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Investing in evidence to end hunger

Some updates on post-2015 (and “Paying for Zero”)

23 months for the world to get organized


By: John McArthur

Oct 16th 2013

At last we have a roadmap. On 25 September, at a special event of the General Assembly, UN member states established a path and process for setting the post-2015 global development agenda. After an extended sequence of significant reports and recommendations over the past year, a short and matter-of-fact outcome document forged some core agreements, finessed some ongoing debates, and confirmed a basic timetable for the coming two years.

Many of the most important agreements were procedural. All countries agreed that the formal intergovernmental negotiations will start in September 2014 and will culminate in a summit of heads of state and government in September 2015. The word “summit” has a specifically elevated meaning in UN jargon, so this represents top-tier importance for the international system.

The General Assembly also commissioned Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to pull together “the full range of inputs” and to present a synthesis report before the end of 2014. Outsiders might consider this mandate trivial, but it represents a major de-escalation of intra-UN tensions. Following a series of intensive political debates, many General Assembly members have felt a need to remind the world that the Secretary-General works for them rather than vice versa. The mandate also provides clear space for Ban Ki-moon to make direct recommendations for post-2015, similar to Kofi Annan’s 2000 We the Peoples report, which helped to inform the landmark Millennium Declaration.

On matters of substance, countries made stepwise progress. They asserted poverty eradication as “the central imperative” of a post-2015 agenda, a subtle nod to continuing the core elements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But they also called for a “coherent approach” that “integrates in a balanced manner” the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, “working towards a single framework and set of Goals” applicable to all countries. This amounts to strategic ambiguity around whether the poverty and environmental sustainability agendas will be pursued through a unified or parallel set of goals. In plain English, “It will be nice if we can arrive at a single set of goals that applies to everyone, but we don’t know whether we will get there.”

Underpinning the universality debate is the hot-button concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. All countries have agreed to the concept but still fight bitterly about what it means in practice. At the core of cores, it asks the extent to which developing countries should pay a different price for fighting climate change and related problems compared to the rich countries that caused them in the first place.

A related debate pertains to peace, security and various components of governance. Many have critiqued the MDGs for their top-line agnosticism on issues such as human rights and the rule of law. The question is how to set measurable targets that all countries, ranging from China to the United States to Brazil and Nigeria, will agree to. The new outcome document agrees that a post-2015 framework should “promote” these things, but does not commit to set targets around them.

Finally, the General Assembly agreed that the key responsibilities over the coming year are delegated to its open working group on sustainable development goals plus a targeted expert group on “sustainable development financing”, both of which will need to make their recommendations before formal negotiations begin next September. Whatever the final composition of any post-2015 goals, at this stage the biggest unresolved issues hinge on decisions of economic policy and development finance, so the expert group will likely form a fulcrum for intergovernmental breakthroughs. It is co-chaired by Ambassador Pertti Majanen of Finland and former Nigerian Finance Minister Mansur Muhtar. If they can achieve the robust engagement of finance ministries and investment leaders around the world, they will have a strong chance of success.

The world has never experienced such an intensive and broad-ranging intergovernmental process towards the confirmation of an agreed global agenda. Its multi-layered nature risks alienating outsiders who lack the time or inclination to master specialized diplomatic procedures. Fortunately, the General Assembly has also called for an inclusive approach that extends beyond traditional interactions with civil society and national parliaments and also includes local authorities, scientific communities, and the private sector. More than a million people around the world expressed their views over the past year. Empowered by the newly clarified timetable, hopefully hundreds of millions more will have the chance to share their perspective over the coming two years too. 

John McArthur is a Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Can we slash poverty and starvation by 2015? Yes, if we get to work [op-ed]

Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

JOHN MCARTHURlfilm La La Land trailer

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

If global development targets followed a National Football League format, we would be approaching the two-minute warning. December 31, 2015, marks the final deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, the global anti-poverty targets that have mobilized an unprecedented generational success in tackling extreme poverty around the world, most notably the burdens of disease in the poorest countries. We are now facing the final moment to bend the relevant curves of progress. For decision makers, 2013 is the real 2015. [Read more…]

The Origins of the Millennium Development Goals


DECEMBER 2014 UPDATE: I have revised and expanded some of the material in this piece and published it as a proper article in the SAIS Review of International Affairs.  Full article available here.


APRIL 2014 UPDATE: Note – an updated version of this piece was posted here.


I recently posted this short piece at Brookings regarding the origins of the MDG Targets following the September 2000 UN Millennium Declaration.  Original link here.  Full PDF document here.


More than a decade after the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), ample confusion persists regarding their genesis. In particular, many people misunderstand the relationship between the contents of the September 2000 UN Millennium Declaration and the original MDG Targets that were extracted from that Declaration. As recently as 2012, I have heard senior global policy figures state a belief that, “The Millennium Declaration did not establish any quantitative targets. Those were set afterwards.” This is not correct. All of the MDGs’ original formal Targets were established in the Millennium Declaration.

The roots of the misunderstanding probably lie in the U.S. government’s stance from mid-2001, when the MDGs were first used as a policy term, through September 2005, when President Bush first used the words “Millennium Development Goals” in public. During the interim period, U.S. officials would commonly state that, “The United States supports the goals of the Millennium Declaration but not the Millennium Development Goals,” or that “The United States supports Goals 1 through 7 but not Goal 8.” When looking at the actual contents of the Millennium Declaration and the original MDG Targets, neither statement is logical.

The following describes the issues through the form of an FAQ structure.

1. Which Targets were taken directly from the Millennium Declaration?
All of the original MDG Targets were taken directly from the Millennium Declaration. Following the September 2000 Millennium Summit, the UN General Assembly mandated Secretary-General Kofi Annan to prepare a long-term roadmap towards the implementation of the Millennium Declaration. Annan in turn commissioned Assistant Secretary-General Michael Doyle to coordinate a process to extract the development-related outcomes of the Millennium Declaration and thereby crystallize the priorities for follow-up.

In working through the prose of world leaders’ commitments embedded in the body of the Millennium Declaration, Doyle and his team (which included people like Jan Vandemoortele of UNDP and others from UNICEF, the OECD, World Bank, IMF, UNFPA and later WHO) identified a subset of 18 politically agreed commitments, which they categorized under eight overarching “Goals.” These 18 commitments were labeled as “Targets.” Ten out of the 18 Targets were quantitative in nature and nine out of ten set a deadline for 2015, the exception being the slum dweller Target for 2020. Table 1 lists the original 18 MDG Targets next to the relevant passage(s) from the Millennium Declaration. [The 18 Targets were later expanded to be 21, based on 2005 intergovernmental agreements, as described under point #6 below.] Appendix 1 includes the complete Development section of the Millennium Declaration.

Foreign Affairs article – Condensed history of MDGs

I have an article in the new March/April edition of Foreign Affairs, entitled “Own the Goals: What the Millennium Development Goals Have Accomplished.”  Here is the magazine teaser:

Since their inception in 2000, The Millennium Development Goals have revolutionized the global aid business, using specific targets to help mobilize and guide development efforts. They have encouraged world leaders to tackle multiple dimensions of poverty simultaneously and provided a standard for judging performance. As their 2015 expiration looms, the time has come to bank those successes and focus on what comes next.

Full text also available (for a little while) on my Brookings page and below.

Own the Goals

What the Millennium Development Goals Have Accomplished

By John W. McArthur

March/April 2013

[Read more…]

Short ForumLive Interview with Prof Chan Yuen Ying

On Saturday I did a short (if sleep-deprived) ForumLive interview in Davos with Prof Chan Yuen Ying, Director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at Hong Kong University.  In it we talked about some of the issues covered in the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Outlook 2013, which includes some commentary from Prof Chan (and my friend Michael Elliott) on the role of journalism in restoring trust in public institutions, plus some commentary from me and Wu Changhua regarding the MDGs and the post-2015 development agenda.

Video here:


New op-ed & blog on Asia & post-2015 goals

I’m currently in Thailand for the World Economic Forum’s regional East Asia meeting.  Earlier this week I wrote an op-ed that ran in The Bangkok Post, available here under the title “Asia is crucial to ending poverty.” Opening paragraph:Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Amid the economic distress emanating from the United States and Europe, no statistic better captures the broader dynamics of the world economy than the recent World Bank announcement that the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to cut extreme poverty by half was met globally in 2010. This was fully five years before the 2015 deadline. The United Nations also recently declared that the MDG governing access to drinking water has already been achieved. While many of the world’s most prosperous nations are clearly struggling, many of the world’s formerly struggling nations are clearly prospering.

I also wrote a similar short blog post that ran a few days ago in The Nation of Thailand (with typo gremlins inserted) and the WEF Forum:Blog, “Goals for Getting to Zero on Extreme Poverty“.  Also available at Brookings website. Opening passage:

Societies around the globe are confronting a daily sense of fragility as economic, environmental and social forces combine to produce surprise after surprise after surprise. There is a common fear that, even in cases of rapid advance, the gains might prove illusory or unsustainable. But the upside of uncertainty is that good news often comes where its least expected.

Tomorrow I’ll be doing a panel that is scheduled for live webcast here.Watch movie online The Transporter Refueled (2015)


Getting to Zero

Over the past several months I’ve had the pleasure to work with several colleagues to map out the strengths and weaknesses of the Millennium Development Goals, and how those can inform a new generation of post-2015 global development goals. The group was brought together through the World Economic Forum’s network of Global Agenda Councils, ours being focused on issues of “benchmarking progress.”

We have recently finished a paper called “Getting to Zero – Finishing the Job the MDGs Started.”  The paper outlines a broad vision for setting targets to tackle the second half of the MDG agenda, recognizing that a broad and deep global conversation will be needed to firm up any targets that might have the chance for traction.

We’d be very grateful for any comments on the document. In the meantime, my huge thanks to all the collaborators on this effort, all of whom contributed in their personal capacities: Ernest Aryeetey, Daniel Esty, Edwin Feulner, Thierry Geiger, Daniel Kaufmann, Andreas Kraemer, Marc Levy, Robert Steele, Anand Sudarshan, Andy Sumner, and Mark Suzman.