The MDGs are a series of targets for reducing poverty, hunger, disease and lack of infrastructure. The report, "Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals," was produced by a team of more than 250 experts, under the direction of Harvard professor Jeffrey Sachs.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told a news conference that the report would enable world leaders to "engage in very serious in-depth discussions on some of the most important issues and dilemmas facing the international community," while they prepare for a U.N. summit on development in September. Annan said he hoped the meeting would produce "bold and far-reaching decisions" and all could "work together to put in place the building blocks for a safer, more prosperous world."
The report called upon wealthy countries to increase aid for development, from 0.25% of their gross national product (the 2003 level) to around 0.44% in 2006 and then rising to the 0.7% target by 2015. It also renewed the plea for debt relief and called for "strengthening governance, promoting human rights, engaging civil society, and promoting the private sector."
One of the most innovative elements in the report is what it calls "Quick Win actions," designed to rapidly save and improve millions of lives and to promote economic growth. Among the measures proposed under this heading are:
-- free mass distribution of malaria bed-nets and effective anti-malaria medicines for all children in regions at risk, by the end of 2007.
-- ending user fees for primary schools and essential health services, no later than the end of 2006. Increased donor aid would compensate for these fees, as necessary.
-- successful completion of the "3-by-5" campaign to bring 3 million AIDS patients in developing countries onto anti-retroviral treatment by the end of 2005.
-- expansion of school meal-programs to cover all children in hunger hot-spots, by no later than the end of 2006. The programs would use locally produced foods.
-- a massive replenishment of soil nutrients for smallholder farmers on lands with nutrient-depleted soils, through free or subsidized distribution of chemical fertilizers and agroforestry, by no later than the end of 2006.
-- training large numbers of community-based workers to ensure adequate expertise in health, education, agriculture, nutrition, infrastructure, water supply and sanitation, and environmental management.
Among other recommendations the report also called upon high-income nations to open their markets to developing country exports and to help increase export competitiveness through investments in trade-related infrastructure such as electricity, roads and ports.
It also made an appeal to international donors to mobilize support for an increase in scientific research and development that will address the special needs of the poor in areas of health, agriculture, natural resource and environmental management.
What is at stake
"How will the world look in 2015 if the Goals are achieved?" asked the report. Fulfilling them would mean lifting more than 500 million people out of extreme poverty. As well, more than 300 million would no longer suffer from hunger. Child health would also dramatically improve, saving the lives of more than 30 million children under 5 years of age.
The MDGs also call for providing safe drinking water for 350 million people and ensuring basic sanitation for 650 million. Hundreds of millions more women and girls will also be able to attend school, and enjoy greater economic and political opportunities.
The report did admit that many countries are on track to achieve at least some of the goals by 2015. Worldwide, between 1990 and 2002 average overall incomes increased by about 21%, and the number of people in extreme poverty declined by an estimated 130 million. Moreover, child mortality rates have fallen and an additional 8% of the developing world's people received access to water, with 15% also achieving access to improved sanitation services.
Sub-Saharan Africa, however, is another story. The region is in a dramatic situation, "in a downward spiral of AIDS, resurgent malaria, falling food output per person, deteriorating shelter conditions, and environmental degradation." An infant born today in this region has only a one-third chance of reaching 65 years of age, the report stated.
According to the report, there is no single factor explaining the success or failure of the MDGs. It does, however, list four reasons that explain why the goals are not being achieved:
-- poor governance, marked by corruption, poor economic policy choices, and denial of human rights.
-- a poverty trap, with local and national economies too poor to make the needed investments.
-- uneven progress, as one part of a country advances, while elsewhere pockets of poverty persist.
-- areas of specific policy neglect that can have a monumental effect on citizens' well-being, even when overall governance is adequate.
Security and stability
The report also argued that the MDGs are not only important from the viewpoint of ensuring greater global justice and human rights, but that, "they are also vital to international and national security and stability."
"Poor and hungry societies are much more likely than high-income societies to fall into conflict over scarce vital resources, such as watering holes and arable land -- and over scarce natural resources, such as oil, diamonds and timber." The report added that in recent years many world leaders have stressed "the powerful relationship between poverty reduction and global security."
In the current issue of the magazine Developments, No. 28, published by the British government's Department for International Development, Jeffrey Sachs, the Harvard professor overseeing the U.N. Millennium Project's report, explained some of the reasoning behind the MDGs.
"Right now the rich countries are handling emergencies in Africa every year -- but we are not solving the problem," Sachs wrote. He added that by concentrating so much on food aid or emergency relief, the underlying problems remain unsolved. "On the other hand if we helped Africa to invest strongly in improving agricultural activity, in public health institutions for prevention and treatment of disease, for environmental management -- then these emergencies would be abated."
Sachs also argued that there is no single remedy. "Development will depend on trade and aid and dropping the debt," he wrote. "It is not trade versus aid, it is not trade alone or aid alone."
The reports recommendations have not gone unchallenged. One of the coordinators behind the report, Nancy Birdsall, was quoted in last Tuesday's New York Times as saying she was worried that there was not sufficient emphasis on "the many difficult steps that poor countries will have to take that have nothing to do with money." Birdsall was also critical of the multiple priorities in the report and said there were too many "quick wins."
And in Wednesday's Financial Times, commentator Martin Wolf said that based on his prior experience in the World Bank he doubted that the substantial changes called for could be achieved in such a short time.
Changing the ways governments are organized, training large numbers of people and building economic infrastructure are tasks that take time, Wolf argued. "A careful buildup that generates sustained improvements would be vastly better than a dramatic expansion that ends up in chaos and disappointment."
A healthy debate over how to help developing nations will help clarify matters, so long as from theory the wealthy nations pass to putting into practice concrete actions.