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Will the post 2015 MDG settlement be part of the problem, or part of the solution?

04 Feb 2013
J. Allister McGregor, Professorial Fellow and Team Leader of the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex,
The Millennium Declaration was a landmark in global politics; it put poverty elimination on the global policy agenda. The subsequent Millennium Development Goals took a further important step by translating the political statement into a form that politicians and policy makers could work with. While the MDGs have been strongly and reasonably criticised (Clemens et al 2004, Saith 2006) they have made a difference and will be recognised as having been historically important. As we move towards the target date of 2015, however, we must consider whether the next steps will continue the forward momentum or whether they will signal a retreat from a progressive humanistic development agenda. We need a post-2015 anti-poverty initiative but the nature of the post-2015 MDG settlement has the potential to be as much part of the problem as part of the solution.

The global financial crisis that emerged in 2008 and its related financial and commodity price crises should have taught us some lessons. The fundamental lesson is that the economics that has for so long guided and shaped how we think about development has become profoundly misdirected and dysfunctional (Krugman 2009, Smith and Max-Neef 2011, Skidelsky and Skidelsky 2012). A narrow and anti-social conception of economics that has focused on economic growth and profits, almost at any cost, is generating more problems than we can cope with globally. One of those problems is the persistence of debilitating and destructive poverty for many men, women and children in countries around the world.

Lest this be misunderstood let me be clear that this is not a criticism of the insightful analysis or the many useful tools that economic science provides; it is a criticism of the way that economics and ideology have become fused at the level of policy and in public political narratives. This fusion provides a justification both for reckless profit-oriented public policy decisions and for individual behaviour that evidently produces damage to other human beings. This ideology is one that myopically champions individualistic gain as the driver of economic growth and relegates to secondary considerations the many problems that the individualistic pursuit of profit produces. Thus, in this approach to economic development we must deal with environmental damage as a global side-effect; we must deal with persistent chronic poverty for some people around the world as a discrete technical problem; and we must cope with the increasing levels of social and individual damage that our development path is producing as if it had nothing much to do with the economic policies that have been promoted by the ideology.

Development thinking and development measurement need to change and the post 2015 settlement can be part of that change. To do so will require a rethinking of our notions of what poverty is and how it is reproduced.

The 2015 MDG targets moved beyond income poverty measures and recognised that while income is important poverty is manifested in many dimensions. But while it moved towards a more human development conception of poverty the set of measures were still confined to a fairly safe and politically acceptable set of indicators. Different critics have different views about what indicators were missing and how the existing indicators were inadequately defined, but the major categorical dimension that was missing from the MDG set was measures of subjective human well-being. In other words, the views of what people themselves say they need and want development to be must be systematically brought into play.

So why should this subjective dimension be singled out for inclusion in the post 2015 settlement as a means of providing a way forward? I offer four reasons:

First, we know that income measures of development do not necessarily indicate the quality of societal progress or that people in a growing economy are experiencing a good quality of life. Nor is this problem solved simply by supplementing it with a limited range of human development and sustainable development indicators. The shift in how we measure development must be more radical. The Final Report of the Sarkozy Commission (2009) underlined this when they called for national statistics services to shift from the measurement of economic production to the measurement of human well-being.

Second, we know that people’s own views matter in how we understand poverty and how policy must be shaped to address it. The ‘Voices of the Poor’ exercise demonstrated the insight that is gained from hearing how people experience their poverty, but that was a periodic exercise and there is a need for the deliberations of policy makers to systematically engage with peoples’ own perceptions of their quality of life. These reports of experiences tell us not only about whether people are able to have and do enough of the things that they value, but also about their aspirations and what confounds these.

Third, we know that we must understand poverty not just as a static set of outcomes but as a process that is generated through economic, social and political relationships. But it is too difficult to capture all the relevant relationships in a limited set of indicators Quality of Life methodologies can offer us a way to identify the relationships that cause people to experience material poverty and a poor quality of life (see McGregor, Camfield and Woodhead 2009). Understanding the relationships of poverty draws to our attention what are often called the ‘intangible’ qualities of poverty. These intangibles are described by words such as indignity, injustice, exclusion, insecurity, vulnerability. But to call these intangible is not quite right, these are experienced as very real by poor men, women and children: they affect the quality of their lives as a whole and shape their prospects for a good future.

Fourth, we know that damaging and debilitating poverty is not just experienced by people in the poorest countries. The MDG targets have been criticised for encouraging a certain view of the global struggle against poverty as a ghetto problem - to be dealt with only in the poorest countries. But damaging and debilitating poverty exists in many countries and opening up the post-2015 agenda to the human and subjective dimensions of poverty means that we must look at how well people are doing in their lives in all countries. In a time of global economic austerity this is more important than ever since it is essentially the same social and political forces that undermine peoples’ abilities to achieve well-being and which generate increased levels of vulnerability and insecurity in all societies.

At this time, in the grip of extended global recession, there is greater need than ever before for policy makers and global thinkers to exercise imagination and to seize the opportunities of new thinking that present themselves in challenging times. The real challenge for the future for human well-being is no longer just to find ways for individuals to live well, but for us to find ways to live well together in the future. A progressive and sustainable-post 2015 MDG settlement could make an important contribution to that effort to live well together.


Clemens, M, Moss, T. and Kenny, C. (2004) ‘The Trouble with the MDGs: Confronting Expectations of Aid and Development Success.’ CDG Working Paper 40, Washington.

Krugman, P (2009) ‘How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?’ New York Times, September 6th (accessed 28.09.2012)

McGregor, J.A., Camfield, L. and Woodcock, A. (2009) ‘Needs, Wants and Goals: Wellbeing, Quality of Life and Public Policy.’ Applied Research in Quality of Life, Volume 4, Number 2, pp135-154.

Saith, A. (2006) ‘From Universal Values to Millennium Development Goals: Lost in Translation’. Development and Change 37(6): 1167/1199.

Sarkozy Commission Report (2009) Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. (accessed 28.09.2012)

Skidelsky, R. and Skidelsky, E. (2012) How Much Is Enough? The Love of Money, and the Case for a Good Life. Allen Lane; London.

Smith, P.B. and Max-Neef, M (2011) Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good. Green Books: Dartington.