By Drs. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Reba Goodman
What is the state of the world? Are we going to hell?
Given the terrible news we read daily and the barbaric images we see on TV we understand the feeling that we are on a downward path. There are, in fact, good reasons to believe that the world is a more dangerous place. There are the increasing effects of climate change, resulting in more severe hurricanes, violent wildfires flooding and heat waves. There are the brutal civil wars in Yemen and Syria and the genocide in Myanmar. The ominous rise of demagogues is very troubling as well as the rise of hate groups and racism. Some of these events are triggered by the heartbreaking increase in the number of refugees.
At the same time, there is good news and surprisingly good developments. Since the turn of the century more than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. This is an historic achievement from the time when living on the margins was the norm. Another startling development in recent years is the unprecedented increase in life expectancy all over the world.
Since the UN has difficulties resolving civil wars and other political problems because of disagreements among major powers, it has concentrated more on humanitarian efforts.
In 2000, at the annual gathering of the world’s leaders at the UN, they agreed on eight goals called the millennium development goals, which were to be achieved by 2015. Among the goals are reducing extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal education; promoting gender equality; reducing child and maternal deaths; fighting HIV, malaria and other diseases. These goals were considered doable and, very importantly, measurable.
Were the millennium development goals a success? Aside from the reduction in the numbers of extremely poor people and increasing life expectancy, there were other successes. More children are in school, fewer children are dying and fewer women are dying during childbirth. The goals for combating HIV, malaria and other diseases had only partial success. There was great improvement in that 2.6 billion people gained access to improved drinking water and 2.1 billion gained access to improved sanitation.
While there was remarkable progress, much suffering remains. One billion people still are extremely poor, more than 800 million do not have enough to eat, women are still fighting for their rights and millions of women still die during childbirth.
In 2015, given the remaining problems, it was recognized that a further set of goals was needed. The new set of goals, the sustainable development goals, incorporate the old goals plus give attention to urgent action on climate change and other environmental concerns such as conservation and sustainability of the oceans.
The recent 2018 sustainability development report summarizes the status of the sustainable development goals. There is some good news. In Southeast Asia, a girl’s risk of marrying in childhood declined significantly. In the least-developed countries, the proportion of people with access to electricity has doubled. Births attended by skilled health personnel increased globally, a greater number of children are living past their fifth birthday. Some of the bad news is that the world is not on track to end malaria by 2030. More than half of children and adolescents are not meeting minimum standards in reading and mathematics.
It is important to keep up the momentum because improvements can be reversed. One example is the surging in 2017 of acute hunger in 51 countries, driven largely by climate disasters and conflict.
The UN sustainable development goals and the increased investment in people are inspiring and to some extent effective, but they are not enough. Humanitarian needs and political events are related. Wars, civil unrest and the increasing number of refugees cannot be separated from efforts to increase human well-being.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU representative to the UN, and Dr. Reba Goodman, are members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.