U.N. Summit Races Against Clock To Resuscitate Millennium Goals

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Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, enroll all children in primary school, ensure everyone has adequate shelter, empower women, slash child and maternal mortality, combat HIV, malaria and other diseases and save the environment — oh, and get the whole world involved in the effort.

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CREDIT: UN PHOTO / TIM MCKULKA
Internally displaced persons forced to flee their homes in Abyei, Sudan, wait in line to hand-pump water. In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals set out eight broad goals that will be reviewed at a U.N. summit this month.

Ten years ago, the United Nations and international community promised to do all of the above in a 15-year period. A group of 189 member states signed the Millennium Declaration and vowed to lend resources, money and other support to promote the prestigious eight known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Fast-forward a decade and the world is just five years from its deadline, with a lot done but much more left to do: About a fifth of the world lives on a dollar a day, more than 800 million people languish in slums, and one in four kids around the world are undernourished.

The clock is ticking and the report card is mixed.

Since the declaration's signing, the MDGs have had uneven results at best. Some countries have clearly achieved many goals while others will likely never reach any of them — while others have regressed even further. As lofty ambition becomes grounded by a decade of harsh reality, even the most ardent supporters of the Millennium Declaration are wondering if the historic development plan will become a failed footnote in history.

That question will be on everyone's minds at the widely anticipated Millennium Development Goals Summit this month, as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tries to reignite the excitement and optimism generated by the MDGs a decade ago. From Sept. 20 to 22, hundreds of member state representatives, nongovernmental organizations and U.N. officials will gather at the United Nations in New York to reassess the goals, reviewing successes as well as obstacles, with yet another goal in mind: to come up with a global action agenda for ramping up progress toward the MDGs if the targets are to be achieved before the clock runs out.

Milestones and Brick Walls

Of the 21 targets set out to ensure the successful completion of the eight goals, U.N. officials believe several key measures will be met by 2015. Goal one, for example, to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger is still on track despite the global crisis in food prices in 2008 and the economic downturn that shortly followed. Although the World Bank estimates the two crises engulfed more than 50 million additional people into extreme poverty, U.N. officials remain hopeful on this important front.

According to the 2010 Millennium Development Goals Report released by the United Nations in June, goal one targets, which include halving the amount of people who live on $1 a day between 1990 and 2010, will probably be attained. In 1990, 46 percent of the developing world — 1.8 billion people — lived on less than $1.25 a day. By 2005 that number sank to 27 percent and is expected to drop to 15 percent by 2015, which would translate to around 920 million people living under the international poverty line.

Likewise, goal six — to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases — has seen great success even in the most desolate countries. The number of people infected with HIV who received antiretroviral therapy jumped tenfold from 2003 to 2008. Today, 4 million people — about 42 percent of those infected — have access to drugs that prolong lives and help prevent HIV-positive pregnant women from passing the virus to their babies.

Underdeveloped populations have also started to rein in the far more widespread scourges of malaria and measles thanks to greater access to immunization shots and mosquito nets. The cumulative effects of all these health measures have cut child deaths from 12.5 million in 1990 to 8.8 million in 2008.

On another front though, only one target in the larger goal to ensure environmental stability is on track as of this year — halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, although major challenges remain in this arena as well. And goal eight, to promote a global partnership for development, has seen 35 of 40 heavily indebted poor countries receiving debt relief from developed nations, with official development assistance rising in both 2008 and 2009 to a total of nearly $120 billion per year.

That's the success part of the MGD story. The rest is sobering.

For instance, like many targets, there's another side to the development aid successes. The U.N. report cautions that the 2009 increase in aid actually translates to a mere 0.7 percent over the 2008 total in real terms, and in current U.S. dollars in fact it constitutes a 2 percent decline.

Other disappointments are more obvious. "Hope dims" reads the headline of goal two in the MDG Report. Although significant gains have been made toward achieving universal primary education — with the percentage of children enrolled in primary school increasing from 82 percent to 89 percent in the developed world in a decade — it's doubtful that all developing regions will attain the education MDG.

But other goals are lagging much further behind. U.N. officials reported that progress on goal three — promoting gender equality and empowering women — is "sluggish on all fronts," from education to access to political decision-making.

The share of women working in top-level positions, for example, remains as low as 10 percent in southern and western Asia and northern Africa. Women-held parliamentary seats averaged about 18 percent in 2009, up from 11 percent a decade ago but still a long shot from the 30 percent goal set by at the Beijing Platform for Action. In addition, one in seven girls are still married off by age 15, while 70 percent of out-of-school youth are female. And women are still paid less than men for equal amounts of work — even in the developed world.

It's also unlikely that goal five, improving maternal health, will attain its target of reducing maternal mortality ratios by three-quarters. Hundreds of thousands of women — a whopping 99 percent of them in the developing world — continue to die annually as a result of pregnancy or childbirth.

"For too long, maternal and child health has been at the back of the MDG train," Secretary-General Ban said earlier this year. "But we know it can be the engine of development."

Meanwhile, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, animal extinction and lack of international consensus to curb climate change have all but gutted the environmental aims of goal seven. Deforestation did slow from 16 million hectares to 13 million hectares a year over the past decade, but mass amounts of rainforests are still being flattened into parking lots or shopping malls around the world. In fact, population increase and economic growth in the last two decades have produced a nearly 50 percent jump in global carbon dioxide emissions between 1991 and 2007. Another target that had sought to decrease slum dwelling has seen the opposite happen, with the estimated 657 million people who lived in slums in 1990 increasing to 828 million today.

Finally, conflicts displaced 42 million people in 2009, often relegating them to refugee camps in developing countries that already have problems taking care of their own populations.

Halting Pace Slows Promise

When they signed the Millennium Declaration, world leaders knew the MDGs would be no easy feat. After all, it was an unprecedented promise to the world's most vulnerable people, both in terms of the project's scale and coordination. But most countries never predicted the halting pace that has emerged two-thirds of the way into the endeavor, and many experts question whether a dramatic turnaround is possible in the remaining five years.

One of the most obvious concerns that looms over every government is the dragging global economy. The world as a whole may have avoided financial calamity following the crisis of 2008, but the same can't be said of the world's poor. Poverty and hunger rates have increased in every region of the planet between 2008 and 2009 and are expected to grow due to the continuing loss of jobs and rising cost of food.

Sub-Sahara Africa is a challenge in and of itself. Whereas the number of people living on $1.25 a day has plummeted in China and especially India, sub-Sahara Africa has experienced little of that success, with more than half of its population still mired in extreme poverty.

According to "Keeping the Promise," a U.N. report issued in February, missed goals can also be blamed in part on countries that have failed to deliver on their MDG pledges (including a lack of follow-through on the 2005 commitments to double aid to Africa). Moreover, the gap between the promise of official development assistance (ODA) and the actual disbursement of funds continues to grow. The Group of Eight, for example, set a $154 billion target for ODA in 2010, but transactions have been postponed and commitments have been cut — lowering the total to $108 billion, a 30 percent reduction.

All of this means member states have their work cut out for them at the U.N. summit. According to "Keeping the Promise," the Secretary-General Ban won't propose changing or lowering the goals at the summit, nor will he advocate for an extended timeline.

"The shortfalls in progress towards the MDGs are not because they are unreachable, or because the time is too short, but rather because of unmet commitments, inadequate resources and lack of focus and accountability ... failure to deliver on the finance, services, technical support and partnerships needed."

At the summit, Ban will most likely call for new accountability methods and frameworks that would hold states to their promises and establish monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. In addition, he'll also probably highlight various studies that show how successful practices in one country can be applied to overcome roadblocks in another.

An important assessment that may form the basis of the summit's recommendations is "What Will It Take to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals?" The wide-ranging report offers key pieces of advice, such as: acceleration in one goal often speeds up progress in another, linking women's education with child mortality, for instance; rapid poverty and hunger reduction is a result of high per-capita growth driven by agricultural productivity, employment creation and equitable distribution of income; disease-specific interventions such as the distribution of bed nets are key but must strengthen existing health systems and not create parallel structures; and broadening the tax base and improving tax collection efficiency are a primary source of sustainable MDG financing.

A Time for Rhetoric or Realism?

All indications are that the secretary-general will also mix optimistic rhetoric with urgent pleas, as evidenced by his statements in the run-up to September's summit. "The Millennium Declaration in 2000 was a milestone in international cooperation, inspiring development efforts that have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world," he recently wrote. "At the same time, it is clear that improvements in the lives of the poor have been unacceptably slow, and some hard-won gains are being eroded by the climate, food and economic crises. Billions of people are looking to the international community to realize the great vision embodied in the Millennium Development Goals."

He also warns: "Meeting the goals is everyone's business. Falling short would multiply the dangers of our world — from instability to epidemic diseases to environmental degradation. But achieving the goals will put us on a fast track to a world that is more stable, more just, and more secure."

But beyond the diplomatic declarations, it will be up to the member states to deliver concrete results — and based on the recent climate gathering at Copenhagen and Group of 20 economic forum in Canada, there may be plenty more talk than action at the MDG Summit.

John Hewko, previous vice president for operations and compact development at the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, hopes the United Nations will take a more "realistic" approach at the summit, perhaps by rethinking the deadline.

"Development is a marathon, not a sprint," Hewko said. "It takes a long time to achieve these kinds of things. We're wishing for the homerun, but we'd be better off trying to get a bunch of singles."

He argues that the universality of the targets for each nation was a flawed design from the beginning. "Yes, there are certain countries for which the goals were realistic, but for others they were just totally unrealistic. No one standard should apply to all, but there should be realistic targets for each country."

To that end, Hewko hopes the United Nations will reformulate its approach from a "top-down" to a "bottom-up" initiative. Country improvements, especially in places like sub-Sahara Africa, should be recognized as a success, even if they fall below MDG targets because they're still a great improvement from where they were in the 1990s, he added.

One thing is clear ahead of the September summit: The MDGs, as of now, are missing their target of completion by 2015 — and it will take a lot more than talk to make it to the finish line. And the five-year countdown is already ticking away.


About the Author

Rachael Bade is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on July 1, 2014