The Millennium Development Goals Are Working

The world has made great strides in combating extreme poverty. But it’s time to set a new horizon.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

At the turn of the new century, every one of the 192 member states of the United Nations committed to eight broad goals intended to radically improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, set an ambitious agenda to cut extreme poverty while also pursuing improved access to education, health services, and safe drinking water.

One thousand days from now — Dec. 31, 2015 — marks the end date for achieving these goals. Despite considerable skepticism when the MDGs were adopted that a broad and ambitious agenda would translate to concrete development impacts, we are on track to meet many of the targets laid out back in 2001 when the goals were finalized.

U.N. data indicate that the first goal, to halve the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 per day, has already been achieved. As a result, more than 600 million people have moved out of the most extreme poverty imaginable. Progress on this goal has continued in every region of the world even in the aftermath of the economic crisis.

While the next thousand days are an important last push to achieve the MDGs, we need to also focus on what will happen beyond 2015. Last July, I was honored to be one of 26 people named by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to a U.N. high-level panel tasked with making recommendations to shape the post-2015 development agenda.

Our process is informed by the lessons we’ve learned from the MDGs — which goals have been reached, where we have struggled to achieve equitable progress between regions, and what data and experience have shown us about the changing nature of extreme poverty.

There are goals we are unlikely to achieve by the end of 2014. We are only halfway toward meeting the goal of reducing the childhood mortality rate by two-thirds. This is an area where some regions have made more progress than others. In 2010, 82 percent of under-five child deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia — a larger share of the global total than when the MDGs were enacted.

Maternal mortality, too, is an area where considerable regional disparities hamper progress. The MDGs targeted a three-quarters reduction in maternal mortality, and we have nearly halved the rate. But developing regions still have maternal mortality rates 15 times higher than developed regions. In 2010, an estimated 287,000 mothers died from reproductive complications worldwide.

The United States has made an enormous effort to achieve the MDGs through bilateral aid programs and multilateral institutions, through the dynamism of our NGOs and philanthropies, and through the innovations and contributions of our private sector. But there is perhaps no other country where the general public — and the politicians and policy professionals who populate its capital — know so little about the MDGs themselves.

Conventional wisdom says that the American public hates foreign aid. It is consistently the least popular item in the federal budget, and the only program that the public regularly supports cutting. But at the same time, Americans themselves donate robustly to development. Most estimates show that private giving to development eclipses public sector dollars.

Americans already care about this agenda, even if they don’t know what "MDG" stands for. They care about it because ending extreme poverty is the right thing to do. 

To be sure, ending extreme poverty involves issues unfamiliar to many Americans — improving sanitation, for instance, and mitigating diseases like malaria. But ending extreme poverty also means guaranteeing transparent, accountable, responsive governance. It means building resilient physical and economic infrastructure. It means ensuring that students not only enroll in school, but continue to attend and learn.

These challenges are universal. And the changing distribution of global poverty — in 2008, 74 percent of the extreme poor lived in middle-income countries — means that development is moving away from traditional relationships between "donor" and "recipient" countries.

A post-2015 agenda, therefore, must recognize that the bipolar world of developed and developing, North and South is behind us. It must recognize that we will not eradicate extreme poverty without building more effective partnerships between governments, NGOs, philanthropy, and the private sector. And it must incorporate the lessons we have learned from the MDGs.

I am pleased to say that there are many broad areas of consensus among the members of the U.N. panel. We know our recommendations must integrate goals for economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability in a coherent way.

The MDGs have shown sustainable economic growth requires more than a focus on increasing the size of national economies. It requires shaping systems and institutions that respect the rights of individuals and give them the tools they need to help lift themselves out of poverty. It requires sustainable management of natural resources and resilience in the face of climate change. And it requires commitment to good governance and to public and private-sector transparency.

The world has changed considerably since the U.N. Millennium Declaration was signed in 2000. But the need for a broad and ambitious development agenda has not. For the next thousand days, we will continue to pursue the achievement of the MDGs — improving maternal health and reducing hunger, striving for gender parity in education, and reducing the incidence of malaria and HIV.

And beyond that there will be a new agenda that builds on what we have learned from the MDGs, an agenda tailored to the new social, environmental and economic challenges facing our world, and one that moves us ever closer to eradicating extreme poverty in our time and for all time.

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