Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal free primary education; promoting gender equality and empowerment of women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combating H.I.V./AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a global partnership for development—these are the eight ambitious yet attainable Millennium Development Goals  that 189 U.N. member states agreed in 2000 to try to achieve by the year 2015. What is the current status of progress toward the goals?
The U.N. General Assembly  held a two-day debate in New York recently to accelerate progress and to help tackle the most intractable problems. Among the speakers was Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and a strong supporter of the M.D.G.’s. He noted that there has been progress toward achieving universal access to primary education, with some of the poorest regions seeing a dramatic increase in enrollment. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke of significant progress in reducing poverty and hunger in some places. Yet abject poverty, hunger, illiteracy and lack of even the most basic health care are still widespread and in fact growing worse in other regions.
Africa lags behind Asia in meeting the goals. According to U.N. statistics, the number of poor in sub-Saharan Africa is rising and is projected to stand at 360 million by 2015. Mr. Ban told an audience in Ghana, “We face a development emergency.” Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, “is most at risk. Not a single country is on track to meet all of the M.D.G.’s by 2015.”
Globally, around 72 million children of primary school age are not enrolled in school. Every year more than half a million women lose their lives to causes related to childbirth, and almost 10 million children die before reaching their fifth birthday.
Why the slow progress? Three key factors are the costs of warfare, the economic downturn and the food crisis. Jeffrey D. Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University  and heads the U.N. Millennium Project , explained in an interview on May 1 that the U.S. military spends $1.9 billion every single day. Over five years, $1.5 billion dollars could provide mosquito net coverage to prevent malaria in all of Africa. The secretary general, for his part, also drew attention to the alarming rise in global food prices, which threatens to undo the gains achieved so far in fighting hunger and malnutrition.
The way forward? Focus on “the bottom billion,” the poorest of the poor. The poverty, education and health goals are the areas where progress is most urgently required. Positive results in any of these areas have a catalytic effect on progress toward other goals. Thus investing in primary health care is one of the most cost-effective and successful ways to improve overall quality of life and the stability of families and communities.
Partnership among national leaders, corporations and private individuals is needed to make progress in achieving the M.D.G.’s. The United States remains a key actor. Sachs called upon the president to explain more clearly to the American people that we are a signatory to a compact with the rest of the world to reach these goals. He hopes that the M.D.G.’s will be mentioned in the inaugural address of the next president. In addition, the European Union must honor its commitment to double public development aid by 2015. The more than 1,000 billionaires of the world too can make a difference. Their total net worth is $4.2 trillion. They certainly could set aside a small percentage of this wealth for foundations that could generate $100 billion to $200 billion a year.
Governments themselves must integrate the goals into their national development planning and ensure that funds go to the intended recipients. In many African countries, the food crisis has been worsened by corrupt and predatory government.
People are enthusiastic to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Consider St. Xavier School, Doranda, India. That school has adopted the M.D.G.’s as part of their curriculum. Students go forth to explain the goals and work with villagers to achieve them.
Another special high-level event on the M.D.G.’s will be held when the U.N. General Assembly gathers on Sept. 25. According to the assembly’s president, Srgjan Kerim, it hopes to send a strong message to the rest of the world that “2008 is the year of action.” Promises must be turned into action so that this will be a year of unprecedented progress for the “bottom billion.”