Eliminating Extreme Inequality: A Sustainable Development Goal, 2015–2030

By Joseph Stiglitz and Michael Doyle – March 20, 2014

Ethics & International Affairs

At the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000, UN member states took a dramatic step by putting people rather than states at the center of the UN’s agenda. In their Millennium Declaration,*1 the assembled world leaders agreed to a set of breathtakingly broad goals touching on peace through development, the environment, human rights, the protection of the vulnerable, the special needs of Africa, and reforms of UN institutions. Particularly influential was the codification of the Declaration’s development related objectives, which emerged in the summer of 2001 as the now familiar eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to be realized by 2015:2
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.3
• Halve the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day and those who suffer from hunger.
2. Achieve universal primary education.
• Ensure that all boys and girls complete primary school.
3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
• Eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015.
4. Reduce child mortality.
• Reduce by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under five.
5. Improve maternal health.
• Reduce by three-quarters the ratio of women dying in childbirth.
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
• Halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS and the incidence of malaria and other major diseases.
7. Ensure environmental sustainability.
• Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources.
• By 2015, reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water.
• By 2020, achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.
8. Develop a global partnership for development.
• Develop further an open trading and financial system that includes a commitment to good governance, development, and poverty reduction—nationally and internationally.
• Address the special needs of the least developed countries, and the special needs of landlocked and small island developing states.
• Deal comprehensively with the debt problems of developing countries.
• Develop decent and productive work for youth.
• In cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries.
• In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies—especially information and communications technologies.
As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan later described them, the MDGs were a remarkable effort in international coordination. They established common ground among competitive development agencies, inspired concerted action by international organizations and national governments, and offered an opportunity for citizens to insist that governments focus on the “we the peoples” they claimed to represent. In short, they transformed the agenda of world leaders.4
The MDG record has been mixed. Some goals, such as halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, have been met at the global level, but none have been fulfilled in all countries.
Fourteen years later, the MDG record has been mixed. Some goals, such as halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, have been met at the global level, but none have been fulfilled in all countries. Others, such as universal access to primary education, are unlikely to be achieved by 2015.5
However, while the accomplishment of these goals would have been an impressive achievement, even taken together they do not represent a complete or comprehensive vision of human development. They were constrained by what the member states could agree upon in 2000 and, in particular, they lacked a vision of equitable development.6 As the international community thinks about the set of goals that will follow the MDGs, it is time to address that shortcoming by adding the goal of “eliminating extreme inequality” to the original eight.
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