University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Sara Sievers

Sara Sievers is Associate Dean of Policy and Practice at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and former Senior Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. She has extensive experience in advocacy, policy, and governance issues pertaining to development.

In 2000, the United Nations held the fifty-fifth session of its General Assembly, designated “the Millennium Assembly of the United Nations,” and convened a Millennium Summit. During that session the United Nations adopted, with limited attention and fanfare, a set of targets for the first 15 years of the new century to reduce extreme poverty and its consequences.

These Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as they became known, included such broad-ranging priorities as strengthening the rule of law, taking action against international drug trafficking, and promoting “peace, security, disarmament, and the rule of law”—all intended to meet the needs of people in developing countries and countries in transition.


Fast forward from this modest beginning to 2015, the ostensible end year for the MDGs, and quite a different scenario appears. On Friday, September 25, Pope Francis shut down the streets of Manhattan as he traversed the island—in the words of Amina Mohammed, the UN official charged with their creation—“to bless the Sustainable Development Goals.” Unanimously approved by UN member states after three years of painstaking negotiations, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals lit up the sides of the United Nations building heralding for the world—and heads of state flying in and out of New York—specific commitments all countries were adopting to achieve sustainable development over the next 15 years.


What explains the difference between 2000 and 2015? Why did one set of anti-poverty objectives pass largely unnoticed, buried amidst a host of priorities for the new millennium, while the other attracted unprecedented attention literally illuminating the night sky? Perhaps because the UN’s MDG process revolutionized the global struggle against poverty and set a precedent for success.

In 2000, the AIDS crisis was hitting the world with its full fear and fury. The 38 countries facing the brunt of this catastrophe were both highly indebted and very poor. Fifteen years later, the HIV/AIDS crisis has become more manageable even in the poorest places. Around the world childhood mortality rates dropped by more than 50 percent. Malaria became a small fraction of its former lethal self. A record number of children, including girls, entered school. These achievements are all associated with what Bill Gates calls “the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that I have ever seen.”

Prior to the MDGs, conventional wisdom assumed that countries had to achieve strong levels of economic growth in order to realize anti-poverty goals such as lowered mortality from malaria or higher school enrollment rates. During 2000-2015 Ethiopia, Rwanda, and a number of other countries showed precisely the opposite—that anti-poverty MDG objectives could be accomplished even if national growth rates were not what was hoped. At the sub-national level, the Millennium Villages Project showed that strong MDG performance was possible in diverse national settings where consistent growth proved elusive. Countries such as Nigeria established Presidential-level MDG committees that met regularly to benchmark national progress toward achieving UN goals.


The UN process of setting concrete, measurable, and sensible global anti-poverty goals seems to have cracked a development nut few would have predicted. Many claimed the goals were unachievable, or inappropriate, yet in the end they have proven deeply consequential.

While many of the MDGs may not be achieved in the fullest sense this year, remarkable progress has been made in reducing child mortality and realizing other anti-poverty objectives. The new World Bank measure of absolute poverty (lifted from “less than “$1 per day” to “less than $1.90” a day) is predicted to drop—for the first time in history—to under 10 percent of the global population.

It remains to be seen whether the Sustainable Development Goals will achieve the progress and prominence of their predecessors, particularly as they are now expanded to include not only further anti-poverty goals, but also environmental, justice and equality priorities.

What is indisputable, however, is that the United Nations is setting the agenda for global sustainable development for the decade-and-a-half to come. In so doing, it is accomplishing in the most elegant of manners its original mandate of bringing the nations of the world together in support of the global good and acting as the voice of the poor and neglected in the corridors of power.