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.

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.