Mixed Hope for Clear Goals

NEW YORK – Last month, the United Nations announced that the world had met some important targets of the Millennium Development Goals ahead of schedule. But progress has been uneven, and performance on achieving some of the MDGs’ targets has been poor.

In particular, income inequality has risen in most countries in recent decades, nullifying the benefits of economic growth for those who need them most urgently: the poor. Even where incomes have risen, fiscal tightening and reduced social-welfare spending are impeding advancement for many. Indeed, progress on some MDGs has slowed significantly since 2008, owing to the global economic crisis.

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Of course, the UN’s announcement is not to be dismissed lightly. According to the World Bank, the first MDG – cutting the rate of extreme poverty (defined as income below $1.25 per day) to half its 1990 level by 2015 – was achieved by 2010. For the first time in recent decades, poverty rates fell in every region. Even in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the rate is highest, the share of the population living in extreme poverty dropped from 47% in 1990 (more than two billion people) to 24% in 2008 (fewer than 1.4 billion).

And yet the UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 925 million people were living in hunger in 2010. While that compares favorably with the 2009 peak of just over one billion, the reduction came after more than a decade of rising hunger levels. Given that declining rates of extreme poverty would seem to imply incomes high enough to avoid hunger, this substantially slower progress on hunger than on poverty raises awkward questions. Progress in reducing child malnutrition has also been modest, with almost one-third of South Asia’s children underweight in 2010.

Likewise, while the share in total employment of unpaid family members and own-account workers declined to 58% in developing regions in 2011, from 67% two decades earlier, their overall number has increased by 136 million since 2000. As a result, women and youth remain more likely to be in insecure and poorly remunerated occupations.

Available figures also probably overestimate progress on access to safe water. The target of halving the population share without sustainable access to safe drinking water was met by 2010, with those using an improved water source rising from 76% in 1990 to 89% in 2010. Yet, although more than two billion people gained improved access to safe drinking water from 1990 to 2010, thanks to piped supplies and protected wells, this figure does not provide enough information on the agreed indicators.

Moreover, 2.5 billion people – nearly half of the population in developing regions – still lack access to improved sanitation. Current projections suggest that the world will have reached only 67% coverage by 2015, well short of the 75% MDG target.

Similarly, while slum dwellers’ share of urban populations has declined from 39% in 2000 to 33% in 2012 – significantly exceeding the original target of meaningfully improving at least 100 million slum dwellers’ lives by 2020 – their number has grown from 650 million in 1990 to an estimated 863 million today.

Concerns about the MDGs do not stop there. The drop in annual maternal deaths from 500,000 in 1990 to 287,000 in 2010 suggests that the 2015 target of 125,000 will be missed. And, while progress in reducing adolescent childbearing and increasing contraceptive use has continued, its pace has slowed.

Nonetheless, the progress that has been made is encouraging. Despite global population growth, under-five mortality rates fell from more than 12 million in 1990 to 7.6 million in 2010, and progress is accelerating. Sub-Saharan Africa – the region with the highest under-five mortality rate – doubled its average reduction rate, from 1.2% annually in 1990-2000 to 2.4% in 2000-2010.

Furthermore, estimated malaria incidence has declined by 17% worldwide; malaria mortality rates have decreased by one-quarter since 2000; and reported malaria cases fell by more than half from 2000 to 2010 in 43 of 99 countries with ongoing malaria transmission. Tuberculosis incidence has fallen globally since 2002, making it likely that the target of halving the TB death rate by 2015 will be achieved.

And, although the 2010 target of universal access to antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS was not reached, 6.5 million people in developing regions had access by 2011, following an increase of more than 1.4 million in 2010 alone – the largest annual increase ever.

Progress in education has also been promising. Global primary-school enrollment has increased, especially since 2000, with girls benefiting most. The enrollment rate in Sub-Saharan Africa rose from 58% in 1999 to 76% in 2010, even as the region’s primary-school-age populations grew rapidly. And the ratio of enrolled girls grew from 91% in 1999 to 97% in 2010 throughout the developing world.

Thus far, success in achieving MDGs can be attributed to a clear agenda with important objectives and measures for improving human welfare and measurable targets, which have facilitated accountability and a common vision. But, as the 2015 deadline nears, efforts to achieve MDGs must be intensified to ensure further progress on food security, gender equality, maternal health, sanitation, infrastructure, environmental sustainability, and climate change mitigation and adaptation. And the recently initiated agenda to continue efforts beyond 2015, with a greater focus on environmental sustainability and resource constraints, should be pursued with the same vigor.

Despite mixed progress, the mobilization of the international community to achieve the MDGs provides rich experience upon which to draw. Equally important, it proves that further progress is feasible, given the requisite political will.