Making Progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals

September 16th, 2010

On Wednesday I wrote a blog post about the number of people worldwide who suffer from hunger; a figure that has dropped in the last year, but is still much higher than it was a decade ago.  I wrote that in 2000 the United Nations (UN) set about the lofty goal of halving global poverty and hunger as part of its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  The MDGs represent perhaps the most ambitious set of development objectives ever.  And next week, in New York City, world leaders will convene for a UN Summit to evaluate the progress of the MDGs.

So what are those goals?  And how well have we been doing?

The MDGs include specific goals under more general banners (which you can read about here).  The general MDGs are: end poverty and hunger, provide universal education, achieve gender equality, improve child and maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, create environmental sustainability, and achieve a global partnership.

As you’d expect with such ambitious goals, the results have been mixed, both within regions and within nations. Going into the summit, many researchers have noted that most countries in sub-Saharan Africa are not on-track to achieve even a portion of the MDGs. However, a couple African countries, most notably Ghana and Ethiopia, have had undeniable success.  Ghana is set to become the first country in Africa to halve poverty and hunger before 2015 and Ethiopia has increased its primary school enrollment by 500%.

Other success stories, as identified by the Center for Global Development, were Honduras, Kyrgyz Republic, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Burkina Faso, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Armenia. The countries that have made the least success include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Haiti, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and the Central African Republic.  Most countries fall somewhere in the middle.

Recent events have made matters worse.  The global financial crisis, the Indian tsunami in 2004, the Haitain earthquake and the flooding in Pakistan have all set back progress.  Looking to the future, global climate change is expected to make matters worse.

But other researchers have cautioned that it might be misleading to write off the MDGs as unsuccessful, after all, it is a matter of perspective.  The MDGs were set out as global goals, but many commentators and researchers divide the goals on the country level, as I just did.  This was not the original intention, noted Dr. Liesbet Steer, who led research with the Overseas Development Institute on the progress of the MGDs.  In her research, Steer also observed that many African countries started from “a very low base” which means that if we “look at absolute reduction…huge progress is being made.”

Going into the summit, watch for the potential of innovative financing as a way to pay for the next decade of MDGs, which has a projected budget shortfall of $324-336 billion a year from 2012 to 2017 (for more information on innovative financing and development, see this blog).  Following the report on innovative financing in July, sixty nations, backed by the EU, will present a declaration to implement an international currency transaction tax to the summit. Taxing five cents on every $1,000 exchanged could bring in $30 billion a year, a significant step towards closing the budgetary gap.

It will be interesting to see the results of the summit.  With the global recession, and many countries facing significant government deficits and high unemployment, the political climate towards development financing is mixed at best.  Many politicians, whether right or wrongly, believe the relative suffering of their own citizens should come before the suffering of another’s.  But they will do well to remember—should they remain unswayed by morality—that in today’s world our fates are so interlinked that we cannot afford not to approach development worldwide as though we were all one.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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