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The Use of Goals to Focus Action: Lessons from the UN

The blog of the World Economic Forum has a fascinating post by John McArthur about the use of goals to drive global efforts to reduce extreme poverty. The UN set Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 to focus global anti-poverty efforts, and they are now working on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to build on their success. And by all accounts the goals HAVE been successful—rates of extreme poverty (income of less than $1.25 per day) have fallen across the globe since 2005 and there is genuine optimism they could fall to zero by 2030.

Of course, we have used a goal for higher education attainment to focus our work at Lumina, and we believe it has helped focus the national discussion as well. The lessons learned from the UN’s use of goals are very similar to ours — for example, they cite the need for goals “to be established in absolute rather than proportionate terms.” That has been our experience as well—a goal of 60% attainment is more powerful than one to “double the numbers,” although both are better than no goal at all.

According to McArthur’s analysis, the UN development goals have been effective in large part because they are ambitious, simple, long term, and quantifiable. However, one big challenge for strengthening them in the next round is addressing the “messiness” of data and indicators. We can certainly relate to that problem!

We have not come across very many examples of the use of goals as a way to focus efforts across a wide range of actors, including policymakers. Considering the wide range of stakeholders in higher education, and the highly decentralized design of the U.S. higher education system, traditional top-down approaches don’t work. But the same is even truer when you consider driving action to reduce poverty across the globe—the range of stakeholders and conflicting agendas is immense. That goal setting has proven itself to be an effective approach in this context is very revealing.

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