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. 

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

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.

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.”

The headline goal of halving the number of people who live on less than $1.25 a day has in fact already been met: The proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has fallen to 20 percent, according to the World Bank; that’s down from 43 percent in 1990. 

Some experts say the fall in extreme poverty has been driven by booming economic growth in China and India, not the MDGs or any work done by the international aid community.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, the rate of extreme poverty has fallen by just 14 percent since 1990. That’s an improvement but it falls far short of the goal of halving the rate.  

But some gains may have a link to the MDGs:

* The share of people around the world who have access to improved drinking water rose from 71 percent in 1990 to 86 percent in 2010, in line with MDG 7.

* Around the world, there are now 97 girls in school for every 100 boys, up from 84 in 1990 – thanks at least in part, experts say, to MDG 3.

* The number of children who die before their fifth birthday has fallen by 41 percent since 1990, marking strong progress toward MDG 4.

Goals likely to be missed by 2015 include achieving universal primary school education, cutting the maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters, and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, among others.

However Mr. Kenny points out that even if a target won’t be hit, there may be real value in striving for it.

“Before the MDGs, maternal mortality was… way down the development agenda,” he says – so much so that data on maternal mortality was not well tracked. But now maternal mortality is being closely monitored, and being discussed in a new way at the international level.

Regardless of the development outcomes that the MDGs may – or may not – have inspired, one thing is abundantly clear: The MDGs moved a whole lot of money.

“The MDGs’ main impact, I think, was on aid,” says Duncan Green, a senior strategic adviser at Oxfam, adding that the goals “were part of a rethink about the role of aid” that swept through many rich countries in the first few years after the new millennium.  

After the lull in the 1990s, worldwide aid flows ballooned in the early 2000s, reaching $128 billion in 2009, more than twice the level of a decade earlier according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That uptick in foreign assistance was focused on the world’s poorest countries, reversing a trend from the previous decade; the share of aid going to sub-Saharan Africa more than doubled between 2000 and 2009.

Aid flows from the US have followed a similar trajectory. Under President Obama, the US Agency for International Development has set up a handful of what the agency describes as “key vehicles” for helping countries around the world achieve the MDGs: the Global Health Initiative, the Global Climate Initiative, and a $3.5 billion program called Feed the Future.

What happens now?

The MDGs expire at the end of 2015, and aid flows are expected to decline in the years ahead. Aid officials, academics, politicians, and many ordinary people are trying to figure out what will come next.

There will definitely be a continuing global development agenda. That is being taken as a given. A consensus has emerged because of the MDGs that these sorts of global exercises are worth doing, even if we’ll never be able to measure their impact precisely.

“Global goals that mobilize civil society, and that mobilize the public imagination as to what can be done, can be surprisingly powerful, and we shouldn’t be cynical about them,” says Sachs of Columbia. “We should understand that there really is something important to agreeing to do things in the world.”

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