U.N. Finds Vast Decline in Global Poverty, Though Big Challenges Remain

Last Monday, the United Nations published details from its final report on the results of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets established 15 years ago to improve the lives of the poor. The eight goals covered every dimension of extreme poverty, from eradicating hunger and child mortality, to improving environmental sustainability and gender equality.

As the New York Times reported, the results were mixed but nonetheless encouraging.

Dire poverty has dropped sharply, and just as many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary schools around the world. Simple measures like installing bed nets have prevented some six million deaths from malaria. But nearly one billion people still defecate in the open, endangering the health of many others.

“The report confirms that the global efforts to achieve the goals have saved millions of lives and improved conditions for millions more around the world”, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said Monday as he released the report in Oslo.

In fact, though, how much of those gains can be attributed to the goals is unknown. The sharp reductions in extreme poverty are due largely to the economic strides made by one big country, China. Likewise, some of the biggest shortfalls can be attributed to a handful of countries that remain very far behind. In India, for example, an estimated 600 million people defecate in the open, heightening the risk of serious disease, especially for children.

While it is still an open question how much the MDGs were responsible for these developments, many expert agree that at the very least, this globally-coordinated initiative — the first of its kind — helped establish “yardsticks for measuring what countries have and have not done for their people”, prodding governments across the world to be more accountable and proactive on improving their citizens’ lives.

Moreover, the goals helped conceptualize and flesh out concrete measures of well-being, such as how many women die in childbirth or how many children are clinically malnourished. In a world that is facing socioeconomic problems of an unprecedented scale — yet with more resources and technological capacity than ever — the importance of this cannot be understated. As one development leader told the Times, “It’s a data revolution, and that’s important in and of itself. It has changed the norms of what development is about”.

Indeed, NPR echoes this assessment:

…The very simplicity of the Millennium Development Goals ended up making them uniquely powerful. International aid to poor countries had gotten kind of scattershot during the 1990s. Reducing the global agenda to eight narrowly defined priorities helped channel everyone’s energies — and money.

“What the goals did by prioritizing and focusing was actually put together major international donors, civil society partners on the ground, national governments focusing on the same sets of issues,” says Suzman. “And that allowed for a focusing of both policy change and resources and attention.”

Countries and donors could track how they were measuring up against the targets, and this often spurred them to try harder.

Here are more details on the results.

In releasing the report, United Nations officials celebrated meeting some of the goals. For instance, one of the targets was to halve the share of the world’s population living in extreme poverty by 2015, but the actual decline was steeper: 14 percent of people in the developing world are extremely poor now, compared with 47 percent in 1990. China did the most, reducing the share of its people in extreme poverty to just 4 percent this year, from 61 percent in 1990.

Other targets were missed, including those to reduce child mortality and women’s deaths in childbirth each by two-thirds, although progress was made on both fronts.

Malaria has been made a far less deadly scourge than it was in 2000, when the targets were set, with the mortality rate down by 58 percent, the report said. Fewer children are dying of measles than in 2000, but measles vaccination coverage has stalled, the report said, and 21.6 million children were not fully immunized in 2013. Most measles deaths were concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where the report called for greater investments in public health.

South Asia also accounts for the highest levels of child malnutrition, with 28 percent of children who are younger than 5 classified as “moderately or severely underweight”.

Jobs are not keeping pace with population growth in either rich or poor countries, an especially acute challenge for countries like India that have ballooning populations of young people in need of work.

One of the starkest failures acknowledged in the report concerned gender equity. Women are more likely than men to be poor, according to the report, and women’s participation in the global paid labor force has inched up only very slowly.

Given the ambitiousness of the targets, not to mention the unforeseen challenges posed by global recession and various regional conflicts, it is unsurprising that the MDGs turned out to be a mixed bag. Still, some progress is better than none, especially amid such trying times, and at least the effort is ongoing: the U.N. and its partners is already putting together a more refined successor to the MDG — the Sustainable Development Goals, which more than double the number of original goals, and quadruple the number of sub-targets, to 17 goals and 169, respectively.

As we speak, the SDGs are being discussed and hammered out for world leaders to adopt a draft by September. The draft would include allocating vast sums of aid money to meet the targets. NPR once again offers some perspective on how these goals should be drawn up and implemented.

“All of them are incredibly important,” says Suzman. “There’s not a single one of the 169 targets that you would look at and say, ‘That’s a bad thing.’ ”

But, he says, “the challenge is, how do you use those to prioritize?” The power of the Millennium Development Goals was that they were “realistic, measurable, and relatively few in number.” By expanding the list into such a holistic, broad vision, “you risk not having that energy and direction that came from the Millennium Development Goals and that turned into action on the ground.”

The U.N.’s Gass counters that this criticism misses the point of the Sustainable Development Goals. The objective isn’t just to update the original goals. It’s to usher in a whole new chapter — even a whole new paradigm — for eliminating global poverty.

“The strength of this new agenda is not its focus or its help to set priorities,” he says. “The strength of this new agenda is that it can and must become a new social contract between governments and their people.”

He says to really eliminate poverty you need more than just aid from rich countries or donor organizations. It’s about poor countries taking the lead, bringing in private investment to expand their economies. And above all, it’s about citizens expressing what they want and holding their governments to account.

If you are curious, here are the SDGs as outlined by the U.N.:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (taking note of agreements made by the UNFCCC forum)
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

The SDGs may sound even more utopian than their predecessors, but these are all reasonable and necessary targets in any just world, and humanity is definitely not short on the capital, resources, and technology needed to make them happen. What we need is more political and public will, and a globalized sense of social consciousness and responsibility. Here is hoping the SDGs and other ambitious humanitarian help prod us in that direction.

What are your thoughts?

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