The key to ensuring that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are as successful, or even more impactful, than the MDGs is that there must be a critical analysis of the failings of the MDGs and efforts to address these problems with the creation of the SDGs. Momentum alone will not drive the SDGs. They will be successful only if they reflect on the MDGs.

This article will look at various understandings of the success of the MDGs and find various areas for improvement with the upcoming SDGs. How can the impact of the MDGs be measured? What were the strengths and weaknesses in the content of the MDGs? And, more broadly, how can the MDGs be translated into the SDGs? Should the SDGs be simply a continuation of the MDGs or do they need to take a new direction?

Before discussing improvements and questions about the MDGs, it is important to understand what is the general consensus on the progress that has been made. Overall, the goals have been very successful. Most criteria have been, or are on their way to being, achieved.

How is Success Measured?

There are two main questions in terms of the measurement of the success of the MDGs. Determining just how successful the MDGs were is essential in terms of deciding how to craft the SDGs. First, there is the issue of the difference between measuring the success of lower-income vs. higher-income nations. And secondly, there is the question of the timeframe in which MDG goals were measured.

Research has shown that there is a distinction between high-income and low-income countries and their rates of fulfillment of the MDGs. While the overall success of the MDGs has been staggering, high-income countries have been the greatest beneficiaries of the initiatives while low-income countries have struggled to meet many of the goals.

This is counter-intuitive as the goals were created largely to address problems in lower-income countries. In fact, some of the goals—such as achieving universal primary education and reducing child mortality—were almost completely achieved in high-income countries before the MDGs were created. Therefore, statistics showing the success of the MDGs are somewhat misleading. Countries that were already developed, wealthy, and fulfilling MDG goals before they were implemented are leading to higher statistics on the success of the UN global development mission.

In 2011 (albeit five years before the MDG deadline) the World Bank’s World Development Report found that:

“No low-income fragile or conflict-affected country has yet achieved a single MDG. And the problems of fragile states spread easily: They drag down neighbors with violence that overflows borders, because conflicts feed on narcotics, piracy, and gender violence, and leave refugees and broken infrastructure in their wake. Their territories can become breeding grounds for far-reaching networks of violent radicals and organized crime.”

It is not simply the status as a low-income nation that indicates a lack of MDG achievement, but rather various problems that often co-occur with, or are caused by, poverty levels.

Low-income nations often experience high levels of violence and instability. These factors indicate that more focus will be placed on combating immediate issues of security and safety and therefore, the MDGs are lower on the priority list. This is completely logical, but it means that when evaluating the success of the MDGs, it is important to look at the nations that have the most to gain with these goals. Evaluating MDG success as a whole is encouraging, but potentially misleading as to how much progress has been made in lower-income nations.

A more recent report (2014) on this issue found that of 55 nations affected by crisis or instability, even the most successful country had achieved only slightly more than half of the MDG targets. While this progress is certainly commendable, it is indicative of all that is necessary of the upcoming SDGs to achieve worldwide development across low-income and high-income nations.

There has also been research studying the time frame during which the MDGs have been achieved. Howard Steven Friedman published a report in 2013 suggesting that fulfillment of many of the MDGs began before the goals were implemented. Friedman found that MDG indicators that were successful often experienced an acceleration before 2000 (when the goals were created). This is, to an extent, expected, as the MDGs were selected based on need. Many nations probably identified these areas before 2000, and began addressing them before the global developmental initiative. However, these statistics look to change how successful we consider the MDGs themselves and suggest that improvements can be made with the upcoming SDGs.

What Issues Are Most Important?

As the deadline approaches, one of the remaining questions on the structure of the MDGs relates to their content. The goals are relatively few and their language leaves room for interpretation. Some have argued that it is the MDGs brevity that has led to their success; nations can address the facets of the goals that are prevalent within their borders. Others think that the SDGs would benefit from increased specificity to better monitor success and ensure that certain benchmarks are clear.

The main aspect of the MDGs is certainly reducing poverty, which is extremely important, but there is room for expansion within the SDGs. In addition to the umbrella term of poverty, the issue of equity needs to be a centerpiece in the SDGs. It is important to connect the problem of poverty to a variety of other developmental issues. If the issue of poverty is addressed, there is a natural transition to education, combating diseases, and increasing gender equality.

Advocates have already come out stating which issues they think are necessary to emphasize or expand in the transition from the MDGs to the SDGs. Executive Director of UNICEF, Anthony Lake, stated that: “The MDGs helped the world realize tremendous progress for children – but they also showed us how many children we are leaving behind.” Jen Kates, Director of Global Health and HIV Policy at the Kaiser Foundation, said that “Health is one piece of a much more crowded space that will compete for attention and finances, when we still haven’t finished the job” in the creation of the SDGs. These opinions state that goals within the MDG framework still need to be addressed, such as education and healthcare.

However, there must also be room for new issues to be included in the conversation about crafting the SDGs. Examples of these topics include environmental changes, social exclusion, and reproductive health. (These issues in particular have been discussed by the UN Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda).

With so many questions of the scope and scale of the MDGs—brief or specific, many goals or few—there needs to be a strong organizational plan for the SDGs. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has suggested a plan establishing a two-part approach for the SDGs. They suggest a global level with broader goals, like what existed with the MDGs, and a national level, which would include specific targets based on different countries individual capabilities.

There must also be room for new issues to be included in the conversation about crafting the SDGs.

Specificity versus brevity is a balancing act that the SDGs will need to work with. Surely clear, concise, and universal goals are key, however these features must be achieved while also covering the broad range of issues that are relevant to global development.

Who is Involved?

When speaking about worldwide development, there is a lot of focus on just what issues are the most crucial to address, from poverty to gender equality to eradicating disease. But apart from what, it is important to ask the question of who. The MDGs were largely a product national foreign affairs and developmental officials. While these two branches of government were necessary for the MDGs and will continue to be important for the SDGs, there are others who should be involved.

These goals must resonate worldwide with populations, not just with governmental officials. The World Health Organization (WHO) has already reported that they are holding discussions about the post-2015 agenda among various parties, including the private sector and academia. This is a god start towards multi-sector cooperation on determining what happens after the MDG deadline expires. If the SDGs become common initiatives with governmental cooperation and public support, they will be much more effective and easier to implement.

Additionally, some of the authors of the MDGs have stated that the creation of the goals was led largely by a few nations without input from many of the developing countries that the goals were created to assist. Inclusiveness is necessary, both among different parties within a country and between different countries in crafting the SDGs.

Another component that is essential in considering the SDGs is discussing the cost of implementing these goals. Many of the countries that are most affected by these goals are also those that don’t have the capability to fund their implementation. While aid is increasing, the financing component of the MDGs, and now SDGs, is essential. (For more on this issue, see Ray Chamber’s interview).


It is clear that the MDGs have been a huge victory for worldwide development. They have brought attention to a variety of problems plaguing countries around the world, clarified and articulated clear and universal goals, and made great progress on these issues. The SDGs have great potential to follow-up on this progress. But they will only do so if they critically analyze and improve upon the MDGs.

There are questions of measurement—how do you determine success when there are a variety of different countries trying to achieve the same goals and these goals exist on a timeline that began before the MDGs were created. There are questions of content—which goals are most important and how specific should these goals be. And lastly there is the question of who needs to be involved—who should decide what goals are important and who should be involved in their implementation; how can they be helpful and effective worldwide, and who has the capability to finance them.

This article began by asking some questions; questions about the success of the MDGs and how they translate into the SDGs. These are questions that don’t have a single answer. There are many ways to craft the SDGs and no one can know which method ensures success. But while there are multiple methods, it is crucial that the creation of the SDGs includes reflection and progress in the thinking about how to solve these global problems. The SDGs as the MDGs 2.0—clarified, improved upon, and ready to take on the challenge of ensuring global development.