In less than a week, US President Barack Obama will be sitting down with 191 heads of government in New York to review progress on the most ambitious program the UN has ever attempted. In 2000 the world signed up to eight goals, which included halving those living in poverty, establishing universal primary education and reducing by two-thirds the number of children dying before they reach their fifth birthday. The Millennium Development Goals are a fabulous, extraordinary wishlist. Next week all the rhetoric will be about galvanizing commitment, urging one last heave in the final five years to the deadline.
Ahead of next week’s UN summit the aid agencies have produced a blizzard of reports and analyses. Who’s achieved what, which goal is lagging behind and which is completely off track. Most of the headlines that result are about failure: At the current progress more than 1 billion of the world’s population will still be living in extreme poverty in 2015; half of all children in India are malnourished; in sub-Saharan Africa, one child in seven dies before their fifth birthday. For campaigning organizations the goals have been a gift, but associating the development goals with failure is a misreading (and I would argue not a clever move for campaigners on a subject bedeviled by a sense of hopelessness). It’s the proverbial glass half-full, half-empty problem. So here’s the half-full version.
Step back a moment and remember the history. In the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Cold War, aid and development fell off the international agenda. Without an enemy to outmaneuver, the postwar rationale for developed countries to take a close interest in continents such as Africa had vanished. Aid flows fell, many African countries were paying more in interest than they received in aid — yet financial institutions talked of moral hazard in canceling debts (a tune quickly abandoned in the 2008 financial crisis). In the wake of the harsh structural adjustment programs favored by the World Bank and the IMF, a pernicious fatalism had taken hold, characterized as “the poor will always be with us.”
The idea of setting goals was to break this logjam of complacency and apathy. It took several years of pushing and shoving — by, among others, former British secretary of state for international development Clare Short and James Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank — through international bodies for the eight goals to emerge. Some have been ignored: Goal Eight on global development sketches out such an embarrassingly massive agenda on trade and debt that one expects world peace and universal love to be included.
However, that can’t detract from the bigger picture, which is that the goals galvanized political commitment.
A report from the Overseas Development Institute published this week details some spectacular achievements. Take Ghana, which has been the top global performer on hunger, cutting the rate by 75 percent since 1990: Its rate of child malnutrition has halved. Another success story is Ethiopia, where the hunger rate has fallen from 71 percent to 40 percent. And Vietnam, which has made the most dramatic headway of all: The proportion living on less than US$1 a day has dropped from two-thirds to one-fifth in just 14 years, and it has more than halved the proportion of underweight children. The rate of children dying before their fifth birthday has dropped from 56 to just 15 per 1,000.