The Millennium Campaign: Successes and Challenges in Mobilizing Support for the MDGs

It was the best news for decades, when in 2000 world leaders acknowledged that the most urgent matter at the dawn of the new century was to put an end to poverty, and that the world has the resources and the know-how to do so. With the UN Millennium Declaration, the international community finally achieved the political consensus on what should be done by whom, after years of disagreements between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Governments, between international financial institutions and the United Nations system, and between the North and the South. Leaders repeatedly declared that they would "spare no effort" to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015.

The MDGs brought together for the first time a shared vision on development, representing a global partnership based on a shared responsibility by all countries. Developing countries have the primary responsibility for achieving these Goals. But rich countries acknowledged in MDG 8 -- develop a global partnership for development -- that poor countries cannot achieve the goal unless rich countries increase and improve the effectiveness of their aid and change the rules of trade to foster development. The MDGs can only be achieved if Governments of both rich and poor countries live up to their promises.

The MDGs have their limitations. They do not capture other commitments made in the Millennium Declaration on governance, transparency, participation and human rights, which are not simple to measure, but are essential for the achievement of the Goals. Furthermore, while the first seven MDGs reflect international consensus derived from earlier UN conferences, the content of MDG 8, involving rich countries' commitments, was only discussed and agreed internationally in other fora following the Millennium Summit, such as the Doha Development Agenda (2001), the Monterrey Consensus (2002) and the Paris Declaration (2005). However, the essence of these commitments was reaffirmed in the Outcome Document of the World Summit in 2005.

Global goals, local solutions. While the MDGs were set at the global level, they can only become meaningful if they are adopted and adapted for local relevance. The Goals should not be a "one-size-fits-all" cookie-cutter solution, but should be localized and customized to country circumstances. Priorities and the degree of ambition should be locally determined and owned. Achieving the MDGs on social services, such as education and health, can be fairly straightforward and would involve investing in these sectors at the country level. However, country-specific MDGs also require that the poverty goal is not neglected. This, in turn, involves a complex set of domestic and international policies, supported by investment leading to income generation through "decent work" in the productive sectors, particularly agriculture and agro-processing, which for nearly all least developed countries are crucial sectors for generating labour-intensive growth for the poor.

The UN Millennium Campaign. The MDGs have proven to be of great value as a framework for citizens' mobilization. Over the years, the United Nations has set some 50 goals for economic and social development. But the degree to which the "goals set" became "goals met" depended on citizens' support and the degree to which they were publicly recognized and "owned" beyond the development agencies and UN officials. In short, citizens' mobilization is key.

The MDGs will not be achieved at the United Nations. Although it can create a platform for Governments to make commitments, it cannot enforce compliance by Member States. Only the citizens and elected representatives can hold their Governments accountable for the promises they made at the United Nations. Obviously, the international community has the resources and the know-how to achieve the MDGs. At the Millennium Summit, agreement was reached on the division of labour between rich and poor countries. Thus, as UN Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon have repeatedly stated about the MDGs, "the lacking ingredient is political will".

Political action at the national level is essential. As politics and voters are local, achieving the MDGs needs to become an attractive "vote-getter" issue at the national level. But this requires awareness of the Goals and citizen advocacy to remind Governments of their promises. In 2002, Mr. Annan and former United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Mark Malloch Brown decided to launch a campaign for this purpose. In consultation with heads of all UN agencies, I was invited to create and lead this effort as an inter-agency UN initiative, but functioning at "arms length" from the UN system. It was the first time that the United Nations initiated an effort to build awareness of internationally agreed objectives, and to inspire and mobilize citizens to hold their Governments accountable for their achievement. The United Nations and the Millennium Campaign do not involve themselves in domestic partisan politics of Member States. The Campaign only focuses on helping to strengthen constituencies for pro-poor policies and advocacy for the implementation of promises already made, as embodied in the negotiated outcome documents of international meetings in which all Governments have joined the consensus. Living up to these promises requires public awareness and citizen advocacy, suggesting to political leaders that they will win, not lose, votes if they support policies to achieve the MDGs.

The Millennium Campaign convenes, informs and helps inspire and mobilize citizens and their organizations. In developing countries, these partnerships are focused on advocating for more pro-poor, inclusive and transparent policies to achieve MDGs 1 to 7. In rich countries, the focus is on more pro-development policies, as committed to in MDG 8, such as increased and more effective aid, debt relief and trade opportunities, as well as less trade distortion through agricultural subsidies. In country after country, the Campaign has partnered with local civil society, often already engaged in development, and reached out to other actors, local authorities, faith-based organizations, youth networks, unions and popular media like MTV, fostering the use of the MDGs as a common rallying framework for action.

At the international level, the Campaign has initiated civil society networking in the Global Coalition against Poverty and partnered with international networks, ranging from United Cities and Local Governments and multiple parliamentarian networks to the World Scout Movement, to promote awareness of the MDGs and action for their implementation. These efforts resulted in a host of local events and activities, promotion of the MDGs and many invitations to address relevant committees in national parliaments.

A global partnership for development. The work of the Millennium Campaign faces some of the same challenges of development cooperation: the perception that we are outsiders who demand visibility or claim credit and undermine local ownership that is critical to effectiveness. With this in mind, we have always been cautious to balance our work on the ground. The Campaign has successfully contributed to raising awareness of the MDGs and to rallying large numbers of people behind pro-poor policies by bringing on board a large part of civil society, including the Global Call to Action against Poverty, which at first was quite skeptical (in the North) or lacked ownership of the MDGS (in the South). Our strategy has also been to engage a wide range of actors, such as youth organizations, local authorities and faith-based organizations, many of whom did not have global poverty prominently on their agendas before.

All these efforts culminated in over 43.7 million people in 127 countries participating on 16 and 17 October 2007 to "Stand Up Against Poverty", which broke the Guinness World Record of 23.5 million set the previous year. People from all walks of life worldwide came together -- in schools, on the streets, marketplaces, in front of government buildings and local councils, in houses of worship, at sports and cultural events, public landmarks and workplaces, including at UN Headquarters in New York -- to stand up, physically and intentionally, against poverty, inequality and in support of the MDGs. In countries where participation and media coverage were extensive, politicians certainly are bound to pay attention. And as the credibility and legitimacy of the MDGs is reinforced as the most effective rallying point for meeting the development challenges, they figure more prominently on political agendas.

Not all Governments live up to their promises, but many in the South and the North are doing better than before. In developing countries, increased demands for accountability foster improved governance and transparency, which are key to the achievement of the Goals. MDG campaigns in "lagging" European Union countries have helped to cement the political will of EU members to set a timetable and deadline to achieve the 0.7-per-cent gross national income for development assistance. However, while various campaigns in the North have been successful in pressuring for an increase in aid budgets, the complexity of other MDG 8 components make them less suited for public discourse.

MDG 8 is not just about official development assistance. As promised in the Doha Development Agenda, rich countries need to reform their trade policies, which deny poor countries the chance to earn their way out of poverty by selling their products in rich consumer markets. Even worse, agricultural policies destroy their local markets: 70 per cent of the world's poor live in rural areas and depend on agriculture, but cannot lift themselves out of poverty as they cannot compete against subsidized production. Moreover, the delivery of aid matters as much as its volume: if it bypasses or undermines the developing countries' primary responsibility for development, it does not contribute and can undermine the achievement of the MDGs in a sustainable way. The attitude of "we will save Africa" or "we will end poverty" -- "we" referring to experts and money -- fits in perfectly with the myth of Western superiority, and even reinforces it. We lecture, you listen; we give, you receive; we know, you learn; we take care of things, because you cannot. By undermining Africans' own responsibilities and self-confidence, the donor community takes over.
The most important aid reform is realizing that donors do not develop; developing countries must develop themselves. This implies that the role of donors is to enable these countries to take full responsibility. At best, traditional donor-driven projects have been islands of perfection in the midst of oceans of misery; at worst, they would collapse back into the ocean once the donors left, since Governments usually could not afford to continue, for example, paying doctors or teachers, or even electricity bills. Moreover, each project burdened Governments with a host of rules and reporting requirements, draining weak local capacity and leaving them unable to run their own countries and be accountable to their citizens.

Aid by itself cannot "buy" the MDGs; particularly, "one project (or village) at a time" will not make a dent if it bypasses and ignores government policies and responsibilities. The good news is that, for the first time ever, donors have agreed that they are part of the problem and, as such, are willing to become part of the solution, allowing recipient countries to take on their responsibilities. In the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, the donor community signed concrete commitments -- with indicators and deadlines for their achievement -- to respect home-grown strategies and align donor support accordingly. All development partners agreed to work together to coordinate and harmonize procedures, and to do away with individual projects, evaluations and missions. On their part, developing countries recommitted themselves to exercise leadership in developing and implementing their national development strategies through broad consultative processes; make progress towards building institutions and establishing structures that deliver effective governance and equitable access to basic social services for their citizens; take leadership in the public financial management reform process; and intensify efforts to mobilize domestic resources.

Achievement of the MDGs will not happen unless the Governments of developing countries take full responsibility for their actions, work properly and are accountable to their own citizens. That is the "global deal", embedded in the division of labour in the MDGs, codified in the Monterrey Consensus and reconfirmed in numerous international conferences. Even in aid-dependent countries, aid is a minor part of the overall development finance and mobilization of domestic resources. Spending these resources well is the only way to ultimately finance the achievement of the Goals in a sustainable way.

This is what the MDGs are about: an agreement between rich and poor countries, each of which must be held accountable by their own respective citizens. In the North, the focus should be on trade and aid, ensuring that it supports home-grown and "owned" country strategies -- earmarking for certain goals is inconsistent with this. In the South, the focus should be on holding Governments to account for their efforts to achieve the MDGs, particularly for citizens who are most likely to need them: the excluded and most vulnerable.

When Governments live up to their promises, the results are remarkable. Even some of the poorest countries -- Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, United Republic of Tanzania -- are on track to achieve several MDGs, while Ghana is likely to achieve the eradication of poverty goal in 2008. The "secret" of these success stories is, on the one hand, donors supporting national policies and priorities generously and effectively and, on the other, improved policies -- MDGs adapted to become national goals, clear strategies translated into budget priorities, greater accountability and transparency at all levels, public debate and involvement and a focus on delivering results.

The global trends call for optimism. Historical estimates suggest that the number of extreme poor has been consistently above 1 billion since the late nineteenth century. Since then, the world population has quadrupled, but economic progress has overcome this demographic explosion. During the last decade, the number of extreme poor has fallen by 200 million, and present trends indicate that this figure will indeed be halved by 2015. More children go to school than ever before, with tens of millions more today than in 2000. Even if not all the Goals are achieved in every country on target, individual success stories and global acceleration call for celebration and prove that the MDGs are achievable -- if all Governments honour their pledges.