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Making the Millennium Development Goals Sustainable

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Next year, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by the United Nations after the Millennium Declaration, are set to expire. As they wind down, the global development community is taking stock. While there have been great strides toward accomplishing many of the goals set forth in 2000, there has been little headway in ensuring environmental sustainability, said Melinda Kimble, senior vice president of the United Nations Foundation. Which raises the question: What should change for the next set of global development goals, which are supposed to be even more environmentally focused – the “Sustainable Development Goals?”

Speaking at the Wilson Center on October 16, Kimble was joined by Jacob Scherr, director of strategy and advocacy for the Natural Resource Defense Council, and Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University and the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment, in the latest seminar of the “Managing Our Planet” series, co-sponsored by George Mason University and the Wilson Center.

Environmental Goals Set Aside

In 2000, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed and facilitated the Millennium Summit in order to unify commitments made since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 into a single, clear document with stated commitments and deadlines, said Kimble. But while the development framework eventually agreed upon has proven successful in tackling key social, economic, and health problems (the first six MDGs), she said, it has failed to address environmental issues, including biodiversity loss and climate change (MDG seven). The failure to address global climate change, said Kimble, is particularly worrisome because it has the potential to reverse gains made in other realms of development.

There have been a myriad of efforts to prepare goals to succeed the MDGs. Current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commissioned a report by a high-level panel; the UN Development Group created 11 task forcesto look at specific issues; and nearly a million people across the globe have participated via websites likeThe World We Want.

As Kimble explained, these efforts are expected to filter into something of consensus foundation for the post-2015 development agenda. But she expressed doubt about whether they would produce specific, clear, and meaningful goals that the international community can agree on.

If the next framework is to succeed at addressing global environmental issues, Kimble suggested a more systematic approach that broadens the MDGs and places sustainability and ecology as the central component. Otherwise, like has happened over the last decade and a half, the human-centric targets will take precedence over environmental ones.

More Frank Gehry, Less Greek Temple

Jacob Scherr also recognized the successes of the MDG framework, including bringing between 700 and 800 million people out of extreme poverty. However, reemphasizing what Hillary Clinton said in her final speech as Secretary of State, he explained that changes in global power structures, advancements in information technology, severe environmental deterioration, and the rise of non-state actors have made much previous thinking obsolete.

Institutions and agreements created in the 1940s, like the UN, NATO, and, World Trade Organization, for example, are outdated and ill equipped to tackle current global problems, he said. Likewise, the framework to address climate change was created in 1992 under the assumption that global warming would happen at a much slower pace, and hence, has proven unable to achieve its original goals.

“We need a new architecture for a new world…that looks less like a Greek temple…and more like a Frank Gehry building,” said Scherr; a multi-faceted structure that allows new and old institutions, governments and non-governmental actors to work together and achieve sustainable development. Scherr presented an early version of what he called a “wired pyramid” framework. At the top were global sustainable development goals, followed by national targets and indicators, and finally a base of non-state actors, for-profit entities, and citizen groups called PINCS (partnerships, initiatives, networks, clubs, and coalitions).

Better incorporating these PINCS in the process is crucial, he said. One of the positive outcomes of the Rio+20 conference in 2012 was more than 700 voluntary sustainability commitments made by PINCS and state actors, totally $500 billion, including Microsoft’s commitment to become 100 percent carbon neutral by 2013. (An updated list of commitments – now more than 1,400 – can be found on the UN’s website, and NRDC verification efforts can be found on their Cloud of Commitments site.)

Scherr argued that a new, more connected framework that enables influence and exchange between each level of the pyramid and enlists governments in soliciting and verifying PINCS commitments will be more likely to succeed in the modern era than a traditional foundation document.

“We Don’t Have Another 20 Years”

The most successful parts of the MDGs demonstrate that, “by taking a focus and making a down payment on the future, partnerships can make a difference,” said Kimble.

Whether the global community decides to build on the existing MDG model or transition to a new framework for the Sustainable Development Goals, there will be countless challenges and hurdles over the next two years.

“It is so obvious you do not have sustainable development if you do not have development that takes the environment into account,” Lovejoy said. Making the next set of goals truly sustainable will therefore require injecting the environment at all levels, finding a way to bring a diversity of voices into the discussion, and elevating the importance of partnerships.

“I don’t think we have another 20 years to figure out sustainability,” Scherr said. “The world changes too much and we really have to bring home to people the message that this is urgent. We really need to begin to take action now to achieve sustainability for our future and for the future of our children.”

Drafted by J. Neil Ransom, edited by Schuyler Null.

Sources: Natural Resources Defense Council, The New York Times, UN Development Group, UN, U.S. Department of State, The World We Want.

Photo Credit: The MDGs, courtesy of the U.S. Mission Geneva. Video: Secretary Clinton’s final remarks at the U.S. Department of State.


  • Thomas Lovejoy

    Board Member
    Senior Fellow, United Nations Foundation; Professor, George Mason University; Brazil Institute and ECSP Advisory Board Member
  • Melinda Kimble

    Senior Fellow, United Nations Foundation; Civil Society Member, GEO-6 High Level Group
  • Jacob Scherr

    Director of Strategy and Advocacy, Natural Resources Defense Council