All of the first seven Millennium Development Goals had very specific targets, such as reducing child mortality by two-thirds, halting the spread of AIDS, and eliminating gender disparities in education. The eighth and final goal, however, is a little different. Instead of a set of tangible benchmarks, it serves more as a road map for how the rest of the seven goals might be achieved.
MDG 8 broadly asks for a hodgepodge of systemic fixes, like creating fair and transparent financial system, focusing on the special needs of the least developed countries, and cutting debt of developing world governments. Plus there’s also a section about making pharmaceuticals cheaper globally and increasing access to technology, especially phones and the Internet. Instead of hard targets, it has soft suggestions, making it harder to measure its success or failure, except insofar as the other goals were achieved–and a framework was created to help countries better address the Sustainable Development Goals over the next 15 years.
The first goal of MDG 8 was to “develop further an open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system.” Things here certainly have improved (if your goal, as the UN’s is, to increase free trade. Some would disagree). Today, 79% of imports from the developing world into the developed world come in tariff-free, a drastic increase form 54% in 1995. On the other hand, while the benchmarks associated with this goal are all trade-related, it’s safe to say that the world financial system at large is no more “rule-based” or “predictable” than it was in 2000.
The second part of MDG 8 was to address the special needs of least developed countries and developing landlocked countries, primarily through foreign aid. Aid to these least developed countries (most of which are in sub-Saharan Africa) increased as a percent of the developed world’s gross national income, though by 2011, only five countries–Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden–hit the UN’s goal of giving 0.7% of their gross national product in development aid.
But the real question is, did this aid help us get closer to achieving the other MDGs? Writing in a paper for the UN’s High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, Charles Kenny and Sarah Dykstra say that “overall aid flows appear to be at best weakly associated with the rate of progress in MDG target areas.” In other words, the progress was probably happening anyway. But they also note that aid certainly helped: “Aid may have been important in sustaining historical rates of progress. Second, it might be that particular [aid may] have played a major role, funding through the Education for All Initiative may have increased primary completion, for example, and health spending may have reduced maternal mortality.”
As for the rest of MDG 8’s goals, the developed world has done good work forgiving the debt of developing world governments and the crushing debt for those countries is much less of an issue than it was when the MDGs were launched (though, tell this to Greece or Spain). The availability of pharmaceuticals has improved somewhat, and with that, there’s been a decrease in common communicable disease. However, actually getting the drugs into patients–even when developing world countries have access to them–remains a difficult problem. Finally, the mobile revolution means that 95% of the Earth is covered in cellular signal, and there are 7 billion phones. Internet access is spottier, with only 43% penetration globally. Access to these technologies remains difficult in the world’s least developed countries, however, creating a global digital divide that is only widening.
Given its lack of concrete deliverables, judging MDG 8’s success is impossible. Its encouragement of governments to give more aid, forgive debt, and treat developing countries fairly as trading partners are all important factors in creating a more equitable global system that could achieve the success the world had in the other seven MDGs. But it’s just an improvement on the same global system that created the need for the MDGs in the first place–and will that system ever become equitable enough to truly solve its own issues?