Global Learning Programme

Development context

The current development context: positive change

Over recent decades there has been the fastest reduction in poverty in human history. 

This unprecedented progress has been a combination of many factors including:

As a result of this progress:

The development challenge: extreme poverty

However, alongside these very positive changes there remain significant challenges, and extreme poverty remains throughout much of the developing world. Approximately 1.4 billion people still live in poverty and they account for the use of just over 1 per cent of the world’s resources. Whilst absolute poverty has reduced, there has been growing inequality between rich and poor in many countries and between countries. It is estimated that on current trends, 1% of the world’s population will own more wealth than the other 99% by 2016. In addition, in richer OECD countries (such as countries in Europe, North America, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.) the richest 10% of the population earn almost nine times the income of the poorest.

In addition, there are many significant challenges such as environmental sustainability, the impact of climate change, demographic change, conflict and civil war, and the global economic situation. These influence the actions to reduce poverty.

How much progress has been made on reducing poverty?

The UN has published a progress report on the eight Millennium Development Goals that were established in 2000. It indicates that substantial progress has been made in reducing poverty, but this varies across countries and within regions. It also suggests these goals were too narrow and failed to address the root causes of poverty and overlooked gender inequality. The goals made no mention of human rights and did not specifically address economic development. A summary of the assessment of each goal is given below.

  1. Eradicate poverty and extreme hunger
    In 1990, nearly half of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day; that proportion dropped to 14% in 2015.
  2. Achieve universal primary education
    Primary school enrolment rate has reached 91% in 2015, up from 83% in 2000. The target is close to being reached in all regions except sub-Saharan Africa. However, this region has made the greatest progress in enrolment.
  1. Promote gender equality and empower women
    In Southern Asia, only 74 girls were enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys in 1990. Today, 103 girls are enrolled for every 100 boys. Women have gained ground in parliamentary representation in nearly 90% of the 174 countries with data over the past 20 years.
  2. Reduce child mortality
    The global under-five mortality rate has declined by more than half, dropping from 90 to 43 deaths per 1000 live births between 1990 and 2015.
  3. Improve maternal health
    Since 1990, the maternal mortality ratio (deaths per 1000 births) has declined by 45% worldwide, and most of the reduction has occurred since 2000.
  4. Combat HIV, malaria and other diseases
    New HIV infections fell by approximately 40% between 2000 and 2013, from an estimated 3.5 million cases to 2.1 million. Over 6.2 million malaria deaths have been averted between 2000 and 2015, primarily of children under five years of age in sub-Saharan Africa.
  1. Ensure environmental sustainability
    In 2015, 91% of the global population is using an improved drinking water source, up from 76% in 1990. Of the 2.6 billion people who have gained access to improved drinking water since1990, 1.9 billion gained access to piped drinking water on premises.
    Ozone-depleting substances have been virtually eliminated since 1990, and the ozone layer is expected to recover by the middle of this century.
  2. Develop a global partnership for development
    Official Development Assistance increased by 66% in real terms between 2000 and 2014, reaching $135.2 billion.

What are the new 2015–30 Sustainable Development Goals?

Building on this progress, the international community has set out a new framework to eradicate poverty, address inequality and tackle climate change. The Sustainable Development Goals, which replace the MDGs, were adopted by the UN in September 2015. The 17 goals set out a plan of action for the period 2015 to 2030. The goals are:

  1. No poverty – To end poverty in all forms everywhere
  2. Zero hunger – End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Good health and well-being – Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Quality education – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Gender equality – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Clean water and sanitation – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Affordable and clean energy – Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Decent work and economic growth – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduced inequalities – Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Sustainable cities and communities – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Responsible consumption and production – Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Climate action – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Life below water – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Life on land – Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Peace, justice and strong institutions – Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Partnerships for the goals – Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

What is the response of the international community?

The MDGs were largely considered targets for poorer countries to achieve. Conversely, every country will be expected to work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals were also developed through wide consultation, and the resulting targets are for all member states to achieve.

Some countries feel that there are now too many goals with 169 ‘associated targets’ that are hard to measure and assess. One of the major challenges is to systematically collect data and measure results. However, there is a sense of optimism that new technologies and new ways of thinking about development can help to achieve these targets. There is an important shift away from current funding models to a future ‘beyond aid’ which focuses on fighting tax avoidance, local capacity building and job creation.

The UK has talked of a ‘golden thread’ in which governments, private enterprise and civil society work together to create open societies and economies, end conflict and corruption, and enshrine the rule of law, free speech and property rights. Building infrastructure and persuading Western banks to finance it are strands of the thread. (The Economist, 19 September 2015).

As the largest development donor to achieving the new goals, the US has emphasised that ‘the new chapter must not fall victim to the divide between developed and developing countries, nor the false choice between development and the protection of the planet’. Development was also threatened if the world did not recognise the potential of the African continent, or if it allowed wars and conflict to continue. In addition, development was threatened by climate change. It was the world’s poorest people who would bear the heaviest burden from rising seas, droughts, and increasingly frequent natural disasters. (Barack Obama, UN General Assembly, 27 September 2015).

India’s Prime Minister, Narenda Modi has claimed that much of India’s development agenda is mirrored in the Sustainable Development Goals. ‘It is not just about fulfilling the needs of the poor and upholding their dignity, nor about assuming moral responsibility for this, but realising that the very goal of a sustainable future cannot be accomplished without addressing the problem of poverty.’ (The BricsPost, 26 September 2015).

John Dramani Mahama, President of Ghana, stated that Ghana was an example of a country with two decades of consistent positive economic growth, adding that the last 15 years had helped to address socioeconomic inequalities and disparities in national, regional and global development. He pledged his country’s support and commitment to working towards the Sustainable Development Goals and making them a reality. (UN General Assembly, 27 September 2015).


Department for International Development

The Economist

The Guardian

UN Sustainable Development Goals