The achievement of the goals is not optional, but an essential investment in a fairer, safer and more prosperous world.
People often ask me what I consider to be the highlight of my career with the United Nations. While there were many wonderful moments, hosting the largest collection of world leaders ever assembled to sign the Millennium Declaration in New York is certainly among the top. The can-do-spirit in the room was infectious. And, for once, the gulf between rich and poor, between countries often at loggerheads with each other, seemed to be bridged by a genuine partnership among nations and people. Development issues were finally elevated to the highest political level. And, for the first time, developing countries were challenged to translate their development vision into nationally-owned plans.
The eight goals and the results
There is no doubt that the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and their framework of accountability have served the world well. They have not only provided a much-needed sense of direction to national plans and international cooperation, they have also delivered measurable results. We have seen primary school enrolment rates double in Ethiopia and Tanzania. Countries like Malawi and Algeria transform themselves from food importers to food exporters. We have seen HIV infections fall significantly in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the number of reported malaria cases halve in high-burden countries such as Rwanda and Zambia. All around the world, we have seen efforts to achieve MDG-based targets improve the lives of millions of people.
However, we are still far from achieving what we set out to do. Too many people remain caught in extreme poverty, too many remain hungry and sick, too many mothers die in childbirth, and too many children still do not go to school. We are also not yet doing enough to meet basic needs and fulfil basic rights, to protect the environment, to build effective international partnerships for development, or to harness private entrepreneurship to deliver public goods and services to those in need.
The challenges are still great and the circumstances have not become any easier since the Millennium Summit. Back then, there was palpable confidence that the world's problems could be addressed collectively and an open acknowledgement that, in a world of plenty and astounding technological progress, the poverty, hunger, and relative depravation that so many of our fellow human beings still faced was intolerable.
That confidence has now faded, and the international consensus on development is in danger of crumbling under the weight of successive crises and a changing world order — even as the true significance of our growing interdependence is becoming increasingly obvious. The disappointing Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen was an unfortunate example of this paradoxical trend. On the one hand, the appreciation that global problems cannot be solved in one country or continent alone is growing. On the other hand, this is not translated into decisive action and overdue reform of global governance. Lack of concerted leadership and cumbersome institutional arrangements on the international level and a growing array of financial and political pressures on the national level are proving to be formidable obstacles.
Serious investors needed
I am worried that these obstacles risk may have made the September 20-22 MDG Review Summit in New York a futile exercise, characterised by grand speeches and carefully-worded promises, but followed by little meaningful action.
Several important donors have already reneged on their commitments, or at least relaxed their development efforts. They have used a variety of justifications ranging from concerns about aid efficiency to the need for a more comprehensive approach to achieving development objectives. As a result, the latest projections predict an aid shortfall of around $21 billion against the global targets. While I agree that a more coherent and results-oriented approach to development is needed, this should not be used as an excuse to cut financial assistance at the first sign of difficulties. The MDGs do not need fair-weather friends, but serious investors in for the long haul.
Revitalising the political will to achieve the MDGs, and scaling up proven interventions, is the linchpin to success. As instigator and guardian of the MDGs, the U.N. has an important role to play in this process and the High Level Advocacy Group created by Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is a welcome step in the right direction.
The primary responsibility, however, rests with national leaders. Their challenge is to re-articulate a compelling case for global solidarity and equitable growth. One that embraces but goes beyond aid. One that addresses the growing inequalities between male and female, rural and urban, rich and poor. One that does not measure development and progress purely in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) but also of the quality and sustainability of growth. The message must be that the achievement of the MDGs is not optional, but an essential investment in a fairer, safer and more prosperous world.
But achieving the MDGs is only the first step. For even if we succeed and meet all the eight goals by 2015, almost a billion people will continue to live below the poverty line. Hundreds of millions will remain hungry. Millions will continue to die from preventable diseases or unnecessary complications.
We will certainly need to take the MDGs to the next level after the initial deadline. While there is some scepticism about the utility of naming specific goals as basis for development strategies and institutional arrangements, I remain an advocate. After all, who can argue with an objective as simple and powerful as access to food and clean drinking water, jobs, health care and education for everyone?
(Kofi Annan was U.N. Secretary-General between 1997 and 2006. He now chairs the Africa Progress Panel (www.africaprogresspanel.org) and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (www.agra-alliance.org), and heads the Kofi Annan Foundation (www.kofiannanfoundation.org).)