Abstract It is very difficult to know the impact of the MDGs on poverty reduction. On the one hand, poverty measurements are ambiguous, arbitrary and contested, even in the best of cases such as China and India. On the other hand, the mechanisms by which MDGs might have effected poverty reduction are not at all clear, particularly in light of the major global structural processes that condition the impact of aid flows and development more generally. Moreover, the emphasis in the MDGs on absolute measures and the implicit bias towards targeting quite possibly undermine poverty reduction in many contexts. Hence, this article argues that the MDGs should be replaced by a re-politicisation of the mainstream development agenda, together with a genuine revival of emphasis on universalistic modes of social policy as viable means of dealing simultaneously with poverty and inequality.