Reflection on the Millennium Development Goals and looking forward to the post-2015 development agenda

In September 2000, a decade of United Nations conferences and summits culminated in world leaders coming together to formulate the United Nations Millennium Declaration, which became known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The goals committed the nations to a new global partnership, which would seek to reduce poverty and set out targets to be achieved by 20151. Two of the MDGs focus specifically on education; one stating that by 2015, children everywhere should be able to complete a full course of primary school education, and another focussed on promoting gender equality in education.

In addition, education has undoubtedly played an important role in achieving the other MDGs. Any reflections on education post-2015 must therefore take into account the link between education and development2.

The Millennium Development Goals committed nations to a new global partnership, which would seek to reduce poverty and set out targets to be achieved by 2015.

UNESCO has examined the role of education in the Development Goals. The main points highlighted can be summarised as follows:

Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

One year of schooling can increase that person’s chance of gaining employment by 10 percent3. It provides people with the knowledge and skills needed to increase their income and expand employment opportunities.

Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education

Enrolment in primary school education reached 90 percent in 2010, compared to 82 percent in 1999, in developing regions. However, by 2011, 57 million children of primary school age were not attending school, and, by 2012, one in ten children were still not attending primary schools4.

Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women

Equality in education plays an important role in empowering women, and the enrolment of girls in schools has increased in countries such as Bangladesh and India. However, there is still a signi cant imbalance and 54 percent of the world’s out-of-school population are girls.

Goal 4: Reduce child mortality

Evidence shows a strong link between educating women and girls and higher maternal and child life expectancy, as well as improvements in their child’s general health and nutrition.

Goal 5: Improve maternal health

Girls who are educated are more likely to seek antenatal care, and to make better health-related decisions, reducing the chances of fatality during child birth.

Goal 6: Combat HIV, Aids, malaria and other diseases

Education provides knowledge and information, which can greatly improve the chances of a person protecting themselves against diseases such as HIV and Aids.

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability

Education for sustainable development (ESD) is important in ensuring that education covers key issues such as climate change, poverty reduction and protection of indigenous people, among other issues. Education can make people think about the effect that their behaviour in the present day may have on future generations.

Goal 8: Develop global partnerships for development

In working together and making education a priority for both developed and developing countries, the nancial gap which currently hinders education can be reduced.

Education clearly, therefore, has had a positive impact on the achievement of the MDGs. In many respects, the MDGs have been successful; by 2010 the number of people living in extreme poverty had reduced by half, and in 2014 the number of children enrolled in primary school education has increased dramatically, and treatment for illnesses such as malaria and AIDS has greatly increased5.

However, it is di cult to know exactly how much closer the world is to ful lling the goals, largely due to the fact that most gures are based on projections and estimates, rather than actual data6, which can be very costly and di cult for developing countries to collect.

Post-2015 Agenda

Focus is now on a post-2015 development agenda and putting sustainable development goals in place. In respect of education, a major hindrance of the MDGs has arguably been that they focus on primary school education rather than primary and secondary education. Keeping children in education through secondary as well as primary school is essential to ensuring that they do receive adequate education.

A further problem with the MDGs is that the focus of the goals has been enrolment numbers. These numbers become insigni cant when the children are enrolled to begin with, and are then taken out of school and fall out of the education system. In focussing on the numbers of children enrolled in education, the MDGs detract from improving the quality of education that children receive. While it is evidently important that the numbers of children attending school increase, it is equally important that once they are actually attending school, they are receiving a quality education.

It has been widely recognised that the primary enrolment goal of the MDGs is an inadequate way of assessing primary education, and is not a reflection on learning. That there has been an increase in enrolment is, of course, an achievement, but it does not tell us whether children are actually learning7.

There also need to be methods for monitoring which give a true reflection of progress on a timely basis so that corrective action can be taken. The current goals have focussed on averages, rather than the performance of the poorest sections of society8.

The strategic litigation undertaken by the LRC has undoubtedly improved education for children in South Africa, and has obliged the government to invest in education when it otherwise would have delayed or failed to have done so.

It should not be the case that a child is forced to resort to the courts to be able to realise his or her right to education. The post-2015 agenda should reaffirm the fundamental principle of education as a human right, essential to the realisation of other rights, sustainable development and the eradication of poverty. Education needs to be placed at the forefront of governments’ priorities and implementation strategies – including the securing of sufficient nancial and other resources necessary. This is essential to secure the right of all children and youth to education that enables effective learning for life and livelihood.


  2. Unesco: “Position paper on Education Post – 2015”
  3. leading-the-international-agenda/education-for-all/ education-and-the-mdgs/goal-1/
  4. Data from education.shtml
  5. McArthur, John: “Own the Goals: What the Millennium Development Goals have accomplished,” http://www. dev-goals-mcarthur
  6. Lomborg, Bjorn, “Monitoring progress towards Sustainable Development Goals” Mail & Guardian, 16th October 2014:
  7. Interview with Richard Morgan, UNICEF Senior Adviser on the post-2015 development agenda, in “Post – 2015 Education MDGs,” Results for Development Institute, August 10 2012
  8. “Post–2015 Education MDGs,” Results for Development Institute, August 10 2012