The MDGs never were a global agenda for development, now we need one

Claudio Schuftan, Human Rights Reader 339*


A specter is haunting (not only) Europe: The specter of human rights.

Even The Economist recognized that the MDGs are actually ends without means. In many countries, the MDGs are a too distant reality for ordinary people. (UNFPA)


1. It is never too late to recap on the MDGs. The question is: Are we going to learn? In 'the post 2015 era', we cannot simply extend and supplement the MDGs. It is not about reformulating, dropping or adding goals, but about a global systemic reform to remove the major constraints to development as we have them now. Development is much more than the sum total of the MDGs…or any collection of specific targets.

2. Only if and as necessary, should progressive-realization-of-human-rights-action-plans aimed at post 2015 structural changes be supplemented by specific goals and targets. Targets by themselves simply reinforce structural inequalities and social exclusion, i.e., they may bring a statistical victory, but a moral failure since the patterns of exclusion are perpetuated. Enduring inequalities can be and have been overlooked by all MDG targets even if deemed to have been met --and some of them have. Paying too much attention to individual MDG indicators has led us to a kind of 'anxious disaster relief mentality', namely applied in haste, geared to immediate results and revocable when funds run short. (D+C 37:12, Dec 2010) Actually, as we get closer to 2015, it is now evident that many efforts to achieve the MDG targets are focusing on the 'low-hanging fruit', bypassing and even further excluding the poorest and most excluded populations.

3. This time around, the corrections we need to introduce to foster inclusion will simply have to address the causes of the causes.

4. The MDGs actually tried to combine normative statements of what is desirable with a political statement of what is probably feasible. But, in doing so, the MDGs did not change the discourse of development. They crowded out the basic idea that development is about economic transformation. (For instance, disparity reduction rather than poverty reduction would be part of true economic transformation!) The MDGs failed to distinguish between human rights (HR) and social welfare - the latter seen as raising the standards of living 'in the colonies' through economic growth and development. (M. Montes) In short, the MDGs have not been an effective tool, but more like a bandage applied to a malignant tumor. (D+C 37:7-8, July/Aug 2010).

Righting the MDGs (M. Langford)


There is no use to be in the driver's seat when one is not the owner of the bus.


5. The HR framework sees the achievement of the post 2015  social development goals. The SDGs are supposed to 'replace' the MDGs as a necessary, but not sufficient condition for disparity reduction. Moreover, poverty reduction is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for human development --and human development is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the realization of HR. Therefore, the achievement of the MDGs in parts of the world have rather been a necessary, but far from a sufficient condition for the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights. This has also meant most of the MDGs can be and have been achieved without any (or only a passing-by) reference to HR.
* As relates to the basic needs approach and the HR-based approach to development, while the first approach, including the conventional MDGs approach, is at best based on international agreements of keeping-a-promise, the second approach is based on international agreements of meeting-legal-obligations. This is and will continue to be the fundamental difference between the achievement of the MDGs and the realization of HR. (U. Jonsson) The SDGs proposed in the Rio+20 Summit do have a greater HR nexus, but it remains to be seen how this will play out as we get closer to 2015.

6. A lot of intelligent things are being said about the MDGs -some of it rightfully good. The question is whether good words are followed up by appropriate action, even in the year we have left to 2015. The huge MDGs backlog remaining is frustrating, quite surely due to the fact that the link between the sustainability discourse and the MDGs agenda has been missing all along. That is where we have to start. Waiting till 2015 is already a travesty. (D+C, Vol.37 No.10, Oct 2010)

* Think about this: Is there a certain 'tribalism' of the professions as regards MDGs thinking? How responsible are the shortcomings we find in medical, health and other professionals' education of the gaps we now find in the MDGs? Are we keeping our students ignorant about the role of the social determination of development outcomes?

7. Regrets: The 2010 MDG Summit could have been used as a game changer by accepting the value shifting role of HR as a pre-condition to achieve the MDGs. But it was not. A certain shift from quantity to quality and the participation of those rendered poor in the MDG process would have been necessary for that. (M. Darrow) Keep in mind that the HR framework puts much more emphasis on the areas neglected by the MDGs such as equal access to social services, to justice, to the rule of law and to good, democratic governance. (Getting the MDGs right: Towards the founding of an operational framework for the MDG-Human Rights Nexus. Copenhagen , Nov. 2010)

One concern we should not underestimate: We do run the risk of bureaucratizing human rights

8. These days, everybody is calling for participation. Fair enough. But if participation will be called for arriving at some 15-20 post 2015 outcome goals and not on the means to be used to reach development outcomes, we will, as in the MDGs, end up again addressing symptoms and not causes; certainly not the causes of the causes.

9. That is why, in the post 2015 debate, toning down the HR and equality language in an effort to reach consensus will not lead us to the quantum leaps needed, or only to semi-quantum leaps that only go half the way. Not again! Is this what we want? Or is it better to talk straight? 
* Remember the fable of the turtle in the race that, in order to get to the end line, it always had to go half the way left it to go; always going for half leads to infinitum and never to the end line.

10. At a minimum, many claim the MDGs have given us a shared language and some sense of priority. Yes, but how relevant is this for the post 2015 debate? From what I see so far in the post 2015 debate, and realistically speaking, as a HR activist I contend we are most probably in for another 15 years of struggling from the barricades of the opposition. (I am not sure if this is an optimist's or a pessimist/realist's view: Great things can be achieved from the opposition…).

No longer a re-action capacity only, but an action capacity

11. Among other, a three-pronged approach has been suggested:

- Civil society must assume a watchdog function and blame and shame when necessary. Why? Because holding people and organizations to account requires teeth, especially in young democracies and fragile states with no mutual checks and balances. Whistleblowing and naming-and-shaming may be the only option when dealing with corruption. (R. Bourgoing)

- United Nations agencies must carry out annual HR rankings of countries and of corporations (like UNICEF did for children's issues in the past in its 'Progress of Nations' short-lived series).

- The Universal Periodic Review of the HR Council must also review UN agencies and international financial institutions (IFIs). Watchdogs are a man's best friend: dogs bite.

* Watchdog civil society organizations are to watch like 'white knights fighting the dark forces of development aid, corruption and incompetence'.

12. Since it is distributional processes that lead to distributional outcomes, we will simply have to work harder to:

- Create an international environment for sustainable, human rights-based development;

- Change the unfair rules of the current development game;

- Topple and replace the prevailing development paradigm; and for these three to succeed,

- Revert the prevailing attitude of being silent on means and focusing on ends.

Nothing new here, is there?

* A point in case: we need to go from poverty eradication to disparity reduction, from charity to dignity.

13. Questions remain as to how much hope we can place on the extra-territorial obligations (ETOs) in the HR realm and on badly needed mandatory global financial regulations being enforced. Will these be coming our way after 2015? Certainly not if we do not decisively push for them.

14. What then are the core non-negotiable points for the post 2015 agenda? We have to include the reaffirmation of the primacy of HR and their practical implementation; we need clear lines of HR accountability and firm benchmarks for disparity reduction and for the progressive realization of all HR worldwide. Without the full operational inclusion of these principles, any post 2015 agenda will replicate the shortcomings of the MDGs. Mark these words. Therefore, civil society organizations must be careful not to take part-in and accept processes that do not meet these fundamental standards. The formulation of any new global goals must include clear steps and annual benchmarks for the progressive universal realization of HR in the longer run. This must be accompanied by a commitment to implement effective measures to end the impunity of those who violate HR. Furthermore, a stand-alone post 2015 equality goal is essential with specific year by year benchmarks to be set as part of national progressive realization of HR plans. (Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2013).

* Human Rights Reader is a long-running blog by Claudio Schuftan, counting over 340 issues. The articles can be found at and or by subscribing to the author's mailing list at: cschuftan[@]


Claudio Schuftan M.D. (pediatrics and international health), was born in Chile and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, (Vietnam) where he works as a freelance consultant in public health and nutrition.  His last academic appointment was as an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of International Health, Tulane School of Public Health, New Orleans, LA. Since 1976, Dr. Schuftan has carried out over one hundred consulting assignments 50 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. He has worked for USAID, UNICEF, WFP, the EU, the WB, the ADB, the UNU, DHHS (USA), WHO, IFAD, Sida, FINNIDA, the Peace Corps, FAO, CIDA, the WCC (Geneva) and several international NGOs.  He is author of two books, several books chapters and over sixty five scholarly papers published in refereed journals. He is currently an active member of he Steering Group of the People's Health Movement and coordinated PHM's global right to health campaign.