Skip to Content

Power of Numbers initiative offers important insights for post-2015 agenda


As the debate gets underway on a new set of sustainable development goals, targets and indicators to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015, an initiative led by CESR board chair Alicia Yamin and CESR board member, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr offers some timely and important guidance on the implications of target-setting and measurement of progress from a human rights perspective.

'The Power of Numbers: A Critical Review of MDG Targets for Human Development and Human Rights' explores how global goal-setting under the MDGs has shaped international development priorities and thinking. It analysis both the empirical effects of the MDG targets on policy priorities and their normative effects on policy discourses around the means to achieve important human development objectives.  

An overview document sets out the findings of the initiative, coordinated by Alicia Yamin (Lecturer on Global Health and Director of the Program on the Health Rights of Women and Children at the Fran??ois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University) and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (Professor of International Affairs at The New School). Eleven MDG-related targets were studied in depth by 17 scholars from around the world. The project finds that, as well as mobilizing attention and effort around important poverty-related objectives, quantitative goal-setting under the MDGs has had unintended consequences, such as distorting priorities by displacing attention from other objectives, disrupting on-going programs as well as advocacy alliances, creating perverse incentives and undermining alternative analyses and policy strategies.  

The authors recommend that both positive and negative lessons from experience be kept in mind in the design of new goals and targets under the post-2015 agenda. These lessons are set out in more detail in a complementary paper, 'Lessons for Setting Targets and Agreeing Indicators'. It finds that the criteria which guided the selection of MDG goals, targets and indicators were insufficient and often in direct conflict with human rights principles and priorities. It analyses the criteria proposed in the Rio+20 Outcome Document as well as by the Un Secretary General??s High Level Panel, and outlines the desirable characteristics of any future goals, targets and indicators from the perspective of the different functions they are intended to serve, whether political mobilization, programming, progress monitoring or strengthening human rights accountability. It recommends the adoption of metrics more capable of monitoring the human rights dimensions of development progress, including equality of outcomes as well as opportunities; vulnerability, insecurity and exclusion; and meaningful participation, voice and accountability.

The initiative is a particularly valuable contribution to the debate on measurement in relation to sustainable development and human rights objectives. It is also very timely, as the UN??s Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals meets to discuss these issues.

For more on the outcomes of the recent Open Working Group session on human rights, and CESR??s advocacy around it, see here.  CESR??s proposals regarding the criteria that should inform the selection of goals, targets and indicators are discussed in the publication, 'Who Will Be Accountable? Human Rights and the Post-2015 Development Agenda', published with OHCHR in May 2013.