In September 2000, world leaders gathered in New York to decide the United Nations’ goals for the new millennium. From this gathering came the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight priorities for the first fifteen years of the third millennium.

The MDGs focused on basic objectives such as bringing people out of extreme poverty (then defined as living on less than $1.25 per day). And because problems such as extreme poverty disproportionately affect the world’s least-developed countries, the MDGs mainly focused on development in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 

On paper, countries successfully met the MDG targets: From 2000 to 2015, the world experienced rapid development. One billion people rose out of extreme poverty, and global gross domestic product (GDP) more than doubled. 

However, that does not mean that the world is quite developed just yet. The high rate of GDP growth and reductions in extreme poverty are important and impressive gains, but they only represent one part of the story.

Global GDP vs. Extreme Poverty: The MDG Years

Shortcomings of the MDGs

Much of the progress made toward the MDGs happened in just two countries: China and India. They have the two largest populations in the world and were long home to more poor people than anywhere else. Between 2000 and 2015, China lifted approximately 300 million people out of extreme poverty. But many of the methods it used to achieve this goal afforded its citizens few individual rights and, notably, had severe environmental consequences. For example, the Chinese government encouraged factories to increase the production of goods for export, and many farmers moved to cities for work. More coal-powered factories intensified air pollution and worsened air quality. Lax environmental laws did not prohibit industrial waste flowing into rivers and surrounding farmland. And more people living in cities meant more and more cars pumping out carbon dioxide, elevating greenhouse gas emissions. These activities contribute to climate change and to rising sea levels that threatens to displace the hundreds of millions of people in China who live on the coast.

China: GDP, Emissions, and Air Pollution Deaths

In India, too, over 300 million people rose out of extreme poverty during the same period and the country’s GDP quadrupled between 2000 and 2015. But while India succeeded in eliminating extreme poverty, it had moved hundreds of millions of people just above the extreme poverty threshold with few savings. And the Indian government failed to distribute wealth equally—about 70 percent of the country’s growth in 2015 benefited the wealthiest 1 percent of the population, making India one of the world’s most unequal places.

Inequality weakens the foundation of development: people living just over the line of extreme poverty can easily be set back by a small crisis such as falling ill or missing work to care for an elderly relative. Moreover, when most people lack opportunities to get ahead while a handful of wealthy families amass increasingly more wealth, social tensions increase. Studies show that inequality is associated with higher rates of violent crime, which holds the entire country back. 

Transitioning from MDGs to SDGs

When the United Nations convened in 2015, identifying sustainable ways to develop was a top priority. Sustainable development refers to development that considers the economic and environmental well-being of future generations. The United Nations came up with a new development framework to address the shortcomings of the MDGs: the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Three main characteristics distinguish the SDGs from the MDGs: sustainability, interconnectedness, and a global focus. 

The SDGs focus on sustainability.

It is no longer considered enough to improve people’s livelihoods regardless of the environmental cost. The SDGs encourage countries to find environmentally friendly methods of development, such as by powering factories with renewable energy rather than by exclusively exploiting fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change. Each development project has to account for its environmental impact: how it would affect life on land, ensure a clean water supply, and respond to climate change.

The SDGs are also economically sustainable in that they promote inclusive growth. An overall increase in a country’s wealth is a worthwhile goal, but the SDGs ask these questions: Who benefits, and is  the average person in a country gaining from the growth, or are just a few wealthy people reaping all the rewards? The SDGs push for programs that specifically target marginalized social groups, which often include women, minorities, and disabled people. To be considered sustainable, development projects need to ensure equal opportunities for growth and eliminate discriminatory practices.

The SDGs are interconnected.

Rather than look at poverty in isolation, the SDGs focus on how improvements in one area can help others. For example, one way to improve gender equality is to install solar-powered street lights that stay on all night so that women feel safer walking home later in the evening, as is what happened in rural Lebanon. This small, environmentally friendly step has a ripple effect: Women who are able to extend their hours of activity outside the house past sunset have more opportunities to take night classes at university and improve their educational attainment. They can also work more flexible hours and avail themselves of new job opportunities. Programs that address inequalities end up helping everyone: the more citizens who are able to work, the larger an economy can grow.

Instances of these interconnected methods can be seen in many places, and they often focus on environmentally sustainable methods of growth. In 2018, Peru’s environment ministry kicked off a project to combat the issue of giant garbage dumps and landfills that dominate the cityscape of Peru’s second-largest city, Arequipa. The strategy included setting up teams of volunteers who promote recycling through grassroots initiatives such as door-knocking in order to reduce the size of the landfills. These volunteers, mostly women from impoverished backgrounds, sort trash and recyclable material in the landfills and also sell crafts made from the recycled materials they collect. This program does not simply address the problem of expanding landfills; it does so in an environmentally friendly way, much more so than burning trash that releases greenhouse gases. One initiative can help progress toward a whole host of SDGs, including gender equality, work opportunities, responsible consumption and production, and a reduction in poverty.

The SDGs have a global focus.

With the creation of the SDGs, the United Nations recognized that it’s not just developing countries that need work; developed countries, too, face gender inequality, high income inequality, pollution, and other problems.

In Germany, hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, was banned in 2016 after years of debate. While fracking today is a cheap and easy means of extracting oil and natural gas, scientists warn that it poses serious risks to the environment. Ultimately, German politicians decided that environmental sustainability doesn’t have to be a trade-off for economic growth, a core principle of the SDGs. In the long term, it’s cheaper to invest in renewable energy than to deal with the public health burden and environmental damage caused by fracking.

In the United States, some municipalities are trying to combat income inequality, which is higher in the United States than in any other developed country. For example, officials in Emeryville, California, a city just outside San Francisco where the cost of living has nearly doubled since 2000, decided to raise its minimum wage from $12 per hour to $16. This change set off a ripple effect: higher wages mean workers don’t need to hold down two or three jobs to make ends meet. This means they are more likely to stop smoking (a habit highly correlated with stress), can afford to eat healthier rather than rely on fast food, and are able to see a doctor early on if they need to, rather than wait until health issues become serious. In the long term, these health outcomes can reduce strain on the U.S. health-care system as a whole. Studies indicate that a $15 per hour minimum wage across the United States would lower rates of child abuse, teen pregnancy, and teen alcoholism.

But will the SDGs work where the MDGs fell short?

The SDGs make clear that improving development cannot come at the cost of serious environmental harm and economic inequality. And unlike the MDGs, the SDGs focus on improved living conditions in both developed and developing countries. But to truly succeed where the MDGs fell short, the SDGs will require countries to collaborate on projects beyond their borders.

Sustainable Development Goal 1: No Poverty

Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education

Sustainable Development Goal 7: Affordable Energy

For example, Angola, Namibia, and South Africa all share the Benguela ecosystem on the coast of southwest Africa, an area that has rich biodiversity and marine life but has been harmed by overfishing, marine transport, mining, and pollution. The decrease in the availability of fish has hurt fishers in all three countries who depend on healthy marine life for their livelihoods. Realizing that overfishing and pollution are not simply domestic issues, officials from Angola, Namibia, and South Africa wrote joint regulations on overfishing and created marine parks for threatened species.

Because these countries cooperated to achieve a shared goal, their local economies and environments all receive the benefits of sustainable development. This type of cooperation is essential to achieving the SDGs because global challenges don’t stop at one country’s borders and neither can the responses.

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