How do the SDGs differ from the MDGs?

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What's the difference?

The Millennium Development Goals, developed in 2000, were comprised of eight goals to eradicate extreme poverty; conditions of which meant:

  • Eradication of hunger
  • Universal primary education
  • Gender equality and empowerment of women
  • Reduced child mortality
  • Improved maternal health
  • Eradication of HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other diseases
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Global partnership for development


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Unlike the newly developed Sustainable Development Goals in recent 2015, there not only were fewer goals, but targets set for these goals applied primarily to least developed/poor countries. The new SDG goals set targets that call all countries to action, no matter how developed and they “challenge the west lectures rest dynamic”[1].

Upon their creation, the MDGs were determined by a small team of technical experts at the headquarters of the United Nations. In contrast, the SDGs were agreed upon by an open working group composed of 30 members who collectively represented 70 different countries[2]. One of the main contextual differences between the two is that the SDGs are regarded as drastic improvements to the MDGs which in retrospect, fail to consider the root causes of poverty and fall short of considering the holistic nature of development1. The SDGs cover topics from consumption to global trade and are considered to be better equipped to handle coming challenges as well as those currently.

Naturally, with nine additional goals, the SDGs are projected to be much more costly; even as much as $4.5 trillion per year in state spending, investment, and aid. Infrastructure to sustain such growth alone is estimated to require $7 trillion in funds per annum. According to the Copenhagen Consensus Center, $200-900 billion was attributed in aid to fulfil the MDGs within 2000-2014, and their estimates for the aid required to fulfil the SDGs within 15 years is as low as $700 billion.

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Were the MDGs successful?

From 1990-2015, extreme poverty fell in developing countries from 47 to 14%[3]. The proportion of undernourished people fell by almost half, as well as child mortality rate, and maternal and mortality deaths declined by 45%[2]. However, communicable diseases and gender/income inequality still persisted, millions remained in extreme poverty and 60 million were displaced by conflict, and climate change disproportionately affected poor communities and reversed many economic gains[2]. According to UNICEF’s executive director, Anthony Lake, “in setting broad global goals the MDGs inadvertently encouraged nations to measure progress through national averages, shifting the focus away from those greatest in need”[4]. MDG targets created incentives for governments to focus on low-hanging fruit rather than groups in most need. By solely taking into account the national averages to measure progress, many outliers of those averages were found to be those that are most affected by social, political, economic and environmental policy changes and actions: specifically, marginalised/vulnerable communities. No progress was seen in MDG targets for reducing global income poverty within the bottom 5 per cent by 2014—overall poverty was reduced, but reduction was not distributed evenly or fairly.

Scepticism has surfaced regarding whether the progress made in the time the MDGs were being implemented had anything to do with fulfilling their actual targets. A subsequent study[5] under Howard Freidman suggests that there was no trend in statistically significant accelerations of the MDG indicators after 2000, when the MDGs were published. Any of the aforementioned success in eradicating poverty, maternal, child, and mortality death as well as hunger may be indicative of the impact of long-term and broader economic trends. According to NYU’s economics professor, William Easterly, “the MDGs communicated a very wrong idea about how development happens: technocratic, patronizing, and magically free of politics…it’s not about western saviours, but home-grown efforts linked to a gradual extension of political freedom” (Andrew 2015).

Without the creation and evaluation of the MDGs, the same criticisms would be said about the SDGs. Ultimately, the MDGs laid the foundation for the SDGs to become the better, new, and improved goals; there would not be as clear of an understanding regarding the complex and comprehensive nature of development as a whole without them.



[1] Caballero, Paula. The World Bank. “One year on, the SDGs provide reason for hope”. Aug 1 2016.

[2] SDG Knowledge Platform (2015). Open Working Group Proposal. Accessed Aug 1 2016.

[3] United Nations (2015): The Millennium Development Goals Report.

[4] UNICEF. Progress for Children Report. June 22 2015.

[5] Friedman, Howard Steven (2013): Causal Inference and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): Assessing Whether There Was an Acceleration in MDG Development Indicators Following the MDG Declaration.

Written and researched by Sophie West, 29 August 2016