New Development Goals For a New World

Derek Evans on how the nature of global poverty has changed, and why the post-2015 MDGs need to reflect that change.
By: /
February 27, 2013
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International aid or development assistance programs have been around for about 60 years.  They grew out of the post-WWII reconstruction effort in Europe and developed over the course of the Cold War, in support of decolonization and then greater equality between the “First” and “Third” worlds.

For most of this period, the paradigm of international development has been understood as consisting of three elements: “Developed”, “developing”, and “least-developed” countries (LDCs), identified on the basis of GDP or other basic measures of per capita consumption that eventually became the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI).

The ultimate expression of this paradigm can be found in the creation of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) framework.  In the broadest sense, the MDG framework is an internationally coordinated endeavour that involves the adoption and implementation of national poverty reduction programs with common goals by 100 developing countries, and the provision of political and financial support for this agenda by donor countries and other aid agencies.

The MDGs have shortcomings, largely derived from the essentially top-down character of their development and delivery. Nevertheless, the targets represent an important achievement, not the least of which is that they exist at all. For the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s countries – 189 in total, including Canada – committed to a single, shared set of priorities for overcoming extreme poverty throughout the world, and then mobilized the political will and resources of governments, NGOs, and civil society to act on them. 

There has been considerable variation in levels of implementation across countries and goals, but at the macro level, there has been real achievement in reducing poverty and increasing human well-being since the MDGs were launched in 2000.  The proportion of children, women, and men around the globe living in extreme poverty has diminished from almost one-half to just over one-quarter. Of course, the size of the human family has grown during this time, and the environmental pressures facing our planet have also increased.  There is still a great deal of poverty in the world today, as there will be in 2015 when the MDG commitment “expires.”

A new set of development goals is required. In some cases, it will be important to build on the unfinished work of the current MDGs, especially in LDCs.  However, any new set of goals will need to take the following fact into account: The basic paradigm that has shaped and driven the development agenda has changed in some fundamental ways, due to changes in both the nature of global poverty and the challenges of development.

The first major change occurred in the 1990s, in the wake of the Cold War, with the emergence of 40 or more collapsed or “fragile states”.  Shifts in international political relationships and levels of financial support contributed to the unleashing of social violence in several regions, largely toward minority or vulnerable groups.  As war has almost always been the single most powerful generator of poverty, these internal conflicts created the predominant context of extreme poverty in the world, as many of these countries became the new LDCs.  Fragile states defined not only a distinct context but also a specific agenda for development.  Reconstruction efforts in fragile states acknowledged a need to focus on certain key elements, notably institution-building, the provision of security and good governance, and the promotion of participation by excluded or vulnerable groups – especially women – in social and economic decision-making.

The second critical change was the emergence over the past decade of “middle-income” countries, a result of the MDGs as well as changes in commodity markets and other investment and economic factors.  The definitions are somewhat slippery, but the World Bank currently identifies more than 100 countries as “low-middle” or “upper-middle” income.  While these countries do increasingly contain dynamic middle classes and the resources to support strong economic growth, they are also characterized by the most extreme levels of economic inequality and social exclusion in the world – conditions that are already giving rise to increasing civil conflict in a number of countries and that have the potential to lead to a renewed cycle of poverty if not adequately addressed.

The so-called middle-income countries reflect a new globalization of poverty – together they are now home to some 73 per cent of the world’s poor.  As with fragile states, they constitute both a distinct context and a specific agenda for development.  This agenda should focus less on financial assistance and more on three key elements:


  • Capacity-building in government, especially at the local and regional levels.

  • Support for communities and civil society organizations to ensure effective corporate social responsibility, especially in relation to foreign investment and the extractive sector.

  • Programs addressing social exclusion and economic inequality, especially to support youth employment and entrepreneurship.

These changes are already reflected in the way the UN is approaching the HDI, and therefore the notion of development itself.  The HDI is no longer based solely or primarily on GDP or other consumption factors, though obviously these remain important.  Instead, the HDI now seeks to take into account the full range of factors, including issues of freedom and equality that are necessary for integrated and sustainable development.

We are at a pivotal moment in global efforts to reduce poverty. Far too many people will still be living in the grinding poverty that squelches human potential when 2015 arrives. Do we need a new set of Sustainable Development Goals?  I believe we do, and one that reflects the new global paradigm.  Our new goals should be characterized by three elements:


  • Sustainability: Assist local communities to become more self-sufficient and resilient, and to manage their natural resources sustainably for the long-term. Ecological risks like climate change will increasingly and disproportionately affect people living in poverty, and generate more poverty.

  • Inclusion: Poverty reduction should be based not only on measures of deprivation, but must also recognize the critical factors of discrimination and disparity as increasing challenges to individual and social well-being. This approach should focus especially on enhancing active citizenship and the participation and place of women and youth.

  • Partnership: Embrace the need to engage all social and economic forces – North and South, governments, NGOs, civil society, and the private sector – as essential to building real and lasting solutions to the challenges we all face and, increasingly, that we will all share.

In launching the global dialogue on “The World We Want,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has signaled two additional ways in which the next generation of MDGs will reflect the new global paradigm.  First, the goals will need to be less the result of “top-down” decisions and more shaped by broad participation by all stakeholders, including the public.  Second, they must be truly global in nature rather than a matter of determining how “rich countries” will contribute to helping “poor countries.” 

This last point has serious implications for Canada.  If Canada is to continue to be influential and effective in international development, it will be important for the country to demonstrate a commitment to advancing these priorities in its domestic policy and programs as well.  This would involve a greater focus on addressing the needs of groups in our own society that are especially vulnerable to exclusion and inequality, such as unemployed youth, people with disabilities, and First Nations communities.

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