Development Goals Within Reach?

In a glimmer of good news related to global poverty, two-thirds of developing countries are on track or close to meeting targets for tackling extreme poverty and hunger, according to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, commitments to halve an array of measurements of extreme poverty and social depredation by 2015, have appeared fatally threatened by the severe global economic downturn and a lack of follow-through by Western powers, which committed themselves to the goals in 2000. But the new report offers a hopeful portrait of progress in several key areas of concern. Among developing countries that are falling short on development goals, half could easily catch up, the report’s authors said, with improved policies and faster growth.

According to the report, Global Monitoring Report 2011: Improving the Odds of Achieving the MDGs, the world remains on track to reduce by half the number of people living in extreme poverty. The number of people living on less than $1.25 a day is projected to be 883 million in 2015, compared with 1.4 billion in 2005 and 1.8 billion in 1990. Much of this progress reflects rapid economic growth in China and India. Unfortunately, many African countries are lagging far behind.

“Good news about decreases in the aggregate numbers of poor people worldwide provides hope for millions still prevented from reaching their full human potential,” said William O’Keefe, head of advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, responding to the report. He cautioned all the same that such global and even country-level economic indicators “mask both profound inequity and persistent poverty.”

O’Keefe said, “War, natural disasters, political upheaval and corruption compound these conditions, as well. More can and should be done to help the hundreds of millions still caught in this cycle.”

But the good news may be significantly less than the report suggests. “When you read it closely,” said Aldo Caliari, Director of the Center of Concern’s Rethinking Bretton Woods Project, “the only good news really is the reduction in poverty. Even this comes with the caveat that the [World Bank] significantly revisited its poverty measurements and its baselines and with the doubts surrounding the $1.25 a day threshold.

Caliari pointed out that World Bank President Robert Zoellick recently reported that food price increases in the last year had thrown some 44 million more people in poverty. "The hunger reduction goals are really off track, as the FAO communicated last year in September," said Caliari, "and that was even without the impact of commodity price increases that had taken place at that time and the impact of natural disasters like Pakistan and Haiti."

According to the I.M.F., developing countries will likely achieve millennium goals for gender parity in primary and secondary education and for access to safe drinking water. The report notes many nations “will be close on hunger” and on primary education goals. But progress is slow and targets may be missed on other goals. Forty-five percent of developing states are far from meeting targets on access to sanitation, and nearly 40 percent are far from the maternal and child mortality goals.

Hugh Bredenkamp, deputy director of the I.M.F.’s Strategy, Policy, and Review Department, said: “Good macroeconomic policies remain crucial to progress toward the M.D.G.’s.... The challenge in low income countries is to sustain and accelerate growth through better policies that will create jobs and greater opportunities for the private sector. Advanced economies need to do their part to secure the global recovery by repairing and reforming their financial systems and tackling their fiscal imbalances.”

O’Keefe warned that Western powers had to keep development programs in mind as they addressed their budget challenges. “The United States and other wealthy nations,” he said, “must not abandon these and other worthy efforts. In spite of political squabbling over the budget, Congress must preserve and expand poverty-focused humanitarian and developme nt assistance.”

In some countries, the report suggests, future efforts should focus on socially excluded groups, like indigenous people and ethnic and linguistic minorities. The report notes that most development indicators among these groups are far worse than in the general population, especially in terms of income poverty.

O’Keefe acknowledged that C.R.S. has seen “macro-improvements” in its global outreach. But in working with the local church, he said, C.R.S. would continue “urgently addressing the health, hunger, education and other human challenges of the human family.

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