Global development goals have become increasingly used by the United Nations and the international community to promote priority global objectives. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the most prominent example of such goals, but many others have been set since the 1960s. Despite their prominence and proliferation, little has been written about the concept of global goals as a policy tool, their effectiveness, limitations and broader consequences. This paper explores global development goals as a policy tool, and the mechanisms by which they lead to both intended and unintended consequences in influencing international development strategies and action. It analyses the MDGs as an example to argue that global goals activate the power of numbers to create incentives for national governments and others to mobilise action and galvanise support for important objectives. But the powers of simplification, reification and abstraction lead to broader unintended consequences when the goals are misinterpreted as national planning targets and strategic agendas, and when they enter the language of development to redefine concepts such as development and poverty.
global goals MDGs development indicators UN poverty