The PelicanWeb's Journal of Sustainable Development

Research Digest on Integral Human Development,
Solidarity, Sustainability, and Related Global Issues

Vol. 6, No. 3, March 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor

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The MDGs and Beyond:
Pro-Poor Policy in a Changing World

Andy Sumner
Institute of Development Studies, Sussex
Claire Melamed
ActionAid International, South Africa

This article was originally published by the
International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG)
Poverty Practice, Bureau for Development Policy, UNDP
Esplanada dos Ministérios, Bloco O, 7º andar
70052-900 Brasilia, DF, Brazil

This article is the first of a series published as
IPC-IG Poverty in Focus, Number 19, January 2010

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were an approach born of a benign era of relative stability, strong economic growth, and fairly buoyant aid budgets. We now face a very different world. The crisis/post-crisis context is, of course, central to many MDG questions, not only in terms of crisis impacts on the MDGs and poverty, but also as regards the impact on development commitments internationally and nationally.

What Are the MDGs for?

The MDGs are a set of indicators, but they are also an idea or “global norm” for poverty reduction, an incentive structure for pro-poor development, and a view of “development” in themselves. Perhaps the defining question is how global agreements and conventions change poor people’s lives. For example, Manning (this edition, page 4) argues that the MDGs should be taken “to encourage sustainable pro-poor development progress and donor support of domestic efforts in this direction”.

In this collection, Hulme (page 6) argues that the MDGs are a “global norm” institutionalising poverty reduction, but the need now is for “strategies to shift international norms so that the citizens of the present rich countries and future rich countries … find the existence of extreme poverty in an affluent world morally unacceptable.”

The MDG “paradigm” itself can be seen as a broader “human development meets results-based management” (see again Hulme), consisting of the quantitative targets of the MDGs but extended to the much broader Millennium Declaration.

MDG Impacts So Far

The recent emergence of an “MDG impacts” literature (in this collection, for example, see Fukuda-Parr, page 7; Hulme; Manning) has asked what the MDG impacts have been to date—in terms of adoption (in policy), allocation (of resources) and adaptation (to locally defined goals, indicators and targets)—and what the impacts mean looking forward. As Manning notes here, the impact of the MDGs on international development discourse has been immense. Manning goes on to discuss, for example with reference to actual spending patterns, that it is possible that the MDGs have pushed donor spending towards the social sectors, since social indicators provided the bulk of the targets. In contrast, Fukuda-Parr, reviewing donor priorities and measuring them against the MDGs, finds weaker links between the stated priorities of donors and the MDGs.

A second impact issue concerning influence is how far the MDGs have affected policy-making and policy dialogues in developing countries themselves. Here too the definitive evidence is hard to come by. Fukuda-Parr’s review of how far Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) have incorporated the MDGs shows that MDGs are only partially integrated into national-level planning. Manning suggests that the MDGs have helped some civil society groups to hold governments in developing countries accountable for their decisions.

In contrast, the UNDP’s 2009 study of 30 countries is important and revealing in this regard. Twenty-five of those 30 countries had added, expanded or modified indicators and 10 had added local goals.

An important question is why it is that some countries have clear evidence of national ownership of the MDGs and others have little or none.

There can be no doubt that the MDGs have become highly influential at least at the level of international discourse about development. The Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria is a particularly clear example of a funding agency where the MDGs (specifically MDGs 4, 5 and 6) are central to the agency’s DNA.

MDG Momentum to 2015 and Beyond

A number of cross-cutting issues have become more prominent since 2000 as a result of changing policy discourses such as climate, gender, and equity (in this collection see respectively Urban, page 21; Jones et al, page 28; Jahan, page 13; Fukuda- Parr, Vandemoortele and Delamonica, page 14). These issues were present in 2000 but they were less prominent and less integrated into the MDGs.

A related question concerns “paradigms”. Do the MDGs still reflect our knowledge of what is important about how “development” happens and how policy can influence that process? New and emerging “paradigmatic” lenses for thinking about development and what development is about include those that were well established in 2000, such as rights (see Robinson, page 18 and Langford, page 19), and those that have since come to the fore or are “bubbling under”, such as wellbeing, (see McGregor, and Sumner, page 26) social protection (see Jones et al.) and universalism (see Fischer, page 8).

Though the academic and policy debates about how to measure development are important, Wickstead (page 29) reminds us here that the central question is whether the MDGs still have political resonance. He argues convincingly that “far from losing their political resonance, in fact, the MDGs have retained their ability to act as a rallying point for development progress”.

The debate about what, if anything, can and should succeed the MDGs after 2015 is still in its very early stages, and many fear that talking about the matter will derail the momentum for the MDGs. It is also a debate that may prove to be purely theoretical unless strong political momentum develops behind the assertion that there is a need for any successor agreement to the MDGs.

The good news is what we can do, which we could not do in 2000, which is to have a genuinely global, coordinated process of roundtables, voices of the poor, blogging, and uploaded videos. Think of the UN conferences of the 1990s or Ravi Kanbur’s World Development Report 2000/1 pre-process + Voices of the Poor + Web 2.0. Think of “tweeting” the UN Secretary General.

Such a global process might culminate in a “new development consensus” that would build on the key achievements of the current MDG consensus.


Manning, R. (2009). Using Indicators to Encourage Development: Learning Lessons from the MDGs. Copenhagen, Danish Institute for International Studies.

Sumner, A. and C. Melamed (2010). ‘The MDGs and Beyond: Pro-Poor Policy in a Changing World’, IDS Bulletin 41 (1): 1-6.


The views expressed in IPC-IG publications are the authors’ and not necessarily those of the UNDP or the Government of Brazil. Rights and Permissions – All rights reserved.

The text and data in this publication may be reproduced as long as written permission is obtained from IPC-IG and the source is cited. Reproductions for commercial purposes are forbidden.

Copyright © 2010 International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG)

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The crisis/post-crisis context is central to many MDG questions not only in terms of crisis impacts on the MDGs and poverty but also as regards to the impact on development commitments internationally and nationally.

The MDGs are a set of indicators, but they are also an idea or ‘global norm’ for poverty reduction, an incentive structure for pro-poor development and a view of ‘development’ in themselves.

There are a number of cross-cutting issues that have risen in prominence since 2000 as a result of changing policy discourses such as climate, gender, and equity.

The debate around what, if anything can and should succeed the MDGs after 2015 is still in its very early stages and many fear talking about this will derail the momentum for the MDGs.


Andy Sumner is on the staff of the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, Engalnd.

Claire Melamed is on the staff of ActionAid International, South Africa.

The authors may be contacted via IPC-IG


International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG)

ActionAid International

United Nations Development Program (UNDP)

United Nations Millennium Development Goals

"Life is not holding a good hand.
Life is playing a poor hand well."

Danish proverb


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