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Exploring the Transition from MDGs to the Broader, Bolder SDG Agenda

MDGs to SDGs

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – A Global Charge to End Poverty

As the new millennium dawned, world leaders came together at the United Nations to confront some of the greatest and most persistent challenges facing humanity – issues like extreme poverty, hunger, lack of education, gender inequality, child mortality, and environmental destruction. This historic gathering in September 2000 resulted in the Millennium Declaration – a powerful commitment to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity. From this emerged the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – an unprecedented and ambitious blueprint to meet the needs of the world’s poorest people by 2015.

The MDGs rallied countries around a common, unified cause – ending extreme poverty in all its forms. For the first time, the world had quantifiable, time-bound targets and an accompanying set of measurable indicators to work toward over the next 15 years. The eight goals were:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

This focused framework channeled global efforts and funding in a coordinated fashion. The MDGs emphasized three main areas – developing human capital through investments in education, health and job skills; building basic economic infrastructure like roads and information/communication technologies; and promoting human rights, governance and security. The overarching intent was to drastically improve living conditions and standards for those suffering deprivations.

The MDGs catalyzed some remarkable progress by 2015. According to the UN’s final MDG Report, the work accomplished on this global agenda proved the immense value of galvanizing efforts around an inspiring, yet practical vision:

  • More than 1 billion people were lifted out of extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $1.25/day), declining from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. This means the world met the target of halving the rate of extreme poverty.
  • The number of out-of-school children of primary school age fell by almost half, from 100 million in 2000 to an estimated 57 million in 2015.
  • New HIV infections fell by around 40% between 2000 and 2013.
  • The child mortality rate dropped by more than half between 1990 and 2015, with the lives of 48 million children under 5 saved.

These were historic and life-changing accomplishments that demonstrated the transformative power of setting concrete goals backed by focused strategies.

However, progress on the MDGs was uneven across regions and even within countries. Many nations struggled on certain goals, stymied by factors like conflict, displacement, weak institutions, lack of resources, and other complex challenges. While remarkable gains were made overall, the work remained unfinished in many areas as the 2015 finish line approached. Success stories tended to emerge in countries that owned the MDGs through dedicated policies, good governance, and adequate funding.

Recognizing that more work lay ahead, the UN pushed forward with an expanded vision – the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – An Integrated Agenda for People, Planet and Prosperity

Building on the momentum and lessons learned from the MDGs, the United Nations embraced an even broader ambition for 2030 – the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Adopted by 193 countries in September 2015, the SDGs represent a universal policy agenda to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure all people can enjoy peace and prosperity.

The SDGs are aspirational and transformative, with a core focus on inclusiveness to ensure no one is left behind. They aim to address the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in an integrated manner. The 17 interconnected goals are:


  • End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  • End hunger, achieve food security and promote sustainable agriculture
  • Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all
  • Ensure inclusive and quality education and promote lifelong learning
  • Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls


  • Ensure access to water and sanitation for all
  • Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy
  • Promote sustainable economic growth and decent work for all
  • Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  • Reduce inequalities within and among countries
  • Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  • Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources
  • Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss

Prosperity & Peace

  • Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies
  • Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Within these 17 overarching goals, there are 169 specific targets providing a comprehensive roadmap for achieving the SDGs by 2030. The scope is intentionally all-encompassing and indivisible, as the goals integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development – economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection.

For example, ending hunger (Goal 2) is directly linked to promoting sustainable agriculture practices (also Goal 2), ensuring clean water and sanitation (Goal 6), mitigating climate change (Goal 13), and fostering peace in regions devastated by conflict (Goal 16). Reaching one goal relies on making progress on the others in a coordinated fashion.

Critically, the SDGs are universally applicable to all countries – regardless of income levels. This represents a monumental shift from the MDGs which targeted developing countries. Instead, the SDGs enshrine a principle of universality and shared responsibility among all nations to take action, while still placing importance on prioritizing the needs of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations first.

The SDGs were crafted through over three years of intense, open negotiations and input from civil society organizations, businesses, scientists, and people from across the globe. This participatory, inclusive process gave the agenda a strong moral legitimacy. The vision is captured in the preamble: “a supremely ambitious and transformational vision…a call for action by all countries to promote prosperity while protecting the planet.”

To read up more on SDGs, check out – 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: A Roadmap for Global Transformation

Similarities Between the MDGs and SDGs

While more expansive in scope and ambition, the SDGs built directly upon the firm foundation established by the Millennium Development Goals in several key respects:

A Galvanizing Global Agenda: Like the MDGs before them, the SDGs aim to rally the world around a common 2030 agenda and shared vision of upholding human dignity, equality and sustainability. Having concrete, time-bound goals provides a motivating focus to channel actions and resources.

Targeted and Measurable: Both frameworks set specific, quantifiable targets to achieve by 2015 (MDGs) and 2030 (SDGs), along with indicators to measure progress in a systematic way. This allows all stakeholders to track advances, celebrate milestones and identify areas needing more effort.

Multi-Stakeholder: The goals are intended to be actionable not just for governments and international organizations, but to inspire commitments from businesses, civil society groups, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs and individuals. A participatory, bottom-up approach is viewed as essential.

Focus on Developing Countries: While the SDGs are globally applicable unlike the MDGs, developing nations remain a top priority. Eradicating extreme poverty, building human capital through investments in health/education, and fostering economic opportunities are seen as vital for these countries to progress.

Held to Account: The goals themselves and the accompanying monitoring frameworks ensure all stakeholders are held accountable for their role in driving progress. An objective evidence base identifies leaders and laggards motivating continual improvement.

Key Differences – How the SDGs Radically Expand over MDGs

While building on the MDGs’ foundation, the Sustainable Development Goals go far beyond the relatively narrow scope and developing country focus of their predecessor. The SDGs represent a comprehensive and universal agenda for sustainable development across all nations. Let’s explore some of the critical differences:

Scope and Breadth: The 8 MDGs had a unidimensional focus on halving extreme poverty, hunger, disease, lack of education and environmental degradation. While important areas, this limited scope missed other crucial development factors.

In contrast, the 17 SDGs take a holistic, multidimensional approach spanning 169 integrated targets across the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. The goals address the root causes of poverty, inequality, unhealthy lifestyles, unsustainable consumption patterns, weak institutional capacity, and environmental destruction.

In addition to an expanded scope, the SDGs priorities also differ substantially from the MDGs, putting much greater emphasis on inclusive economic growth, sustainable production and consumption, climate action, ocean conservation, resilient cities, and governance/justice issues like corruption and human rights.

Universal Applicability: A core philosophical difference is that the MDGs targeted developing countries, with more prosperous nations expected to provide funding, technology and other support. This dichotomy created a linear, donor-recipient dynamic.

The SDGs, on the other hand, are universally applicable to all countries regardless of income levels. Every nation has sustainable development challenges to address and shares responsibility for achieving the 2030 agenda through national implementation efforts tailored to their specific situations. This conveys a more equitable approach focused on collaboration.

Principle of Inclusion: Reducing inequality and ensuring no one is left behind are central principles embedded throughout the SDG framework. The goals put a rights-based focus on reaching the poorest, most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups first (such as women, minorities, refugees, indigenous peoples, the disabled, etc.).

The SDGs originated through an unprecedented, open and inclusive multi-year process bringing together voices from governments, civil society, businesses, scientists and citizens worldwide. In contrast, the MDGs were primarily shaped by a smaller group of technical experts.

Integrated Implementation: The MDGs tended to be implemented in a siloed fashion, with governments picking selected goals aligning with national priorities. But the 17 SDGs are explicitly designed as an interconnected system – the goals and 169 targets are indivisible and intended to be implemented in an integrated way to minimize trade-offs and drive multiple benefits across focus areas.

For example, making progress on Goal 13 (Climate Action) creates positive impacts for achieving Goals 3 (Health), 6 (Water), 7 (Energy), 11 (Cities), 14 (Oceans) and 15 (Biodiversity). The goals are deeply interconnected in both substance and spirit.

To illustrate some of the key differences, here is a comparison chart:

Criteria Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Number of Goals


8 goals 17 goals


Number of Targets


21 targets 169 targets
Timeframe 2000 – 2015 2015 – 2030
Geographic Scope Developing Countries Universal (All Countries)


Key Focus Areas Poverty, Hunger, Education, Health, Gender, Environment


Multidimensional – Economic, Social and Environmental
Principle Basic Needs Sustainable Development


Origination Process Technical Experts Participatory, Multi-Stakeholder Negotiations


Implementation Siloed Integrated

In essence, the SDGs take the world’s development agenda to an entirely new level of complexity, universality and ambition. While challenging, proponents believe this comprehensive, indivisible approach is exactly what’s needed to create lasting change and achieve human and planetary sustainability. Book a demo today!


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