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As global poverty lessens and aid increases: Did famed UN development goals matter?

Days before Sept. 11, 2001, a set of eight 'Millennium Development Goals' were declared to improve health, education, and welfare across the planet. As the goals expire on 2015, a sympathetic look at how they fared. 

By Paige McClanahanCorrespondent / May 26, 2013

United Nations Development Program Administrator Helen Clark, center, waits to be introduced at the Chamber of Senators in Mexico City, in March.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP


Oxford, England

In 1990, a baby born in Bangladesh had a 14 percent chance of dying before reaching her fifth birthday. Today that risk has been cut to below 5 percent.

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In 1994, just 12 percent of Ethiopian children completed primary school. Today the figure is nearly 70 percent.

In fact, around the world, the numbers of those living in extreme poverty are less than half of what they were in 1990, according to global indicators.

The reasons for such improvement in areas as diverse as global education, health, and nutrition range from economic booms to settling of political disputes to enlightened leadership. Yet all indicate progress toward what has been a serious set of eight aims called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), ushered forth in 2001. The effect of the goals has changed a larger discussion about development, moved a significant amount of aid around, and helped with basic living standards for millions.

“I am in dozens of countries every year, and it’s amazing to me how much these goals animate public discussion, newspaper columns, and government leaders’ rhetoric,” Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, told a small audience at the Overseas Development Institute in London in December. 

A new World Bank study of MDG's last month showed steady progress in a range of nations, though not all goals were met. 

Clear readings on how much has really been achieved since 2001, and how much of the social impact can be attributed to the MDG – is not easy to gauge. There is also a question about whether setting high-profile and ambitious goals has any effect in actually improving difficult world conditions.

Yet with the MDG deadline set to expire in 2015, a consensus among figures like Mr. Sachs and other like-minded broad thinkers is “yes” – setting goals does matter.

“The MDGs have been surprising, and surprisingly useful,” Sachs adds in a recent interview. “It has been good to have global goals around development objectives. This was not obvious a dozen years ago – in fact, I would say, not obvious at all.”

As it happens, the MDG unveiling by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan took place only five days before the Sept. 11, 2001 attack. The name of Al Qaeda was hardly known among Americans when the UN chief announced eight highly ambitious goals to reach by 2015. These included halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, to reducing child mortality by two-thirds, to reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS. 

At the time, it was not clear the MDGs would stick. International aid had been in decline after the cold war, and many nations were turning inward.

But for some reason, the MDGs struck a chord.

“For whatever reason, and perhaps it was that climate of hope at the time, [the MDGs] got traction … countries built them into their national development strategies, measured progress against them,” says Helen Clark, administrator of the UN Development Program. “The … partners rallied … and focused a lot of their support around achieving the goals as well,” Ms Clark adds. 

And while it is difficult to ascribe direct causal powers to the millennium goals, there is some feeling and some evidence that the intent and impulse of the goals has had at least a marginal effect – not to be taken lightly since that impact touches millions of lives.

"When you’re talking about marginal differences at the global level, you’re talking about thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of kids, who are alive today who would otherwise be dead,” says Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Development. “If you look at rates of progress before and after 2000 on a number of the MDG indicators, in some cases you see slightly faster progress after 2000.”


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