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Goals that sparked progress

The UN’s 2015 Millennium Development Goals failed to end global poverty or disease. But they did trigger remarkable steps forward.

Caren Firouz/Reuters/File
A boy feeds his sister in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, in March. A July 6 report on the 2015 Millennium Development Goals showed that several measurements of living standards around the world had improved since 1990.

It’s tough to celebrate too enthusiastically when both progress is made and a great task is left unfinished. Especially when that task is to make sure that every person on the planet lives free from want and disease.

That was the essential aim of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in 2000 by the United Nations, which had the lofty intention of greatly reducing or eliminating perpetual problems such as poverty, hunger, child mortality, gender inequality, and environmental degradation by 2015.

In a classic case of glass half full or half empty, most of the ambitious goals were unmet, a disappointment. Yet these MDGs have also yielded much for which to be grateful. They have sparked a remarkable humanitarian response, resulting in millions of lives saved or improved around the world.


•The number of people living on less than $1.25 a day was cut by more than half, from 1.9 billion in 1990, the base year for measuring progress in meeting the goals, to 836 million in 2015.

•Child mortality was also cut by more than half in that time period, from 90 to 43 deaths per 1,000 live births.

•During this period some 2.6 billion people gained access to improved (protected from contaminates) drinking water (another 663 million people still lack access).

More aid helped drive the improvements. Between 2000 and 2014, rich nations sent poorer nations 66 percent more aid in real terms. The year 2013 saw a record amount given: $134.8 billion.

“A child born today has far greater advantages than she would have had a generation ago,” a report on the goals issued July 6 concludes. “She has a much better chance of reaching her fifth birthday. She is less likely to suffer [stunted growth] and more likely to go to school. Being educated increases the odds that she won’t marry as a child, reduces the risk of an early birth, and makes it more likely that her own children will be healthy and educated.”

The biggest threat to further progress, the report said, were the numerous conflicts in places such as Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, and Nigeria that have pushed nearly 60 million people from their homes.

In September, a fresh set of goals for 2030 will be adopted at a summit at the UN headquarters in New York. The plan as of now is to replace the eight MDGs with 17 new sustainable development goals that will include 169 targets to meet.

Already prominent figures are urging that the new goals be simplified.

“We need to catch people’s imagination with this because if you just say ‘sustainable development,’ eyes glaze,” points out Helen Clark, the head of the UN Development Program. “If you say, ‘17 goals,’ it takes a genius to recite the 17.” Instead, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is talking about the new goals being grouped into just six general categories: dignity, people, planet, prosperity, justice, and partnership.

The MDGs have played an important role in measuring progress, in helping to see beyond each emerging crisis to find the real trend lines beneath. While the task of eliminating global poverty and disease is far from over, the progress made shows the world is headed in the right direction. With continued effort and dedication the 2030 report will have an even better story to tell.

As a 19th-century hymn, with words by John Greenleaf Whittier, an American Quaker poet, puts it, “O, sometimes gleams upon our sight,/ Through present wrong, th’ eternal right;/ And step by step, since time began,/ We see the steady gain of man.”

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