 7 (greater environmental sustainability) consists of a target to "significantly improve" the world's slum dwellers by 100 million by 2020. Considering that, as of 2000, UN HABITAT reported an estimated 767 million slum dwellers, about one-third of the developing world, this target is one of the most unambitious of all the MDGs, aiming for a reduction of less than one-seventh; it places no actual reduction requirements on countries themselves. The "cities without slums" slogan that has accompanied this target has often been misinterpreted to clear out slums unlawfully with massive forced evictions.

The MDGs also fail to recognize the obligation of members of the international community, including donor states and international financial institutions, to ensure all states can meet the MDGs and core human rights obligations. The duty of international cooperation and assistance in fulfilling economic and social rights, recognized in international law, is not limited to the responsibility to provide development assistance, but also refraining from policies and practices which prevent developing countries from guaranteeing basic levels of rights enjoyment to their whole population (policies on trade, debt or arms sales, for example). It is striking that MDG 8, which applies primarily to donor countries, is the only goal that does not set measurable targets or indicators through which to assess compliance.

A Framework for Accountability

Nevertheless, the MDGs have never been intended as an exhaustive and comprehensive framework for development. They are a selective political reaffirmation of key priority development areas meant to prompt more aggressive efforts, and their cut-off date reinforces their provisional nature. For all the flaws in their design and in the way states are implementing them, many people around the world have seen their lives improve as a result of the efforts rallied around the Millennium Declaration and its subsequent operationalization into eight goals. Their prominence on the international development agenda over the next five years makes the MDGs a potentially significant vehicle for human rights accountability in development.

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recognized, lack of accountability is one of the principal reasons why the MDGs are not being met. Inclusion of human rights in efforts to monitor and implement the MDGs can strengthen accountability in several ways.

  • First, the goals and targets themselves can be rounded out by supplementing them with the more detailed and comprehensive obligations of human rights law applicable under each goal.
  • Second, the principles and standards of human rights should be used to assess whether government's policy efforts are adequate. The "process" indicators included among the MDGs can be complemented and assessed using more comprehensive criteria drawn from international standards, such as those proposed by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for assessing the adequacy of health, education and other social systems.
  • Third, the human rights principles of progressive realization and non-discrimination, if operationalized using appropriate indicators, can provide a lens through which to assess the equity and adequacy of resource allocations to meet the MDG goals, by donor countries as well as developing country governments.

In the absence of effective mechanisms for accountability within the MDG process, there is scope for much more active monitoring of MDG compliance from a human rights perspective by national and international human rights mechanisms. These include national human rights institutions, some of whom have begun recently to engage in MDG monitoring, as well as the human rights review and complaints procedures of the United Nations.

The demand for greater human rights accountability in the MDGs was a central demand of the Informal Interactive Hearings of the General Assembly with Non-governmental organizations, Civil society organizations and the Private sector, convened by the UN General Assembly in June 2010. The event highlighted both the opportunities and challenges for active civil society participation in the MDG process.

Hundreds of civil society activists, representing indigenous movements, women's rights organizations, environmental advocates, disability rights groups and many others, brought a powerful and concerted set of demands for an "MDG breakthrough plan," ranging from immediate measures to fulfill specific goals, to deeper reforms of the global economic system. The General Assembly session, however, intended as an interactive dialogue between governments and civil society representatives, was attended by only a handful of states' diplomatic representatives. The rows of empty seats where government representatives should have been is a worrying indicator of the priority being given to accountability and participation in the MDG process. Clearly, more needs to be done over the next five years to raise the cost of governments disregarding their commitments.

The MDGs and human rights have common objectives to ensure that each person can meet their basic needs and live a life in dignity. However, it is imperative that a human rights-based approach be mainstreamed into the goals during their 2010-2015 phase if the MDG promise is to be kept. The 2010 MDG Summit in September should not focus solely on how to speed up efforts to achieve the time-bound MDG targets by their due date, but rather, on how to transform the process of their attainment by mainstreaming human rights into their design and implementation.


1 United Nations (2010) The Millennium Development Report 2010, New York, 2010
2 UN HABITAT (2010) "227 Million Escape Slums", Press Kit Material for 2010/2011 State of World Cities Report - Cities for all: Bridging the Urban Divide
3 Millennium Campaign and the Overseas Development Institute (2010) "Millennium Development Goals Report Card: Learning from Progress", June 2010
4 United Nations MDG Report 2010, p. 20
5 ILO (2010) "Global Employment Trends for Youth - Special issue on the impact of the global financial crisis on youth", Geneva, August 2010
League of Arab States and UN ESCWA (2007) The Millennium Development Goals in the Arab Region 2007: A youth lens", Beirut, Lebanon 2007
United Nations MDG Report 2010, p. 18
Ibid, p. 49
UN HABITAT (2006) "China's Rising Cities", Press Kit Material for Asia-Pacific Ministerial Conference on Housing and Human Settlements, 13 - 16 December, 2006
UNDP (2005) "China Human Development Report 2005: Development with Equity", Beijing, 2005
Millennium Campaign and ODI, 2010
Ministry of Economy and Planning and UNDP, "Kingdom of Saudi Arabi Millennium Development Goals Report", 2009