Meeting the Millennium Development Goals

When world leaders gathered at the United Nations five years ago to promulgate their Millennium Declaration, they pledged their nations to a global partnership aimed at cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015. Two years later they met again in Monterrey, Mexico, to develop a framework for undertaking this daunting endeavor. This month the leaders will be assembling in New York to assess what progress has been made in meeting the goals outlined in the declaration. In a report earlier this year, In Larger Freedom, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan noted which are on track and which are not. Regrettably, achieving the primary goal of cutting world poverty in half remains in question because of a lack of political will.

Besides overall poverty reduction, related goals include universal primary education, gender equality (education for girls is often treated dismissively in developing countries), reduction of child mortality and improved maternal health. Others focus on combating H.I.V./AIDS, environmental sustainability and the creation of a global partnership for development. But, as advocates point out, the goals are intertwined. A hungry girl child, for example, will probably not go to school, will be exposed to disease through dirty water and will not be able to protect herself against sexually transmitted disease and exploitation.


Huge challenges are involved, and yet the secretary general and others, like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, are convinced that the essence of the goals can still be met by 2015. Mr. Sachs, the special advisor to the secretary general on the Millennium Development Goals and director of the U.N. Millennium Project, has issued a report of his own on the goals’ present status, together with specific recommendations. The practical solutions exist, he states, and with this in mind, he points to a number of so-called quick wins that are achievable now as steps leading to the larger poverty reduction goals.

Universal primary education, for instance, could begin by eliminating school and uniform fees. The elimination of user fees could be applied also to basic health services. Without them poor people are at mortal risk from easily curable diseases. Among the most pernicious in Africa is malaria. Eleven million children die of it before their fifth birthday, and yet many could be saved by making available low-cost insecticide-treated bed nets and the effective anti-malaria drugs that have recently been developed.

At the 2002 gathering in Monterrey, world leaders committed themselves to donating 0.7 percent of their gross national income to poverty reduction. Only five of the 191 participating countries, though, have actually made this percentage available: Denmark, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden. Other rich countries, like France, Germany and Britain, have recommitted themselves to their 2002 pledge and have set timetables for increasing their contribution to 0.7 percent of their national incomes by 2015. Sadly, the United States has not budged from its low commitment of only 0.16 of its national income for foreign aid, the smallest percentage of any of the eight richest nations. And yet, as Mr. Sachs has pointed out, if the United States were to increase its contribution by even a relatively small amount, the additional billions generated for aid could make a significant difference.

Hunger, moreover, has also been worsened by civil conflicts. These, along with terrorism, underscore the secretary general’s contention that security, development and human rights are inextricably bound together. The security issue takes on special significance when it is recalled that poverty exacerbates conflict, and that countries with weak governments and few resources are the very ones in which young people are most likely to turn to violence.

At the end of his report, the secretary general emphasizes that from pragmatic beginnings could emerge a visionary change of direction in our world. These pragmatic beginnings are what the world’s leaders should build upon when they meet this month. But they need to beware of a top-down approach: contributions by nongovernmental organizationsand by the people themselves who suffer deprivationmust also be encouraged if the goals are to be achieved. As Kofi Annan put it in late July, partnership with civil society is not an option, but a necessity. Action by civil society, plus greater political will on the part of the world’s leaders, could help make the Millennium Declaration’s goal of freeing our fellow men, women and children from...dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty a reality.

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