As the year 2015 approaches its close, it is time to revisit the Millennium Development Goals. Developed in 2000 at the UN Millennium Summit, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focused international attention and action on eight major goals: eradicating extreme hunger and poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, fighting HIV/AIDS and malaria, promoting environmental sustainability, and creating a global partnership for development. During their 15-year lifespan, the MDGs have inspired plenty of discussion about how best to improve the lives of people in the developing world. But how have the MDGs fared in improving material conditions for the world’s poor?

While concrete progress has been made in many of the goals, several regions still lag behind the rest of the world in many metrics. Why have these inequalities in development occurred? Several theories have been proposed: preexisting socioeconomic disparities that prevent gains from reaching the poorest and most marginalized populations, ineffective uses of aid money, and flaws in the creation of the Millennium Development Goals themselves. All three explanations deserve some examination, if the global community is to learn and develop more effective ways to help the global poor.

Socioeconomic Barriers to Development

Much of the data on the world’s MDG progress is aggregated at the country level. While this method of data collection provides an easy-to-digest perspective on different countries’ and regions’ progress, it misses critical trends that occur on the sub-national level, including among specific ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups. Often, the poorest populations are poor not only from a lack of aid, but from social barriers such as discrimination that make it difficult to obtain the benefits of that aid. As a result, while some populations begin to see growth occur, ethnic and religious minorities, women, and the very poorest may remain in the dark.

Statistics reveal that the situation for marginalized groups is far from satisfactory. While conditions for women are referred to in five of the eight development goals, economic and social progress for females worldwide has been slow. Religious or ethnic minorities are not mentioned by the original Millennium Development Goals at all. As a result, the goals surrounding poverty reduction, gender equality, and education are unlikely to be met as long as these disparities exist.

Women and ethnic minorities face exclusion from economic opportunities. Even as the total number of people living in poverty has fallen since the beginning of the millennium, gender gaps in employment rates and wages remain. The United Nations’ 2013 MDG report reveals that the employment-to-population ratio for women worldwide is 24.8 percent lower than for men; in North Africa and the Middle East, fewer than 20 percent of women are employed. The low rate of employment is often a result of societal norms that place constraints on women’s life outside of the home. Furthermore, females who lack jobs may not have the income or social connections necessary for their independence, perpetuating this cycle of inequality. Similarly, ethnic minorities in many developing countries face job discrimination, limiting their economic prospects. The experiences of Uighur workers facing discrimination from Han Chinese bosses, as well as documented cases of antiHindu job discrimination in Bangladesh reveal that such discrimination is widespread in many countries.

Furthermore, discrimination against women and minorities is fairly common in regards to education. The ongoing plight of the Chibok girls, captives of Boko Haram in Nigeria, as well as recent acid attacks against Afghani schoolgirls are a reminder of the violent tactics used by extremists to scare women away from education. There has been a global increase in attacks against girls who choose to attend school, occurring in 70 countries between 2009 and 2014. However, there are other barriers to achieving the goal of equal education. In particular, chronic underinvestment in girls’ schools and other services hinders female access to the same education opportunities as boys’. Other minorities are also affected by similar barriers to education. Studies have shown that religious minorities on average have lower levels of literacy and overall education. These lower rates of education do not bode well for minorities’ future economic potential.

Furthermore, this combination of lower education and poverty can lead to radicalization of already marginalized groups, leading to extremism. As a result, it is in the interests of governments worldwide to provide equal opportunities for women as well as ethnic and religious minorities. At the same time, international aid organizations should make it a priority to provide assistance to minority populations while reaffirming their support for gender equality. Future aid should come with stipulations that an appropriate percentage of support be used on minority regions, and additional support for creating jobs for women and providing education for girls is needed.

Measuring the Effectiveness of the Global Response

Some experts have argued that aid can worsen conditions on the ground by fostering dependence and displacing local efforts to improve their economy. While this statement may seem overly general, these critics of aid have a point. Not all aid is created equal; some interventions are remarkably more cost-effective and impactful than others.

For example, many aid organizations have attempted to increase access to computers in poor, rural areas. One Laptop Per Child is an organization designed to distribute low-cost laptops to every child in developing countries. The belief is that computer access will improve educational outcomes. However, evidence points to the conclusion that such computer programs have no significant effect on educational levels for these children. A study that took place in Colombia demonstrated that schools that had access to computers for student learning did not have higher test scores, as teachers did not incorporate them into the curriculum despite additional training.

On the other hand, Project Healthy Children is an aid organization that provides nutrient-fortified staple foods to people in developing countries. For a cost of around US $0.05 to US $0.10 per person, the provided food can significantly reduce the likelihood of micronutrient deficiency, which affects over two billion people worldwide. A number of studies have revealed that micronutrient fortification of staple foods has beneficial effects on nutrition and child health.

It seems that the lives of poor children in developing countries would likely be better served by increased investment in micronutrient fortification than by purchases of laptops. Aid organizations should focus their efforts on the most effective interventions with the largest effects on well-being.

But how does one figure out which policies and organizations to support? Such interventions should be tailored to specific circumstances. A one-size-fits-all approach to aid is likely to be ineffective. The study on student laptop usage in Colombia reveals that aid investments are not useful unless members of the community, in this case the teachers and students, buy in and actively participate. In contrast, Project Healthy Children conducts thorough research on countries before setting up operations on which staple foods to fortify. It also cooperates with local governments and industries in order to bring economic benefits to the regions it works in. By adapting procedures to fit with local conditions, aid organizations can greatly improve the effectiveness of their programs.

In addition to program reforms, organizations must rigorously test their programs for effectiveness. Researchers have begun to use randomized control trials (RCTs) to conduct such tests. The idea behind a randomized control trial is that randomly assigning subjects, whether they are individuals, families, or even municipalities, to a control group or a treatment group will allow researchers to isolate the specific effects of an intervention. RCTs have been used to test a variety of different aid methods, including cash transfers, the distribution of mosquito bednets, and microfinance. There are several objections to the use of RCTs.

Interventions should be tailored to specific circumstances. A one-size-fits-all approach to aid is likely to be ineffective.

Some economists have argued that RCTs cannot effectively isolate the treatment effects of policy interventions because the different experimental groups may have unnoticeable differences even after randomization. Others believe that such experiments are hard to generalize, since they often take place in specific locations. While these criticisms may have some truth, RCTs make sure any variance is randomized, which means that the results from these trials are likely to be correct the majority of the time. As for the trials’ ability to be generalized, increased funding and more powerful statistical methods are enabling researchers to conduct RCTs on a broader, country-wide scale.

Concluding: Goals for the Post-MDG Future

As the Millennium Development Goal era approaches its end, it is an appropriate time to assess steps for the future. While the international community has made promising steps towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, it is apparent that much more progress is needed. This is especially true of progress for women as well as religious and ethnic minorities. As the focus shifts to the post-2015 Development Agenda, the United Nations should reaffirm its support for gender equality by increasing support for girls’ education and programs that combat violence against women. Furthermore, the new Development Agenda should explicitly take the plight of minorities into account. Specific aid programs, especially for education and health, could have conditions that a certain amount be “earmarked” for minority-heavy regions. On a larger scale, the United Nations should encourage greater female and minority participation in politics. Evidence suggests that when women participate in political deliberations, more attention is paid to issues that matter for them. Better female and minority presence in developing countries’ political processes could lead to more investment in equal opportunities for these often marginalized groups.

At the same time, international aid organizations should increase their use of data to focus investments on the most cost-effective policy interventions. Randomized control trials can provide such evidence of cost-effectiveness, and reassure organizations that their interventions are actually helping people on the ground. They should also tailor their policies to fit with local values and cultures. The task of supporting the world’s poor, as outlined in the Millennium Development Goals, is not an easy one. However, with adequate focus and a willingness to adapt, countries worldwide can contribute to improving the lives of billions.