Who talked (and thought) about the Millennium Development Goals?

Editor's note:

The final version of this paper was published in April 2018 in the journal Global Policy.

In September 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being adopted as the world’s shared global economic, social, and environmental agenda through 2030. They will build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of development targets that gradually became the common reference point for global policy efforts after being established at the U.N. Millennium Summit in September 2000.

The 17 SDGs reflect the complexity of the world’s challenges. On one level, they focus on finishing the job of the MDGs, i.e., the “second half” of eliminating extreme poverty. On another, they broaden the agenda to include global priorities not addressed by the MDGs, such as inequality, infrastructure, and peace and justice, alongside a better articulation of global environmental priorities. They also break down the barriers between developed and developing countries, setting out a universal agenda through which global absolutes are married with country-specific contexts.

A considerable amount of public dialogue will be required to translate the international agreements into practical forms of implementation. Analysis, deliberation, and debate will need to span public officials, academic communities, and engaged citizens alike.

To that end, it is a useful juncture to take stock of the recent history of MDG-focused public conversations and how they might inform opportunities for the SDGs. In this paper, we do so by examining three categories of print publications: major English-language newspapers; leading academic journals across a variety of relevant disciplines; and policy research papers produced by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank.

In evaluating these publications, we ask three simple questions:

  1. Have there been discernible trends in media references to the MDGs—by year, publication, and
  2. Have there been discernible trends in MDG references across academic journals and disciplines?
  3. How does the early pattern of MDG media references compare to the emerging early pattern of
    SDG media references?

For context, this paper does not aim to present a complete assessment of all MDG-related public media conversations. Instead, it focuses on the frequency of MDG references across articles published by a cross section of prominent newspapers, academic journals, and multilateral development bank research papers. Note that the search procedure does not require the MDGs to be the actual focus of an article in order to be counted; rather, the MDGs need only to be mentioned. The methodology thereby reflects an expansive notion of “MDG coverage,” the term we use in this paper to include both articles that might concentrate on the MDGs as objectives and those that might simply mention the MDGs as a reference point.

The paper proceeds in six sections. Following this introduction, Section II describes data sources and methods. Results begin in Section III, which considers MDG coverage in major newspapers. Section IV considers a cross section of prominent academic journals. Section V examines research papers produced by multilateral development banks. Section VI presents a brief discussion and conclusion.

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