The adoption of the Millennium Declaration by world leaders 15 years ago was an unprecedented show of global unity. At the turn of the millennium, world leaders came together and made a decision to fight poverty in all its manifestations. This paved the way for the establishment of the world’s first common set of development goals—the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This was a formidable breakthrough in terms of global governance.

Although some goals will not be achieved by the target date, others were reached well before the deadline—notably the first goal on halving the number of people living in extreme poverty. In addition, the number of children dying before the age of five has been halved since 1990. This means that, on a yearly basis, six million children who previously would have died before their fifth birthday, now survive. To put this in perspective, six million people is more than the total population of my home country, Norway. What is perhaps most encouraging is the fact that progress on reducing child mortality is accelerating. In sub-Saharan Africa, progress is now five times faster than it was in 1990.

The jury may still be out, but in my mind, the legacy of the MDG campaign as a whole will be one of success. The eight goals broke new ground not only by being the first set of goals of its kind, but also by catching the attention of millions of policy makers at national and international level. They became the engine for effective public-private partnerships such as GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. The MDGs shaped the international development agenda led to changes in the development architecture. Concrete MDG results and progress for people on the ground will always be a result of many variables. The lasting impact of new ways of working together to reach common global development goals is to a great extent a result of the MDGs.

Some Lessons Learned From the MDG Efforts

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successor program to the MDGs, are due to be adopted in 2016. In order to ensure that they are effective in mobilizing resources and action, we must take stock of the important lessons learned and experiences made from almost 15 years of MDG efforts. In my work as co-chair of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s MDG Advocacy Group, I have made some observations that may be relevant to sustainably ending extreme poverty by 2030. In my view, this is the overarching purpose of the SDGs as a global development framework.

First, the beauty and the success of the MDGs lie in their simplicity combined with their importance for human development. These goals are few in number, easy to communicate, and concrete enough for monitoring progress. For me, poverty eradication, education, health, gender equality, and the empowerment of women are crucial issues from both a human rights perspective and a development effectiveness perspective.

Second, the MDGs have provided a clear direction and have mobilized an unprecedented level of resources for development. The SDGs are also likely to mobilize significant resources for sustainable development efforts.

Third, it has become very clear to me that we need to break down the barriers between the various sectors in development efforts. Investing in education enhances the efforts to meet all the MDGs and can be a real game changer in the fight against poverty. Education and health are two areas where synergies are strong. Educating female children is particularly important, as this affects not only their own health and economic opportunities, but also the situation of their families for generations to come. We know that with each year a girl stays in school beyond primary school, her health prospects improve significantly. Educated women have smaller families and healthier children. They are less likely to die in childbirth, more inclined to send their children to school, and better able to protect themselves and their children—both boys and girls—from malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation. A range of synergies and positive ripple effects also boost gender equality and the empowerment of women. These are all weighty arguments for innovative development partnerships and financing models that transcend traditional sector thinking.

Fourth, simply establishing goals does not in itself lift people out of poverty. Unless national governments show the political will and resolve to make progress on a given goal, progress will be limited or nonexistent. This means that goals must be accompanied by coherent strategies, policies, and investments. National ownership of globally-agreed upon development goals in parliaments and populations is crucial. To make a difference, global goals also have to be translated into enforceable domestic legislation, and taken into account in budget processes. The establishment of the MDGs provided political direction, and mobilized national ownership and resources for targeted efforts to reach the goals. During my travels over the last two years, I have been pleasantly surprised to see that many national leaders and decision-makers have the MDGs posted on their office walls.

Fifth, the MDG process has reinforced global norms. The normative aspect of global goals will be even more relevant in the SDG era, as all countries seek to balance national and global interests. The MDGs have strengthened a global sense of responsibility for ensuring every child’s right to education. In line with this, the first decade of the MDG era saw great progress in primary education enrolment One important lesson in that context, however, is that the quality of education services has not always kept up with the increase in enrollment. In some parts of the world, millions of children have been through many years of primary school without learning to read and write. Quality of services must be ensured in the SDG campaign.

Sixth, global goals that are well known and tangible raise expectations within countries and across borders. They add weight to the demands made by grassroots movements and civil society groups. Peer pressure from neighboring countries can also play a role. Lastly, it has proved very difficult to make progress in areas affected by crisis and conflict. These areas of the world lag behind on most goals, and this constitutes the most complex challenge in the MDG campaign. It is therefore vital that countries and peoples see fragility, crisis, and conflict outside their own borders as a common global challenge, and take appropriate action.

Crisis and Conflict: The Main Challenges

Millions of people are suffering terrible hardship in grave humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan, as well as in many other countries. Those living in areas affected by crisis and conflict are generally not benefiting from the success of the MDGs. Progress on the MDGs tends to stagnate wherever armed conflict arises. The grim reality is that in some conflict-ridden areas, progress on the MDGs is even being reversed. Conflicts can ignite quickly, but creating peace and rebuilding societies takes a long time. Killing, maiming, and destruction is often perpetuated in a vicious circle, while development is put on hold—often for decades. On top of the obvious humanitarian reasons, this is another pertinent reason why prevention of conflict and effective conflict resolution are vital.

Wherever people are suffering, young girls and marginalized groups suffer the most. With a growing number of people affected by humanitarian emergencies, we should pay particular attention to the rights and needs of young girls, indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities.

Alongside more long-term work to address the root causes of conflict, it is crucial to make every effort to ensure that those suffering from the hardships of conflict today can access their right to education and healthcare. This should be an automatic and integrated element in all humanitarian responses to crises and conflict.

I do not think we have explored all the avenues for making progress towards the MDGs for people living in conflict situations. The key issue is, of course, access. National governments have the responsibility to deliver basic health and education services, but in situations of conflict, these governments often lack the capacity to deliver services to all parts of the country. Part of the solution can be found within the communities that are affected. Through broad partnerships involving local religious partners and other community leaders, we can support and strengthen community approaches to education and health and help prevent a ‘lost generation’. Governments must, however, be on board to supervise community approaches.

Humanitarian workers often observe that education is the weakest link in the chain whenever people are in a desperate situation. It is not acceptable that we neglect children’s right to education while supporting life-saving interventions. We can and must pursue at least two objectives at the same time. The Norwegian government gives high priority to providing quality education to children in conflict areas. Last year, we earmarked 8 percent of our humanitarian aid, or US$32 million, to education in areas affected by crisis and conflict. This year we will devote at least US$20 million of our response to the crisis in Syria for education. In our humanitarian response to the earthquake in Nepal, US$5 million will be channelled through organizations with education programs. In such contexts, it is very important that the immediate efforts to ensure access to education during a crisis are closely aligned with long-term development work to build or rebuild sustainable education services.

Using Innovation to Reach the Most Vulnerable

Last year my government launched the Vision 2030 campaign, requesting that the Norwegian private sector, NGOs, and academia propose innovative projects to promote global development. We received 116 project proposals, including two technology-based ideas from an organization working to achieve better living conditions for people with disabilities in developing countries. Together with their partners in Uganda, they proposed a disability watch app and a disability inclusion e-learning program. Both will work on the smartphone platform and provide information about rights, challenges, and opportunities. The disability watch app could, for example, be used to share information on schools, libraries, and health facilities that accommodate the needs of people with disabilities, and to report those that do not.

Innovation can also involve forming new partnerships and working together in new ways. In Lebanon and Jordan, the Norwegian Refugee Council is using donor funding to pay landlords who complete unfinished buildings or extend existing buildings and then rent them out to Syrian refugee families. In Lebanon, this housing program is being coordinated with a program to rehabilitate schools and provide temporary learning spaces. Host communities receive support to improve water and sanitation. Local contractors are used, which means that the local economy grows and employment opportunities increase. This initiative is thus facilitating the integration of refugees into society.

Innovative financing is another way to move forward. In January this year, Norway and the World Bank launched a new fund to promote results-based financing for education—mainly in the least developed countries, including countries suffering from conflict. This fund has been developed on the basis of experience from a similar fund for health. It will channel funding to strengthen the competence and motivation of teachers. It will also prioritize vulnerable groups such as girls in rural areas, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities. We urge partners to contribute to the fund.

Normative innovations can also benefit vulnerable groups. We have been engaged in the development of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. These guidelines are a practical tool for implementing existing commitments under international humanitarian law. Norway is working with various partners with a view to developing a declaration on safe schools based on these guidelines. We would like to see these principles applied in a broader humanitarian and political context that includes the protection of civilians, especially children, and the right to education. This will provide a better framework for protecting educational institutions from attack in armed conflicts or other situations of violence.

Humanitarian organizations with an education mandate have set the goal that four percent of humanitarian aid should be earmarked for education. Norway supports this initiative and its normative potential. This funding can also help to bridge the gap between humanitarian aid and long-term development. Primary education is not only a human right, but it is also crucial for developing resilient, tolerant societies with good opportunities for economic growth and confidence in the future.

Finishing the Unfinished MDG Business

As we enter the SDG era in 2016, the scope of the common global development paradigm widens considerably. The SDGs combine the economic, social, and environmental aspects of development. As a result, the number of SDGs and associated targets will be considerably larger than in the current framework. This could lead to competition for political attention and financing between various goals and their respective constituencies.

In this connection, we should bear in mind that finishing the MDG agenda is an important precondition for the success of a broad and ambitious SDG agenda. Most stakeholders in the global development process would probably agree that it is not possible to combat climate change or ensure modern energy for all without a well-educated and healthy population. This means that education and health must stay at the top of the international agenda in the SDG era.

With only a few months remaining before the MDGs deadline, we must accelerate efforts to fulfill the right of all children to education. Numerically, this means that access to high quality primary education is needed for 57 million children who are not presently enrolled in school. Special attention must be paid to the poorest and most marginalized in order to ensure that no one is left behind.

As co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s MDG Advocacy Group, I have given particular attention to promoting girls’ education as a key strategy for achieving sustainable development and poverty eradication. This is because educated girls, in addition to improving their own lives, also bring positive change to their families, communities, economies, and societies.

Education and health must stay at the top of the international agenda in the SDG era.

Promoting gender equality—one of the MDGs—is of course a question of human rights. In addition, it makes economic sense. I would argue that gender equality is the most underutilized of the development tools available. Various reports published by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and the International Finance Corporation document the economic gains made by increasing gender equality and female participation in the labor market. The UNDP Gender Inequality Index shows that countries with greater gender equality have a higher per capita gross domestic product. The International Finance Corporation’s 2015 publication Investing in Women’s Employment—Good for Business, Good for Development states that “economic growth is more robust and sustainable when women and men alike participate fully in the labour market. Better jobs for women—employment that leads to higher wages and greater decision-making—also have a positive influence on the ways households spend money on children’s nutrition, health, and education. Companies that invest in women’s employment gain an important competitive advantage.”

The human capital of women and girl is essential for poverty eradication and sustainable development. There can be no excuse for not achieving gender equality by 2030.

We are in the middle of a crucial year with regard to global development processes, with four milestone meetings that will stake out the course of global efforts to eradicate poverty, transform economies, and protect our natural environment. The July Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa paved the way for a constructive SDG summit in New York in September. Adoption of the SDGs will support the process leading to the Paris UN Climate Change Conference in December. Progress at the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Nairobi on free trade and market access, also in December, will spur further economic growth, create jobs, and reduce poverty.

Sustainable development based on external development aid is a contradiction in terms. Development efforts within the SDG paradigm must mainly be financed by harnessing domestic resources. Taxation, stopping illicit capital flows, foreign direct investments, innovative partnerships and financing models, and new technological solutions are the sustainable way forward. Aid should act as a catalyst for investments from other sources. Fragile states and those affected by crisis and conflict will, however, continue to depend on development aid.

The SDG process differs from the MDG agenda in several important respects. The MDGs were based on key development objectives agreed upon at international summits and conferences in the 1990s. The SDGs, on the other hand, will be presented to world leaders for discussion before adoption. This will take place at a summit during the opening week of the UN General Assembly in September this year. Before then, the proposed goals will have already been subject to intergovernmental negotiations at the UN for several months. Long before the negotiation process started, millions of people were involved in the largest development dialogue the world has ever known. In some ways, the SDG process can already be called a success due to its democratic accountability and the active involvement of civil society.

That said, the true test of accountability of governments and other development actors is the delivery of tangible development results for people on the ground. Although the SDGs are universal and apply to all countries of the world, we must maintain a clear focus on fighting poverty. Eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 while also protecting our natural environment and climate is within reach. The momentum is there. It is up to us to act.