The PelicanWeb's Journal of Sustainable Development

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

Vol. 6, No. 5, May 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor

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Lessons from the Making of the
Millennium Development Goals

David Hulme
Brooks World Poverty Institute,
University of Manchester, UK

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 third of a series published as
IPC-IG Poverty in Focus, Number 19, January 2010

The MDGs are the world’s biggest promise—a global agreement to reduce poverty and human deprivation at historically unprecedented rates through collaborative multilateral action. They differ from all other global promises for poverty reduction in their comprehensive nature and the systematic efforts made to specify, finance, implement, monitor and advocate them. While many different ideas have influenced the “final” form and content of the MDGs, two ideas are central: human development and resultsbased management. What are the lessons from the MDG experience?

Lessons from the MDGs

Three main lessons can be drawn from the MDGs. First, while the idea of human development made great progress during the 1990s, this was the result of shifting networks and coalitions of actors and it did not produce a robust institutional support for the promotion of the idea.

Human development did well, but it fell between two stools. It did not lead to the emergence of a self-fuelling social movement that could consistently place human development on the political agenda when decisions were being taken.

The closest it came to this was with timelimited campaigns mounted by coalitions of non-governmental organisations and faith-based organisations such as Jubilee 2000, Make Poverty History and ONE. Nor did it stimulate the emergence of an elite epistemic community (in academia, the professions and the media) that agreed on a narrowly defined analytical framework and that could dominate decision-making in key organisations—as had the neoliberal epistemic community in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the US Treasury and finance ministries around the world.

Those who wish to see the idea of human development genuinely shape policies and resource allocations in the future may have to put less time and effort into refining the minutiae of the concept and more time and effort into how to institutionalise the idea more fully. Could human development be honed down and politicised in a way that would foster the emergence of a social movement?

Alternatively, could the idea’s leading proponents chart a route for the creation of a tight-knit epistemic community that might wrest control of technical advice on public policy in the most powerful organisations, away from neoclassical economists with a neoliberal orientation?

A second lesson is that if the post-2015 agenda pursues a global goal-setting approach, then the mechanisms through which the goals relate to national policies and politics in poorer countries—plans, budget allocations, medium-term expenditure frameworks, activities, approval and accountability— must be reformed. In the last decade this linkage has been forged through national poverty reduction strategies that have been closely overseen by the IMF and the World Bank, and that have made the notion of “country ownership” a joke in developing countries (Hulme, 2010a). A soon as possible, these mechanisms should be designed in a way that genuinely shifts authority and responsibility for such plans to country governments. A corresponding cultural change will be needed at the Bretton Woods Institutions, especially the IMF.

Finally, those pushing for pro-poor policies will have to distinguish between the dramatic changes in the context for development between 2000 and 2010 (or 2015) and the lack of change in the “rules of the game” that determine global public policies and actions. The context has changed dramatically: markets are more volatile and are reconfiguring with the rise of China and India; populations are ageing; climate change is under way; technological advance continues at unprecedented rates; and patterns of global governance are shifting as the G8 morphs towards a G20 (Sumner and Tiwari, 2009). But the rules of the game have not changed: countries that are more economically and militarily powerful, as well as business interests, will continue to play a dominant role in determining global public policies and in delimiting the degree to which these policies are actioned (or not actioned).

Proponents of poverty eradication can tackle this directly by protesting about aid, trade and debt. But in the long term more subtle strategies will engineer pro-poor global policies and actions. What are needed are strategies to shift international norms so that the citizens of the present rich countries—North America, Europe and other members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)— and future rich countries—China, India, Brazil and others—find the existence of extreme poverty in an affluent world morally unacceptable (see Fukuda-Parr and Hulme, 2009, for an elaboration).


Perhaps the biggest question for the future of the poverty eradication agenda is: “what is that idea?” Is it human development à la the MDGs; or is it a revised and re-packaged version of human development (promoting human rights or reducing global inequality); or has human development passed its “sell-by” date … do we need a new idea?


Fukuda-Parr, S. and D. Hulme (2009). ‘International Norm Dynamics and “the End of Poverty”: Understanding the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)’, BWPI Working Paper 96. Manchester, University of Manchester.

Hulme, D. (forthcoming, 2010a). Global Poverty. London, Routledge.

Hulme, D. (forthcoming, 2010b). ‘Lessons from the Making of the Millennium Development Goals: Human Development Meets Results- Based Management in an Unfair World’, IDS Bulletin 41 (1): 15-25.

Sumner, A. and M. Tiwari (2009). After 2015: International Development at the Crossroads. London, Palgrave.


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 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the world’s biggest promise.

Could human development be honed down and politicised in a way that would foster the emergence of a social movement?

Perhaps the biggest question looking forward for the poverty eradication agenda is ‘what is that idea?’

Is it human development á la the MDGs; or is it a revised and re-packaged version of human development (promoting human rights or reducing global inequality); or, has human development passed its ‘sell by’ date ... do we need a new idea?


David Hulme is Professor in Development Studies, Director of the Chronic Poverty Research Centre, and Executive Director of the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom. His research interests are: Rural development policy and planning; poverty reduction strategies; finance for the poor; sociology of development; role of community organisations and NGOs; evaluation of technical assistance; environmental management; and public sector reform. His country experience include Bangladesh, Belize, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. For his list of publications, click here.

The author may be contacted via IPC-IG


United Nations Development Program (UNDP)

UNDP Millennium Development Goals

UNESCO Education for Sustainable Development

International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG)

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

January 2010

South-South Cooperation:
The Same Old Game
or a New Paradigm?

April 2010

IBSA Academic Forum
India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA)

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