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Copenhagen Consensus Center

The Millennium Development Goals

In September 2000 something quite remarkable happened. The world’s noblest aspirations to do good were channeled into something that was actually concrete and time-bound.

The so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were created just by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a close circle of aides, with little public deliberation or government participation. Annan and his staff worked behind closed doors with technocrats at the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the World Bank. The result was short and powerful: eight goals and 18 specific targets.

When 100 heads of state and 47 heads of government – then the largest meeting of world leaders in history – gathered in New York for the United Nations Millennium Summit, they agreed therefore on this simple, short list of ambitious promises.

These objectives set out targets that almost everyone in the world would agree are priorities: to reduce poverty and hunger, fight disease, get clean water, and get both boys and girls in school. All subject to a hard deadline: December 31, 2015

Over the next 15 years, governments, international institutions, and private foundations poured in billions of dollars more than they had before, specifically to achieve the simple list of targets. Global development aid alone almost doubled in real terms. Global funding for child health increased eight-fold from less than $1 billion annually in the 1990s to $8 billion in 2015. While we didn’t reach all of the targets, this huge investment unsurprisingly turbocharged progress.

Most importantly, this incredible progress helped real people live better lives — more children and mothers survived, fewer starved, and almost all children at least started school.

In fact, for most of the world’s poorer half, a study shows that the reduction in child deaths accelerated after the year 2000, and that this was likely because of the MDGs. Yes, deaths would have declined even in the absence of the MDGs, but the acceleration saved almost 19 million children’s lives over the period. That accelerated reduction now saves more than one million children each year. That is an incredible achievement and something we should cherish.

Most of the other MDG promises also saw incredible improvements, even if the MDGs were only partially to credit. Most kids got into schools, and this was true especially for girls. The world managed to reduce three of the biggest infectious disease killers, tuberculosis, malaria and HIV. It provided access to clean drinking water to 1.9 billion more people.

Perhaps the most important achievement was in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty means living at the edge of survival. You might have heard it defined as people living on less than a dollar a day, but that was a long time ago. Today, the equivalent limit is $2.15.

In 1990, 1.9 billion people — a third of the world — lived in such grueling circumstances. By 2015, this number had more than halved to 836 million. Today, it has been reduced further to 674 million. Over the past 32 years, poverty has declined by 113,000 people each and every day.[i] In the time it took you to read this sentence, another person escaped poverty.

Overall, the MDGs were a success. We didn’t achieve all of them — the promise was to cut child mortality from 12 million to 4 million, but it was ‘only’ cut to 6 million. Yet, the world was fundamentally a much better place in 2015. One simple way to measure this is by looking at average life expectancy. In 1990 it was 65 years. By 2015, we lived 7 years longer at 72 years.


[i] 37.8% poverty in 1990, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.DDAY?locations=XM-XN-1W, 5.29 billion, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=XM-XN-1W, so 2 billion. Now, 0.674 billion, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/september-2022-global-poverty-update-world-bank-2017-ppps-and-new-data-india, or 1.3 billion from 1990-2022, or 32 years. That is 113,494 people each day,