Lessons Learned From Trying to Save the Developing World

A Q&A with John McArthur of the UN Foundation on the renewed global effort to fight poverty, inequality and climate change.

The UN considered its Millenium Development Goals a success
The UN's Millenium Development Goals will give way to a new set of targets. Credit: U.S. Mission Geneva via Flickr

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Facing a growing rift between developed and developing countries, the United Nations’ 189 member states did something a bit drastic at the turn of the 21st century: They adopted a set of eight lofty (perhaps idealistic) goals to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, reduce child mortality, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and improve healthcare—all in the next 15 years.

The targets, known at the Millennium Development Goals, fueled a decade and a half of intense policy debates in agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, gender equality, and business development. It made significant strides in some areas, particularly health and education. More than 30 countries have graduated from low-income to middle-income status since the millennium goals were set.

But the initiative failed to remedy inequality and environmental degradation got worse. As countries like China and India thrived under the development strategy, global carbon emissions grew.  

Next week, the UN’s current 193 member states will adopt what are known as the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim broadly to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and—for the first time—fight and prepare for climate change.

InsideClimate News spoke with John McArthur, an economist and senior fellow at the UN Foundation and Brookings Institution and the former deputy director of the United

John W. McArthur
John McArthur

Nations Millennium Project, about the lessons learned from the Millennium Development Goals. He also talked about what to expect from the new targets, and how climate change is about to become a major focus of the world’s development agenda.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

InsideClimate News: What was the major impetus for the Millennium Development Goals?

John McArthur: Back at the turn of the millennium, we were coming out of the Asian financial crisis. Africa had had two decades of no growth. The AIDS pandemic was raging without any international effort. It was also a decade after the end of the Cold War, a point at which a lot of the rich countries were pulling back on their investments in global development. The Battle in Seattle protests in 1999 against globalization shut down a World Trade Organization meeting because the riots were so vehement.

The question of “Does globalization work and for whom?” was literally a front-page issue around the world. There was an awareness that the world needed to move away from the economic-growth-at-all-cost mentality. It wasn’t working. They needed to rethink development in terms of people as people and address things like health and education.

ICN: How drastically did that change how global development was thought of, researched or implemented?

JM: In just a handful of years, this new way of thinking removed a lot of the false competition among issues. A lot of people, especially economists, used to say you have to do health, or poverty, or education. You can’t do all of them at the same time. That was kind of a false choice. It is a little bit like asking, “Do you like your heart or your lungs better?” I like both.

It also spurred a massive scientific and academic research effort. The Lancet, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, published more than 1,200 articles over the course of the past 15 years that reference the Millennium Development Goals.

ICN: So what worked about the goals, and what didn’t?

JM: The effort has undoubtedly achieved many great successes, depending on how you count it. At least 7 million more children under the age of 5 are alive today than there would have been on the previous trajectories, and maybe even up to 13 million. Those are, in my view, the 7 to 13 million success stories. That’s where the world did better than it was doing otherwise.

It is also the first time in the recorded data that the low-income countries, the poorest countries in the world, are making progress at the same rate as the higher income countries, and even faster in some cases.

Now, could there have been more success? Absolutely. Are there more things I would have liked to see done? Absolutely. But I do believe this is a great victory that many people didn’t even think was possible. Having a single set of goals gave people a north star that they could believe in and use as a reference point to organize in very powerful ways.

ICN: And the failures?

JM: The goal wasn’t perhaps high enough in education. You have to work on getting kids to secondary school, not just primary. And how do you measure learning, not just attendance? In food and agriculture, we saw maybe half of the success we wanted because it got a bit derailed by the global financial crisis.

The environment is the area that got the least benefit from the MDGs. The goals themselves aren’t well articulated around the environment, outside of water and sanitation. We were just coming out of Kyoto, so the Kyoto Protocol was the reference point for climate at the time. Even though the U.S. Senate wouldn’t ratify it, globally, that was the reference point.

The deepest reflection of success of the MDGs, however, is that we are just finishing the most inclusive global agenda setting conversation the world has ever seen to come up with their successors.

ICN: So what is the biggest difference with these new UN Sustainable Development Goals?

JM: We’ve realized it is a false distinction to simply say developed versus developing countries. In Europe and the United States, people care about inequality, jobs, cities, and the environment, too. So the goals are meant to drive development in all regions.

The MDGs were also somewhat perceived, rightly or wrongly, as government and NGO territory. But these new SDGs are about the business community, the science and technology community, as much as anyone else. We aren’t going to solve the climate problem without business and new technological innovations and governments and civil society.

ICN: Unlike with the MDGs, climate change is an integral part of the targets this time around. How significant do you think this will be?

JM: Just as the MDGs helped resolve this false tension between education and health 15 years ago, I expect the SDGs will help to resolve the unnecessary debate between climate and development. That simple fusion of the different, often very separate constituencies onto the same agenda really matters because it isn’t seen as your agenda versus my agenda. This is seen as our agenda.

Climate is explicity captured in goal No. 13, which is about mitigation and adaptation. Also goal No. 7, which deals with affordable, clean energy and goal No. 11 for sustainable cities. It is about getting surefooted on this issue so we’re building the right cities, making the right decisions now when climate impacts are just starting, rather than retrofitting later. It is about goal No. 12 for responsible consumption and production. And of course, goal No. 2 dealing with solving hunger is about agricultural resilience to climate change.

ICN: There’s been so much tension over the UN climate treaty. Did it generate nearly as much controversy at the SDG meetings?

JM: There were certainly many debates on key issues over the past couple of years, right up to the tense final moments. However, the debates have been of a very different type compared to the climate negotiations.  For example, no one argues that extreme poverty and child mortality are not serious issues that need to be addressed, or that the oceans shouldn’t be protected. The debates were more so around issues of, first, defining the scope of the agenda, and how many existing to pull under the SDG banner; and, second, how to articulate the relevant priorities as targets.  

ICN: It seems almost as though these SDGs could be another international climate agreement. True?

JM: I don’t think it is “or,” but “and.” The climate treaty fits into this, and vice versa.

The world needs major investment in infrastructure, especially energy systems and transport on the order of $1 trillion a year in the developing countries. Those are big numbers, even bigger than any foreign aid budget. But they also happen to be the frontline for climate. All the power plants that need to be built under the SDGs, will they be low-carbon or high-carbon? That is the essence of the challenge to me. How do you make sure low-carbon is also low-cost? Much of what this agenda is doing is trying to match the politics, the economics and the practicality of real life.

ICN: Is there something that can be learned from the development of these SDGs and applied to the Paris treaty talks?

JM: There will likely be a big boost in global attention and hopefully of positive energy that comes out of the launch of the global goals next week. The challenge is how does that translate into even better progress for Paris?

In formal terms, the climate negotiations are totally separate from the SDG negotiations. But in real life, all the politicians, the politics and the public are interconnected. It will be the same sources of leadership ultimately that can help get the job done on the SDGs and the Paris agreement. I think the really exciting, important question is: how can we galvanize the next wave of energy off this moment?