The following essay was a final assignment for a global development module, entitled “In what ways did the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) fail as a framework for transformative global development, and to what extent do the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address such shortcomings?”
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are widely credited as setting the agenda for development in the 21st century and creating a global movement for poverty alleviation and the achievement of social goals (Bandara, 2012; Olukoshi, 2013). Their practical achievements, however, have been mixed and it is difficult to determine whether reductions in poverty can be attributed to specific MDGs or wider global economic factors (Clemens et al, 2007; Solheim, 2010). In this context, the debate around the MDGs has been a practical one: did they achieve their stated aims?
There are, however, other perspectives that question more deeply the goals themselves; in particular, how the goals were created in the first place, and the paradigm in which they operate. As the post-2015 development agenda aims to integrate the MDGs with the parallel global aspirations around sustainable development, most notably articulated at the Rio +20 Summit (Adams and Tobin, 2014), an analysis of these structural questions is essential in assessing the transformative potential of the Sustainable Development Goals. Defining “transformative” as challenging the structures that underpin the status quo, this essay will therefore take a broad overview and examine the structure of the MDGs, in terms of how they were created and how they framed development issues, to suggest that their failure to create transformative global development was due to the values framework that underpinned them. It will then consider the potential the SDGs have to provide an alternative, transformative paradigm for development, focusing on the crucial question of what concept of “sustainability” underpins them. It will argue that if the SDGs are based on a “strong” concept of sustainability linked to human rights, they can reconcile environment and development tensions and provide a vision for development that can address the structural shortcomings of the MDGs. How realistic such an alternative framework is, however, is questionable.