The Relationship between Human Rights and the MDGs

Even though the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) seem to be compatible with human rights, especially the social and economic rights, there still exists a substantial overlap in the focus that brings about the suggestion that goals may raise the social and economic rights standards. Those goals comprise quantitative and precise standards based on which all governments have made commitments. There has been a significant development since the quantitative strategies have been taken, but only associated with the rights to social security, as well as the right to labour under the conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

There have been concerns about how the goals were designed and implemented from a human right perspective, particularly from the millennium declarations. In some instances, these goals appear to be lower than the human rights standards. For example, the goal of achieving universal primary education does not necessarily require that primary education should be free-of-charge. On the other hand, the almost universally ratified convention on the fair trade goals in the millennium declaration became a free trade in the MDGs. Also, the minimum human rights standards are likely to be higher than most of the quantitative targets in the middle-income countries.

Furthermore, the MDGs do not pay sufficient attention to inequality, marginalized groups, the poorest of the poor, and the rights of women. It appears that global and national power inequalities have been glossed over, and there appears to be no quantitative targets for the goal of developing global partnership for development, rather, the goal tends to reflect a strong technocratic focus. However, most of the targets can be achieved without addressing extreme poverty of the most neglected people in the society even though they may be too low or too high for others. Although a greater focus on poverty reduction in the donors’ policies could look like success itself. For some people, the MDGs were more a donor-driven agenda.

Human Right Approach

In response to this critique, there is a need for states and donors to adopt human rights approaches to the goals that are strengthened by evidence of almost total absence of human rights in the MDGs. According to the study conducted in 2005, there is a discrepancy in the ways how human right issues are handled within the context of the MDGs. However, when examining the programmatic side from the policy domain, a discrepancy between the actual program content and the rhetorical references to human rights become more evident. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) established a human right approach to the MDGs.

This approach was suggested to be implemented by:

  • Aligning the MDGs with the human rights by combining the indicators and targets with the human rights standards.
  • Prioritizing the human rights by making resource-allocation decisions and policy choices within the relevant framework.
  • Being transformational and not being technocratic in the application of a human rights-based approach to participation and empowerment.
  • Redefining the goals through ensuring sustainability strategies, enforceable rights, and accountability mechanisms.

Furthermore, the outcome of the 2005 World summit contained unprecedented and clear commitments by the member-states in order to mainstream human rights in their national policies. Some of the goals were redefined in 2007. One of the most notable steps was the inclusion of a target on reproductive rights based on improving maternal health. There have been some obvious global failures that are prevalent in the case of the negotiation on the Doha Declaration.

More so, there is the need to know the MDGs dimensions and strategies that are consistent with the human rights approaches and to identify the missing elements. In this regard, it has been argued that states should align the MDG targets and indicators in accordance with the international human rights standards. The five subjects were analysed based on the MDG report on Africa. The analysis was aimed at bringing together the major themes identified in the five subjects, as well as the trends that are evident in those goals that are not discussed herein. However, it is organized based on the main elements of the human rights approach to the MDGs, as well as the main cross-cutting themes that are identified under each of them. This partly explains the reason why poverty eradication in African cannot be achieved without the human right principles of inequality and non-discrimination.

Aligning the Targets of the MDGs with Human Rights

In order for states to achieve the MDGs, it was recommended that MDG indicators and targets should be aligned with the international human rights. States should align them with the relevant economic and social rights, as well as obligations to ensure that the targets and indicators address the human rights of women and the discriminated groups. The African countries could adopt additional goals that are related to the human rights goals. In this regard, Mongolia is used as an example because it has adopted the ninth goal on governance and democracy.

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Examples of Alignment

The case of the MDG-plus model of Thailand is one of the most significant examples of aligning the MDG targets with the situation of the country and human rights obligations. The model adopted 9 out of the 11 domestic targets. For example, there was an extension of the goal of universal education from primary to secondary education. There was a reduction in the income poverty level to 4% among the population of the country. There were more specific targets that were set for women, such as doubling the women’s quota in the Parliament, civil service executive positions, and administrative organizations by 2006. Also, regions were marginalized. There was the reduction in the mortality rate in the highland areas by half.

In Africa, a positive innovation was associated with the water and sanitation sector of Kenya. The six targets were set for 2008 at a multi-shareholder conference in November 2007. These targets included a 10% increase in coverage in each region of the country. As it was made clear in the MDG report of 2005, only 22% of the population had access to safe water in the north-eastern part of the country, comparing the rural average of 49% and the urban average of 89%. However, Nairobi has been listed as having an excess figure of 92.6%, yet two-third of the population living in the informal settlements do not have access to safe water. The population relies only on vendors selling water of suspicious qualities, as well as using illegal connections or polluted dams.


Most countries outside Sub-Saharan Africa are planning to provide universal primary education by 2015, whereas some have already achieved this goal. Malawi and Kenya have also introduced free primary education as a strategy. Some of the African countries have also set additional targets for secondary education. Setting goals for secondary education is also feasible in Africa despite slower progress evidenced in primary education. It is suggested that these goals have no ambition for many countries despite the need for full coverage. This is certainly less than the requirements under the international human rights treaties. It seems as if no country determined any goal for other aspects of the right to education, such as making the primary education free, compulsory, as well as with some specific qualities. However, there were no attempts made to define the targets for education or to measure the affordability of primary education.


However, while there are some adjustments to account for inequality in the distribution of food, they do not give a very reliable indicator for the actual household food security or individual food consumption as reflected in many of the MDG reports. According to the analysis on the MDGs targets, it was revealed that the indicator for undernourishment was problematic to the extent that it measured food availability. According to the reviewed MDG reports, there were two common features that were considered: the need for additional indicators and the lack of disaggregation. None of these features provided disaggregated data on ethnicity, gender, indigenous or agro-ecological zones, rural/urban or administrative regions, caste, class, or religion. No country managed to introduce some additional indicators and targets for the policies that are critical for addressing hunger, such as social security or access to land.

Income Poverty

There has been criticism associated with the income poverty target by many commentators based on several reasons. It has been argued that having a dollar-a-day poverty line is a very modest goal based on a historic perspective. However, it is expected that the goal is most likely to be reached the global level by 2015. The World Bank confirmed this suspicion in August 2008 by releasing poverty figure that were in accordance to the 2005 data on the cost of living. The recent rise in the food and oil prices suggests that this figure will increase in the future. Some figures confirm that about 400 million people will live below the adjusted poverty measure of $1.25 per day. More so, it was predicted by the scholars that by the end of the year 2010, the global economic crisis would leave about 64 million people in extreme poverty, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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Moreover, there is the need to find out whether the adapted targets are adequately linked to the states’ obligation to achieve progressively the equal rights to an adequate standard of living based on their maximum available resources as stated in the Article of the International Covenant on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights. The 2005 MDG report predicted an increase in income poverty in Kenya from 56% in 2000 to 65.9% in 2015, which makes the target of 10% unrealistic.

Another major criticism concerning the income poverty is that without improving the situation of the poorest of the poor or discriminated, the target can still be achieved. Also, there are no targets set within the first millennium development goal for concrete measures, such the coverage of the social safety nets. In any case, neither the dollar-a-day nor the above-mentioned indicator is required to be measured in a disaggregate way, and thus, no global targets are defined to reduce the severity of the poverty.
Water and Sanitation

According to the MDG reports and the sectorial strategies reviews, some attempts have been made to align implicitly and explicitly the MDGs with the right to safe water, as well as the regional and international human rights standards that are associated with sanitation. The additional indicators, such as the number of affordability and disconnections are required to be considered while defining the targets. Kenya and South Africa have set targets for universal access to clean water and improved sanitation to be achieved by 2015. In South Africa, the legal and constitutional obligations to realize the right to sanitation and water predate the goals. This explains the reason why the MDGs’ debate concerning South Africa is not relevant in this sector.

In some municipalities in South Africa, there is close to basic universal access to improved sanitation and clean water, but the inhabitants of the informal settlements must wait for more than a decade in order to have adequate clean water due to the number of upgraded housing. Quality is not measured directly based on the indicator and the assumption that safe water is likely to be provided by the improved sources rather than unimproved ones is misleading. However, there are other ways through which human rights can fill the gaps in monitoring the goal while the target explicitly refers to the access to safe drinking water. In order to monitor the targets, the collected data need to be disaggregated by the urban/rural areas. It should be noted that further disaggregation is indispensable in order to identify effectively discrimination on all prohibited grounds based on the human rights treaties. Therefore, it is essential to separate data by gender and wealth quintile.

Maternal Mortality

The services of skilled birth attendants are highly problematic and usually misleading since maternal mortality is highest in those countries with the poor systems of the data collection. In 2004, Uganda commissioned an emergency obstetric care assessment that revealed that only 23.9% of the national needs were met; though, it was acknowledged that it should be 100%. However, more accurate indicators included in the 1997 guidelines for monitoring the use and availability obstetric services provide more accurate measurement for sufficient quality, availability of the services and equitable distribution. However, one of the major causes of maternal mortality in some African countries is the lack of information and gender inequality.

Global Partnership

The importance of global partnership in the national or MDG reports of donor countries can never be overemphasized. Many donors’ reports tend to list development help programmes and projects without fully assessing how they are systematically addressing the range of issues raised in the MDGs.

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Despite the fact that there is an identified absence of time-bound and quantitative benchmarks for this particular goal, its framework for accountability needs to be significantly strengthened from a human rights perspective.

By incorporating the human rights principles and standards for non-discrimination and equality into the Millennium Development Goals and national development strategies, governments stand a better chance of achieving the goals. These human rights obligations and standards put the government at the service of its people in order to ensure that everybody benefits from the growth and enjoys a decent life. Human rights and development policies use different but complementary strategies and tools to achieve the same purpose. This also helps in realizing the vision of the UN Charter for more equal and just world. While economic growth is the priorities of development strategies, human rights establish legal guarantees that are universally accepted for the protection of freedom and equality among people.

More so, it was pointed out by the UN Secretary-General at the UN summit in September 2010 that the promise that there will be accelerated progress in meeting the MDGs can be fulfilled by adhering to the standards contained in the International human rights instrument. The human rights standards provide the base for particularly engaging the major human rights principle of accountability, meaningful participation and discrimination. The principles should drive both global and domestic efforts of achieving development goals. However, just as it seems impossible successfully to achieve the MDG in isolation from each other, the human rights principles are complementary and must not be neglected.

Development is more likely to be attained when the relevant components and people are included in the process. The involvement of people and communities helps the government better understand what it should be done by them. In this regard, policies are more responsive to people, helping the government to be more accountable. In order for everybody to benefit from the development, governments must fight against discrimination that marginalizes some groups by making sure that everybody is meaningfully and actively participating in the development process. The aim of development is usually defeated when its benefits fail to reach the individuals or groups that are systematically disempowered, excluded, discriminated and/or affected by human rights deprivation. Even in countries where economic growth has brought some people out of poverty, there is usually a level of inequalities that still persist.

As a result, governments must put in place proactive measures for countering discrimination, identifying and removing obstacles that could prevent the poorest and disadvantaged people from access to basic services, remedies and information. Also, it is true that meeting the Millennium Development Goals require that international cooperation should be strengthened. In accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN charter and other international human rights instruments, the international cooperation is the human rights obligation of all the states. Disaggregating worldwide average for MDG indicators and targets can help better to identify the situations faced by such individuals or groups, enabling the government to establish the best policies and target budgets properly.

Moreover, violating human rights perpetuates or endangers dire condition of want and exclusion as well as poverty. In turn, basic human rights are undermined by poverty such as access to good shelter, quality education and good food. This entrenches marginalization and discrimination, making it difficult for human rights victims to enjoy remedies and justice whenever their human rights are being violated. Therefore, for governments to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, it is necessary to concentrate on the full realization of human rights and the rights to development. Nevertheless, poverty, marginalization and discrimination are all causes and effects of violence associated with social, economic, cultural civil and political rights.

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