In 2000 leaders and representatives from 189 countries met in a UN Summit to respond to the problem, “the poor we have always with us.” Thanks to persistent ongoing pressure from Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General, they adopted target goals for the year 2015, the Millennium Development Goals.
The goals were modest, realistic, affordable and measurable: increasing primary education, alleviation of extreme poverty and hunger, reduction of maternal and child mortality and disease, and, very relevant to all of the above, improvement in the status of women.
These goals were morally admirable, yet well connected to self-interest for the richer haves as well as the have-not nations. Such a world would be more secure against the ravages of disease, war, revolutions, and the homelessness of dislocated populations. The Summit’s plan is radical in that it acknowledges that the world’s suffering is not an act of nature but subject to human effort and particularly political will.
We are now halfway in time to the target date of 2015. How far have we come compared with the state of the world in 1990? The 2007 Report outlines the present. The results are mixed. It is no surprise that many challenges remain. However there is some progress, and some good news. More children in developing countries are enrolled in primary school, an increase from 80% in 1991 to 88% in 2005. Child mortality worldwide has declined, in large part because of efficient and targeted interventions to save children from such threats as measles.
Worldwide the number of people in developing countries living in extreme poverty, less than $1 a day, fell to about 1 billion, down from 1.25 billion in 1990. This reduction occurred mostly in China and India. There was some progress in sub-Saharan Africa, but the extreme poverty rate there is still over 40%. There was little change in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some limited progress has been made in the very difficult problem of controlling malaria and TB. Although slow, some gains have been made in the struggle for equal rights for women through involvement in politics and government.
The bad news is that half a million still die annually of preventable and treatable complications in pregnancy and childbirth. There has been little progress in treating malnourished children. AIDS deaths worldwide continue to rise. Half the population of the developing world has no access to basic sanitation.
There are a number of reasons for the slowness of progress. The principal cause is that economic growth is not equally shared both within countries and between countries. The share of the haves is always so much greater than the share of the have-nots. Between 1990 and 2004, the share of national consumption for the poorest people in the poorest countries actually dropped. Although the pie grew larger, their slice was smaller. This is particularly true in China with the growing contrast between the rural areas and the coast, and the growing gap between the north of India and the south.
Why are these gaps so extreme? There are several answers — an unfair trading system which benefits the developed countries and the west, the lack of local infrastructure to benefit from trade, governmental instability, armed conflict, bad governance, and the devastating effects of widespread illness, particularly HIV/AIDS and malaria. Poor people are also more affected by climate change.
The idea that human misery is ineradicable used to be an accepted truth. A consortium of world leaders gathering to plan the major goals of the new millennium was an improvement and a beginning. To achieve the target is a major challenge. Yet success in some of the most unlikely countries shows that it can be done. As an example, Mali, an extremely poor country, is improving and attracting foreign investment under an efficient president. He is emphasizing irrigation projects for agriculture to feed the population, and infrastructure to make trade possible,. Clearly what is needed is both political will and good governance.
The help of the richer countries is vital. Without this help it will be impossible even for well-run governments to meet the goals. For the well-being of the world and for their own self-interest, richer nations must honor their commitments made in the year 2000.
Phyllis Ehrenfeld, President, National Service Conference of the American Ethical Union and Representative to the UN.
Dr Sylvain Ehrenfeld, International Humanist and Ethical Union Representative to the UN.