New Agenda, New Narrative: What Happens After 2015?

The crafting of the post-2015 development agenda began with a pivotal decision to integrate environmental, social, and economic issues into a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). Since their inception, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have become a unifying mechanism for a previously disjointed development community. Homi Kharas from the Brookings Institution discusses the MDGs and what comes Post-2015.

By Homi Kharas and Christine Zhang 

Since their inception in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have become a rallying force for development, uniting a diverse range of actors around a series of time-bound, measurable targets. They have also created a sense of global community, consciousness, and solidarity that has encouraged a vigorous debate for an ambitious successor: a post-2015 agreement, which will be adopted at the September 2015 United Nations General Assembly.

The timing is fortuitous; concurrently, there is momentum to conclude a legally binding and universal agreement on climate at the Twenty First Committee of Parties (COP 21) session in Paris in November 2015. Hence, next year will see negotiations among member states of the UN on two great challenges of our time: the eradication of extreme poverty; and the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change. These challenges are closely linked and present a test for all countries to find a path toward “sustainable development,” something that has yet to be achieved anywhere in the world. The consequences of failure to find such a path are dire. Therefore, it is crucial that the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) be universal, comprehensive, and bold, as well as practical. They must use the wealth and technology of the global economy to create the building blocks of prosperity everywhere. They must provide a new narrative and a new agenda that appeals to, energizes, and guides the actions of individuals and corporations along with governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

This article discusses the creation process of the MDGs and its record in engaging stakeholders. It compares this process to that of the post-2015 agenda and outlines the tensions arising from prioritizing a new set of goals. It discusses the changing global reality in which the post-2015 framework must be constructed, and finally, it argues for a number of shifts necessary for a successful post-2015 regime.

Perspectives from the Past: Building the MDGs

There is a healthy debate about the contribution of the MDGs to global development, though neither skeptics nor believers challenge the MDGs’ role as a unifier of a previously disjointed development community behind the goal of reducing extreme poverty and saving lives.1 In 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the MDGs “the most important promise ever made to the world’s most vulnerable people.”2 The year before, in a mostly critical editorial about the MDGs, William Easterly wrote that they would “go down in history as a success in global consciousness-raising.”3 For the first time, poverty reduction emerged at the forefront of government and NGO aid programs.4 There was, however, a flaw in the design. The MDGs were developed through a top-down process involving discussions among a small circle of development experts in aid agencies, and it took considerable time for them to gain broad-based and meaningful support. They were (and are) largely seen as goals for the “developing world,” or aid recipients, set by the “developed world,” or aid donors, with only limited interactive consultation between the two during the drafting period. It would be, however, too extreme to say that views from the South were ignored completely. Results from Gallup International’s 1999 Millennium Survey, the world’s largest public opinion poll at the time, were incorporated into then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s 2000 Millennium Report, and the World Bank included findings from its Voices of the Poor study into the World Development Report that same year.5

Still, the influence of these two studies on the actual drafting of the MDGs was indirect at best.6 The similarity in the wording of the MDGs to that of the “International Development Goals” proposed in the 2000 joint report from the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank Group, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), A Better World for All, is particularly evocative of an expert-driven and technocratic, rather than consultative and participatory, process.7

Support for the MDGs came slowly. A formal commitment was made by 189 heads of state to the Millennium Declaration in 2000, but the actual goals and targets were not codified until the following year. And it was only after 2005 that MDG momentum truly began to build: the United States gave its first official endorsement of the Goals, the OECD DAC donors reaffirmed their Monterrey Consensus commitments to provide 0.7 percent of GNI in aid, and the UN released its first comprehensive review showing little MDG progress.8 With all this activity, references to the MDGs in several major newspapers began to pick up.9

Buy-in from recipient countries, civil society organizations (CSOs), international NGOs, and philanthropists was more difficult to cement. New mechanisms were needed at the country level to operationalize the goals in order to integrate them into short- and medium-term budgets as “localized planning targets.”10 Countries needed to gain experience with preparing Poverty Reduction Strategy Programs, a tool introduced by the IMF and the World Bank in 1999 to guide debt relief and the allocation of concessional aid. As one Regional Director of the UN Millennium Campaign put it, “many countries received [the MDGs] with some trepidation—yet another set of conditions, imposed this time via the UN.”11 CSOs were initially disappointed, as the MDGs only included a sub-set of the goals they had worked hard to include in UN declarations. They tended to view the MDGs as “a dumbing down of the commitments made already by UN member states” before recognizing the potential to get action on the ground on their priorities by embracing a focused agenda.12 International philanthropists also came late to the party, gathering steam with Bill Gates’s speech in support of the Goals at the 2008 UN General Assembly and the UN’s formation of the MDG Advocacy Group in 2010.13

Building a broad coalition in support of the MDGs delayed initial implementation, but as a result, the goals have stood the test of time. Unlike the majority of international agreements, their relevance and legitimacy are not questioned even after fifteen years.14 Looking forward, however, it is difficult to imagine that an agreement on the SDGs would generate a positive outcome without extensive ex-ante consultations. Stakeholders across the world would no longer accept being excluded from the process, and the need for immediate action on climate change precludes a lengthy post-agreement consensus-building phase.

Different Times, Different Ways

“I want this to be the most inclusive development process the world has
ever known.”15

-Ban Ki-moon

The post-2015 consultation process has been massive.16 National and global thematic consultations have been hosted by the United Nations Development Group (UNDG); regional consultations were undertaken by the United Nations Regional Commissions; CEOs from three hundred major corporations from around the world, with over $8 trillion in annual revenues, were consulted under the guidance of the UN Global Compact; and the views of the scientific and academic community were conveyed through the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Furthermore, the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda met with representatives of five thousand civil society organizations, considered ninety written inputs from them, published 140 written reactions to the report, and participated in many of the fifty or more country dialogues on the report.

An online survey developed by the UNDP, MyWorld, was launched in early 2013 and had received 4.5 million responses by mid-September 2014, three-quarters of which were from people under the age of thirty.17 All of these inputs and more have fed into the formal inter-governmental process, starting with seventy countries who participated in an Open Working Group (OWG) on the SDGs. Their July 2014 outcome document, which had its own set of recommended goals and targets, was the synthesis of thirteen sessions and over sixty national questionnaires submitted by governments and international entities.18

More Ambition, More Focus

“What is needed now is a clear, concise set of objectives. Without them, the entire project
is in very real danger of failing.”19

–Abhijit Banerjee and Varad Pande

One inevitable result of having a more open and inclusive decision making process is that priorities become harder to establish. To take the example given by Banerjee and Pande, a diplomat from a small Pacific island might prioritize climate mitigation and the elimination of fossil-fuel subsidies, while one from China or India might put greater stress on the transfer of energy-efficient technologies at reasonable cost to developing countries.20 The point is that the larger the number of stakeholders and the more diverse their circumstances, the longer the list of priorities that are urgent for at least one country. This is already happening with the discussion over what to include in the SDGs. The OWG proposal has an unwieldy seventeen goals and 169 targets compared to the eight goals and twenty-one targets of the MDGs, and the process for whittling this down is not yet clear.

So what are the options for the SDGs to become more focused? It would be possible, in theory, to pay particular attention to those countries with the most severe problems, such as the forty-eight least developed countries (LDCs) or the thirty-four remaining low-income countries.21 But this option would be not be relevant to the large and diverse group of middleincome countries, and it has already been rejected in favor of a universal set of goals.22 There are several reasons for this. Some, including the High Level Panel and the OWG, consider a new global partnership—with all countries participating on an equal footing—a critical ingredient for the SDGs. Others have emphasized the need for a universal agenda in order to have a more supportive global context for development, something on which there had been little progress under the MDGs.23

Another option would be to narrow the agenda, for example by simply extending the original 2015 deadline for the MDGs with some adaptation and updating, while retaining their relative emphasis on poverty alleviation and global health objectives.24 This option, too, has been rejected.25 It does not reflect the radical changes in technology, wealth, and opportunities since the millennium, or the urgent need to address personal safety, environmental degradation, and climate change—all of which have serious detrimental impacts, especially on poor households. The High Level Panel makes the case for a comprehensive agenda as follows: “Without ending poverty, we cannot build prosperity; too many people get left behind. Without building prosperity, we cannot tackle environmental challenges; we need to mobilize massive investments in new technologies to reduce the footprint of unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Without environmental sustainability, we cannot end poverty; the poor are too deeply affected by natural disasters and too dependent on deteriorating oceans, forests and soils.”26

Addressing Future Needs

A universal and broad sustainable development agenda, however, does not have to be unwieldy and impractical. The High Level Panel report has a list of twelve goals and fifty-four targets. The report from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network has ten goals and thirty targets. Each of these reports applied common principles to their choices. Goals and targets should address the most pressing and urgent challenges and be defined in terms of desired outcomes, rather than inputs. Targets should be specific, measurable, and actionable. There should be clear evidence that targets can be met with reasonable technologies and financial resources. This is not to say that technology and finance should be taken as given at present levels. On the contrary, most reports argue that business-as-usual is not an option. Equally, purely aspirational targets, such as providing decent jobs for all, should be avoided. To that end, some have suggested using explicit economic cost-benefit criteria as a way of ensuring that choices are based on evidence.27

It is not always straightforward to apply these criteria to every target. For example, one can consider freedom of speech or of association as instrumental to development, or as ends in themselves, as basic human rights that should be protected regardless of the impact on development. But such distinctions may not be useful. Amartya Sen, in his seminal book, Development as Freedom, has taken the position that both views are inherently part of any development framework; arguing for one view over the other is just sophistry.28

In the end, the SDGs will be implemented by national governments, according to national priorities. The solution to the problem of too many targets is to permit each country to determine a level of ambition for each target itself, and to prioritize its resources accordingly. For a few targets, the global community may want to reach consensus on “minimum standards,” while acknowledging that more ambitious targets may be appropriate in some contexts. For example, the High Level Panel report argues for the eradication of extreme poverty in every country (defined as people living in households that spend less than $1.25 per person per day), while at the same time providing space for richer countries to set far more ambitious targets with respect to their own national poverty lines.

Nevertheless, one should not take such a “menu” approach too far. The purpose of the SDGs is to help the global community organize its support for development in a more effective way. If support is needed in every area, there will inevitably be waste, overlap, and inefficiencies. This is already evident in the siloed approaches of peace, environmental, climate change, socio-economic, and humanitarian agencies. Unless the number of goals can be reduced to a manageable level (say ten or less), there is a risk that the post-2015 agenda will degenerate into a lofty but meaningless and unactionable wish list of every country’s aspirations.

Lessons Learned, Looking Forward

The global development narrative has changed. No longer is development seen as something that developed countries should do on behalf of developing ones, largely through foreign aid allocations. Rather, development is now considered a universal search for sustainable development pathways in a wide variety of different country circumstances and contexts.29 As Bill and Melinda Gates have said, “the world has changed so much that the terms ‘developing countries’ and ‘developed countries’ are no longer useful.”30 Instead of thinking about the developing world, it is now time to discuss a developing world. All countries must change course to find a sustainable development path, and that is the central purpose for the post-2015 agenda. But where are these course changes most needed?

  • Fragile and conflict-affected areas have emerged as laggards in the achievement of the MDGs. When these countries discussed their priorities among themselves, in the form of the G7+, they advocated a New Deal in the way that the international community engages in development cooperation. Specifically, the New Deal agrees to focus on five peacekeeping and state-building goals: legitimate politics, security, justice, economic foundations, and revenues and services. Of these goals, however, only services are explicitly addressed in the MDGs.31
  • Inequality has emerged as a major risk to long-term social and economic development. Because the MDGs focused on country averages, they did not highlight the large differences in conditions within countries between rural and urban areas, inland and coastal provinces, boys and girls, different ethnic groups, and able-bodied and disabled people. The High Level Panel proposed that the SDGs be framed around commitments to the most needy and vulnerable people, effectively a global commitment to “leave no one behind.” The OWG has now made the reduction of inequality within and among countries a freestanding goal.
  • Sustainable consumption and production is increasingly essential to meet natural resource needs from new entrants into the global middle class. Advanced countries should lead the way in demonstrating how incentives and new mindsets can change to bring about the massive investments needed to move to a green economy. In particular, the OWG outcome document highlights the need for developed countries to take the lead on proposed Goal 8 (promote sustainable economic growth) and Goal 12 (ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns).32 Countries can look to put in place leapfrog, or the most efficient, technologies as part of smart public policy. Households and corporations will also need to play their part. While some multinationals already report on sustainability practices, by 2030 this should be commonplace and systematized into common accounting standards.
  • Economic transformation and inclusive growth will be the main engines to achieve poverty-reduction at scale. The MDGs paid scant attention to the infrastructure investments and the policy and institutional improvements needed to raise growth rates.33 The OWG recommends adopting a target growth rate of at least 7 percent in least developed countries (LDCs), but without specifying how this is to be achieved. Economic transformation is one of the core pillars of the Common African Position on the post-2015 agenda.34

From What to How

The MDGs did not pay close attention to how the goals and targets should be achieved. The SDGs must not repeat the same mistake.

Crafting a New Global Partnership

Progress toward a true global partnership for development (MDG 8) has been modest. After the financial crisis, political momentum toward stronger international development cooperation seems to have waned.35 Although official development assistance (ODA) levels reached historic highs in absolute terms in 2013, and were complemented by large grants from private philanthropists and emerging economies and non-DAC donors, the beyond-aid agenda has faltered. Failure to reach consensus on trade and climate change agreements is well-publicized, but the deeper issue is the need for a new spirit of global cooperation and solidarity, starting from a shared common vision of an ambitious future that includes local and national governments, businesses, and individuals representing affected groups in society.

Internationally, the beyond-aid agenda can usefully encompass financial stability, illicit financial flows, tax evasion, and stolen asset recovery, as well as trade and climate change. Capacity building, including the diffusion of science and technology, is a major ask. Domestically, a number of structural reforms in all countries, such as the implementation of anti-bribery laws, accounting regulations to encourage sustainability, consideration of sustainability in public procurement, access to technology, and the phaseout of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption, deserve increased attention.

Use of beyond-aid instruments will be critical to address the challenges of sustainability that have been taken on-board in the post-2015 agenda. As an example of the degree to which sustainability has been integrated into the post-2015 process, one need only note that it is explicitly referred to in eleven out of the seventeen proposed goals, not including proposed Goal 13 (to take urgent action against climate change).

Bringing Businesses into the Coalition for Sustainable Development

Implementation of the SDGs also depends on a new spirit of multilateralism that can drive a beyond-aid agenda in multiple spheres. For instance, the private business sector brings resources and technology to the table and is indispensable to a successful post-2015 agenda. Business is the motor of prosperity: it accounts for most job growth and the revenue base for governments. Increasingly, businesses are seeing opportunities in reducing poverty. Business value chains extend from small farmers to small traders, distributors, and shopkeepers, and social entrepreneurs are increasingly involved in opening new markets at the base of the pyramid. With the advent of mobile money, individuals living in poor households have become potential clients, instead of just charity recipients.

Successful business models have addressed scale and sustainability, two key challenges for the post-2015 agenda. The M-PESA mobile money service in Kenya, which emerged as a result of a private initiative rather than a top-down operation, is a salient example of a success that can and has been replicated in other contexts.36 Indeed, GSMA reports a threefold increase in registered mobile money accounts, from seventy-one million in June 2011 to 203 million in June 2013, as well as an expansion of services across regions, with 219 services in eighty-four countries at the end of 2013, compared to 179 services in seventy-five countries at the end of 2012.37

Certainly, businesses can make markets work for the poor. But their core operations are driven by a profit motive, not a development motive, and in some countries and sectors, they have a history of exploitation. The deep mistrust between business and local civil society in these cases needs to be bridged, and much depends on governments. Good regulations are required to align profit and development objectives, all the more so when markets are incomplete and competition is low. For example, markets for natural resources (land, water, extractives) may not be fully developed; property rights may be customary, not codified; and social benefits (for instance, flood mitigation from mangroves) may not be measureable. In such cases, profit and development objectives can differ unless governments introduce better regulations. At the same time, it is important for businesses, too, to be accountable for their actions and to accept that doing the right thing is important for their long-term profitability. Shareholder activism and securities regulation in countries that host major multinational corporations can accelerate the on-going trend toward businesses that take a systemized approach to sustainability.

One legacy of the MDGs is a history of international, multi-stakeholder partnerships between businesses, governments, and civil society with a common interest in addressing specific global problems. Many lessons have been learned, and public-private partnerships have seen their fair share of difficulties, but there have also been successes. Engaging businesses in a central way into the implementation of the SDGs will be a critical ingredient for success.

Starting a Data Revolution

A complex agreement like the SDGs must be results-oriented, data-driven, and evidence-based; however, current international information systems do not provide the support needed. For example, only around 60 percent conduct a poverty survey every five years. Not surprisingly, this problem is most acute in low-income countries, where the need for accurate poverty data is most pressing. Similar data problems persist across numerous other indicators of development progress.

Most data is collected by national statistical offices, and the first efforts have been to develop national-level counts. But the data requirements for the SDGs are more stringent. They should include a far greater degree of disaggregation: by income classification, gender, disability, geography, and ethnicity, for example. They should also try to capture intangible aspects of development: natural environmental services like access to clean air, clean water, or disaster mitigation; trust in and effectiveness of institutions like those delivering personal safety and justice; and the degree to which human rights are respected. As Amartya Sen lamented, “anything that wasn’t immediately measurable [in the Millennium Declaration] was dispensed with in the MDGs.”38 The SDGs must not fall into the same trap.

While most data will continue to be generated through official sources, new technologies mean that there is scope for civil society organizations to also create data, while helping to monitor delivery gaps and ensuring accountability. A data revolution could transform development and form a strong foundation for the SDGs.

Concluding Remarks

Ending poverty has been a rhetorical slogan for generations. It is this generation, at this time, that has the chance to make it a reality. The resources and technology exist. Governments, businesses, scientists, philanthropists, and people from all walks of life are willing to contribute. The challenge that remains is to merge these forces together to address the interlinked scourges of conflict, poverty, environmental degradation, and climate change and to create a life of dignity for all. This is the opportunity of the post-2015 agenda.


Homi Kharas is a senior fellow and deputy director for the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution. He was the lead author and executive secretary of the secretariat supporting the High Level Panel, co-chaired by President Sirleaf, President Yudhoyono, and Prime Minister Cameron, advising the UN secretary-general on the post-2015 development agenda.

Christine Zhang is a research analyst at the Brookings Institution.


The following piece is part of the SAIS Review’s Fall 2014 issue, “Sustaining the Millennium:  Global Development from the MDGs to Post-2015.” It has been published here as a special preview of the soon-to-be-released issue in celebration of the SAIS Review’s December 8 launch event. Please do not re-post. 



Citations and Notes

1 John McArthur, “Own the Goals,” Foreign Affairs March/April 2013.
2 Ban Ki-moon, “Speech to the European Forum on ‘the International Financial Crisis and the Millennium Development Goals,’” 4 September 2010.
3 William Easterly, “It’s Over: The Tragedy of the Millennium Development Goals,” The World Post,
4 Prior to the MDGs, during the Cold War era, aid programs had quite different intentions (Kharas, 2014).
5 Kofi A. Annan, “’We the Peoples’: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century,” in Millennium Report of the Secretary-General (New York: United Nations, 2000); World Bank, “Attacking Poverty,” in World Development Report 2000/2001 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
6 In fact, on some key points highlighted by Millennium Survey respondents, such as conflict, democratic governance, and environmental issues (Annan, 2000), the MDGs were largely silent (“A New Global Partnership”, 2013).
7 “Reporter’s Guide to the Millennium Development Goals,” ed. Mariela Hoyer Guerrero and Scott F. Griffen (International Press Institute, 2013).
8 John McArthur, “The Origins of the Millennium Development Goals,” SAIS Review of International Affairs (2014); “OECD Statement to the Follow-up of the UN Millennium Declaration and Monterrey Consensus,” (2005); United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report,” (New York: United Nations, 2005).
9 John McArthur and Christine Zhang, “Who Thinks About the MDGs?” (2014—forthcoming).
10 Charles Abugre, “Speech at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference: Parliaments, CSOs and the MDGs – 2015 and Beyond,” January 12, 2011.
11 Ibid.
12 Commonwealth Foundation, “Breaking with Business as Usual: Perspectives from Civil Society in the Commonwealth on the Millennium Development Goals,” (London: Commonwealth Foundation, 2005).
13 Bill Gates, “Speech to the United Nations General Assembly,” 25 September 2008; “Secretary-General’s MDG Advocacy Group,”
14 Alex Evans and David Steen, “Beyond the Millennium Development Goals: Agreeing a Post-2015 Development Framework,” (Managing Global Order Initiative, 2012).
15 United Nations Development Program, “Global Conversation on the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda,” (2013).
16 United Nations Development Group, “The Global Conversation Begins: Emerging Views for a New Development Agenda,” (2013).
17 “My World: The United Nations Global Survey for a Better World,” United Nations,
18 Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, “Post-2015 Process,” United Nations,
19 Abhijit Banerjee and Varad Pande, “How to Prioritize UN Goals,” New York Times, September
10, 2014.
20 Ibid.
21 As classified by the UN and the World Bank, respectively.
22 United Nations Report of the Secretary-General, “A Life of Dignity for All: Accelerating Progress Towards the Millennium Development Goals and Advancing the United Nations Development Agenda Beyond 2015,” (New York: United Nations, 2013).
23 MDG 8, “Develop a Global Partnership for Development,” is widely believed to have fallen short on its most important targets (Kenny and Dykstra, 2013).
24 Mark Suzman, “Stay the Course on Post-2015 Development Goals,” Impatient Optimists,March 7, 2013,
25 United Nations Report of the Secretary-General, “A Life of Dignity for All: Accelerating Progress Towards the Millennium Development Goals and Advancing the United Nations Development Agenda Beyond 2015;” Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, “Outcome Document—Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals,” (2014).
26 “A New Global Partnership,” 5.
27 Matt Ridley, “Smart Aid for the World’s Poor,” Wall Street Journal, July 26–27, 2014. 28 Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Books, 2000). 29 Homi Kharas, “Scope for an Ambitious Development Agenda,” East Asia Forum Quarterly 6, no. 2 (2014).
30 Bill Gates and Melinda Gates, “3 Myths That Block Progress for the World’s Poor,”
31 International Dialogue for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, “A New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States,” (2011).
32 UN Open Working Group, Introduction to the Proposal of the Open Working Group for Sustainable Development Goals (New York: United Nations, 2014),
33 Ha-Joon Chang, “Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark: How Development Has Disappeared from Today’s ‘Development’ Discourse “ in Towards New Developmentalism: Market as Means Rather Than Master, ed. Shahrukh Rafi Khan and Jens Christiansen (New York: Routledge, 2010).
34 “The Common African Position on the Post-2015 Development Agenda: A Unique Opportunity for Africa to Be Heard,”
35 MDG Gap Task Force, “The Global Partnership for Development: The Challenge We Face,” (New York: United Nations, 2013).
36 Pauline Vaughan, Wolfgang Fengler, and Michael Joseph, “Scaling up through Disruptive Business Models: The inside Story of Mobile Money in Kenya,” in Getting to Scale: How to Bring Development Solutions to Millions of Poor People, ed. Laurence Chandy, et al. (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2013).
37 GSMA, “GSMA Report Shows Active Mobile Money Customers Reached 61 Million in 2013,”
38 Amartya Sen, “Human Development in the Post-2015 Era” (lecture delivered at the launch of the International Centre for Human Development, New Delhi, India January 4, 2012).


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