Extreme poverty the focus at U.N. summit

Fewer people live in poverty now than in the 1990s, the UN wants to cut this number in half by 2015.

Terrorism, climate change, and stretched food supplies may have grabbed more international headlines, but a more hopeful – even if less heralded – global trend is the considerable drop in the number of people living in extreme poverty.

Almost half a billion fewer people live in extreme poverty today than in 1990. And from Asia to Latin America and parts of Africa, key development indicators from infant mortality and primary education enrollment to disease reduction are registering considerable progress.

That's the good news that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will tout when he assembles world leaders here Thursday for a midway review of the Millennium Development Goals for cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015. Since the world adopted the eight broad goals in 2000, some measure of progress has been made. And the UN's success in framing targets and rallying support from donor and recipient countries and the private sector for reaching them has boosted the international body's image and indispensability after years of seeing its relevance questioned.

Yet as Mr. Ban highlights the progress that has been made, he is also expected to draw attention to recent global trends that could make reaching any of the goals by 2015 more daunting:

•Skyrocketing food prices risk pushing millions of families that have risen out of poverty back down again;

•An ongoing global financial crisis could dry up aid from rich countries.

"A lot of encouraging progress has been made since these goals were adopted in 2000, particularly in a few specific areas like access to education, access to clean water, combating childhood diseases, and debt relief, and it's important to recognize the advances," says Robert Vos, director of the development policy and analysis division. "But significant gaps persist, even as we enter a period that may not be so favorable to additional progress unless we have renewed commitments all around."

Even before the most recent international financial turmoil, Mr. Ban was warning that development assistance from developed countries was falling – and he called on the wealthiest to recommit to past aid pledges at this week's summit. International development aid stopped rising in 2005, Mr. Vos notes, and fell in both 2006 and 2007.

Beyond that, summit participants will hear that the overall progress on the global development goals masks a widening divide between a fast-growing Asia and a lagging Africa. Progress is also uneven within developing countries, with some experts warning that the improvements registered so far have come largely in the most reachable and amenable sectors of the population.

What that's likely to mean, they add, is that the low-hanging fruit on the poverty reduction tree may have already been picked.

"The big challenge now is that, by and large, the parts of humanity still falling through the cracks, whether it's in Africa or Asia or Latin America, are the hardest to reach: the ethnic and linguistic minorities, the most remote of rural populations, the populations in conflict-affected countries," says Charles MacCormack, president of Save the Children and a longtime specialist in international development.

Some development specialists worry that a focus on overall progress on the millennium goals will obscure a glaring failure to advance on a few key indicators, most notably on maternal health and reducing maternal mortality rates.

"We are saying that [the goal of improving maternal health] is the goal where the least progress has been made ... and no one is disagreeing that that's the case," says Susannah Sirkin, deputy director for international policy at Physicians for Human Rights, an organization that advocates health as a human right.

Indeed, the 2008 report on the Millennium Development Goals declares that in 2005 more than 500,000 women died during pregnancy, and acknowledges that "little progress has been made in saving mothers' lives."

Noting that 99 percent of these fatalities occur in the developing world – and that almost all of them are preventable – Ms. Sirkin says the obvious conclusion is that they are the result of continuing discrimination against women. "We want maternal health to be recognized as an essential human right," she adds, "because rights imply obligations on the part of governments."

In calling the development-goals summit, Ban is following a model he initiated last year when he used the annual September opening of the UN General Assembly to hold a summit on global warming.

This year Ban says he is not looking so much for new commitments in development aid as for fulfillment of commitments already made. He also wants to remind the governments of developing countries, in particular in Africa, of the essential role that policy and efficient governance play in advancing development.

US officials say the American position going into the summit is that the US is meeting all of its commitments, having more than doubled its foreign assistance since 2002. They say that US foreign assistance is already focused on Africa, which is where the biggest challenges remain for even approaching the millennium goals by 2015.

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