Localizing the Millennium Development Goals

This piece was included in the 2013 State of Participatory Democracy Report.

By Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland

August, 2013

MDG imageThere was talk of “localizing” the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) from the beginning of their development, yet this did not receive much attention until the mid-2000s. In 2005, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP, n.d.) published a “Toolkit for Localizing the Millennium Development Goals,” which has been followed by UNDP and other development agencies promoting and even funding efforts at localization and publishing reports on related issues and applications (see bibliography).

What is localization of the MDGs?  UNDP (n.d., p. 4) argues:

“Localization is a method for:

  • addressing disparities and marginalization at the sub-national level;
  • providing an integrated framework for development through the inter-relationships between the MDGs;
  • linking global, national, sub-national concerns through the same set of goals;
  • providing a framework for accountability through the setting of targets and indicators;
  • supporting marginalized groups in democratic governance and participatory decision-making processes;
  • and lastly, supporting good governance.”

Proponents of localization point out that while national averages on MDG indicators may have risen, that is often accompanied by increasing inequality as advantaged communities benefit more than disadvantaged ones. While localization does not necessarily require administrative decentralization, the latter can facilitate the former. However, there are many instances of decentralization that do not promote the kind of local and participatory needs assessment, program design, implementation, management, and evaluation that true localization requires.

There are many obstacles to localization. The Global Forum on Local Development (2010, pp. 13-15) points out five of them that bear some elaboration:

  • A lack of resources. National budgets and international assistance have fallen far short of what is needed to achieve the MDGs. In addition, too few resources are available to local communities for MDG related projects. Without considerably more resources and direction to the local level, the MDGs and any post-2015 goals will remain a pipe dream.
  • Modest technical skills. Capacity building is as important as funding. An array of skills are needed to manage projects locally and these are generally in short supply.
  • The lack of a coherent, multi-level governance framework. A coherent framework for relations between local and central government is needed to facilitate participation by legitimating and integrating such efforts. Equally important is the ability of all levels of government to work across sectors such as education, health, water, etc. The MDGs demand cross-sector approaches from the international to the community level. This has proven very difficult to accomplish at all levels.
  • Political and institutional obstacles. Political and institutional barriers are many.  There is often opposition at the national level to ceding power to localities. There also can be opposition at the international level where contacts and comfort make linkages to the national level easier.
  • A lack of explicit national policies for local development and MDG localization. Without such national policies, locally determined, participatory polices will remain sporadic, ad hoc, uncoordinated, and of limited influence.

Nonetheless, despite these problems, all agree that the most important feature of localization is participatory democracy. There is now some case study information on at least a dozen localization projects including: Albania, Benin, Colombia, Guinea-Bissau, Macedonia, Niger, Philippines, Tanzania, Uganda, and Vietnam (see bibliography).  Two examples from Colombia:

  •  Nariño Department.  To accelerate the empowerment of women (MDG3), three interventions were emphasized: training in women’s rights and participation; participatory budgeting, and income generation projects. Through participatory processes, implemented strategies included: gender-sensitive budgeting, awareness raising, legal support for local organizations, capacity development, facilitating land reform, and assigning an economic value to domestic work in project proposals.
  • Cundinamarca Department.  To promote inclusive development for poverty reduction (MDG1), three interventions were prioritized: income generation projects, access to credit for vulnerable populations, and land reform. Through participatory processes, implemented strategies included: capacity development, information dissemination, microfinance and revolving funds, and awareness raising for claiming property rights. (UNDP, 2010, pp. 55-64)

But, at most, these case studies describe what has been done; it is still too early to see results.  However, all development is local by necessity and so we must figure out how to do it well. Our success with the current MDGs and our post-2015 goals depends on it.



Global Forum on Local Development (2010) Localizing the MDGs. Local Development and the MDGs: What Role for Local Governments? Paris: United Nations Capital Development Fund.

MDG Achievement Fund – Philippines (2012) Financing, Monitoring, and Sustaining MDG Localization: A Primer for Local Governments in the Philippines. Manila: MDGIF.

SNV Netherlands Development Organization and United Nations Development Program (2009) Going Local to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals: Stories from Eight Countries. NY: UNDP.

United Nations Development Program (n.d.) Localizing the MDGs for Effective Integrated Local Development: An Overview of Practices and Lessons Learned. NY: UNDP.

United Nations Development Program (2010) Unlocking Progress: MDG Acceleration on the Road to 2015. NY: UNDP.

United Nations Development Program (2005) Toolkit for Localizing the Millennium Development Goals. NY: UNDP.

Image courtesy of the United Nations

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