Inaugurated in the year 2000, the millennium development goals preceded the sustainable development goals and aimed to tackle poverty like never before. But were they achieved and what was the role of sport?


What were the millennium development goals (MDGs)?

In September 2000, 189 countries signed the Millennium Declaration at the United Nations headquarters in New York. This set out to achieve ground-breaking targets on eight goals covering poverty, education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, disease, the environment and global partnership. Each goal had 21 targets and more than 60 indicators. Nothing comparable had been tried before; this was the first time the global community had set concrete goals to tackle the world’s most pressing issues.

Something which sometimes causes confusion is the fact that the measuring period for most targets did not start in the year 2000, but was for 1990 to 2015. This was primarily for three reasons. First, most of the MDG targets were derived from the global conferences of the 1990s, which used 1990 as a baseline. Second, data for 2000 was not available for many countries when the MDGs were launched and would not be for several years. Finally, though the goals were created to change historical trajectories, the UN wanted targets which seemed ambitious but achievable.


Were the millennium development goals achieved?

  • MDG 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
    The target to reduce rates of extreme poverty – people living on less than 1.25 USD per day – was met five years ahead of the 2015 deadline. 1.9 billion people lived in extreme poverty in 1990; by 2015, the figure was 836 million. The proportion of undernourished people worldwide fell from 23.3% in 1990 to 12.9% in 2015, meaning the target was narrowly missed.
  • MDG 2: Achieve universal primary education
    Primary school enrolment figures rose from 83% in 2000 to 91% in 2015. This means 111 million more people completed primary school than would have if 1990s trends had continued; however, it falls short of the 100% target.
  • MDG 3: Promote gender equality and empower women
    Around two-thirds of developing countries achieved gender parity in primary education. This represents some big improvements, but falls short of the goal to achieve full parity. Gains were smaller in secondary and tertiary education. There were also gains in the number of women in paid employment and proportion of female parliamentarians, but these were not transformative.
  • MDG 4: Reduce child mortality
    The global child mortality rate fell from 90 to 43 deaths per 1,000 live births between 1990 and 2015. This is a significant achievement but falls short of the targeted drop of two-thirds.
  • MDG 5: Improve maternal health
    The global mortality rate decreased by 45% between 1990 and 2015, with most of the progress occurring after the turn of the century. The biggest improvement was in Southern Asia, where there was a 64% decrease. The global target, however, was two-thirds.
  • MDG 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
    The number of new HIV infections fell by 40%, short of the aim to halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS. The global mortality rate fell by an estimated 37%, and the mortality rate by 58%.
  • MDG 7: Ensure environmental sustainability
    The target of halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of drinking water was met five years ahead of schedule, in 2010. 2.1 billion people also gained access to improved sanitation compared to 1990 and the proportion of people living in slums in developing countries fell from around 39.4% in 2000 to 29.7% in 2015.
  • MDG 8: Develop a global partnership for development
    Official development assistance from upper-income countries grew by 66% in real terms between 2000 and 2015. Five countries – Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom – reached the United Nations target of 0.7% of gross national income.


The verdict

Some important targets – for example, on the rates of people living in extreme poverty and with access to improved drinking water – were met. Many, however, were not. 16,000 children continue to die every day from preventable causes, 160 million under-fives have stunted growth because of undernourishment and almost half of the global workforce is employed in vulnerable conditions.

These figures nonetheless should not distract our attention on what has and can be achieved. Even where targets were not met, huge progress was made, which tells an important human story. Research from Brookings suggests that 21 million extra lives were saved due to an accelerated rate of progress after the year 2000. More than 111 million people completed primary school compared to 1990s trends, and 471 million extra people were lifted from extreme poverty.

The figures therefore show a mixed picture – one where millions of lives were improved, but where we still have a long way to go until everyone enjoys an acceptable standard of living.


What was the role of sport?

The 15 years of the millennium development goals was the time when sport and development really emerged as a force. When the goals were launched, the concept of sport as a tool to address social challenges was just beginning to gain ground. Governments and United Nations agencies began to discuss the topic more frequently at the end of the 1990s, and the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) was created in 2001.

Sport did not form a major part of the discussions when conceptualising the MDGs, and was not mentioned in the Millennium Declaration. However, in 2003, a UN inter-agency task force published a report focusing on sport’s contribution to the MDGs. It recommended that sport “should be better integrated into the development agenda” and described it as a “viable and practical tool to support the achievement of the MDGs”.

This publication laid the groundwork for UN resolution 58/5 on 3 November 2003, which led to 2005 being proclaimed as the International Year of Sport and Physical Activity. During this year, the UN called upon governments, the private sector, civil society and others to research ways to integrate sport into their programmes and publish their findings.

The first two high-level conferences on the topic took place in 2003 and 2005 in Magglingen, Switzerland. These added to the feeling that recognition of sport’s contribution to the MDGs was growing, and led to the 2003 creation of, which helped to highlight the growing number of organisations working on sport and development throughout the MDG era.

Later, the UNOSDP sought to show how sport could contribute to the goals, while others, such as the Berghof Foundation, provided recommendations on how to best use sport within the MDG framework but no research has fully assessed the contribution of sport to the MDGs. However, between 2000 and 2015 there was a proliferation of organisations using sport and wider recognition of it as a tool. By 2013, the sector had its own observance day - the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace. The MDGs era was the period when sport and development began to come of age.

The Commonwealth


This section was developed in partnership with the Commonwealth.