WHY I CAME TO
LOVE THE MDGs
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but over time Melinda and I moved from cautious optimists to full-throated fans. I think the MDGs are the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that I’ve ever seen. Next week in New York City, I will attend the U.N. General Assembly, where I’ll be meeting with a number of partners to talk about the progress of the MDGs and what comes next.
First, unlike so many vaguely worded international resolutions, the MDGs came with concrete numbers. You can use the goals to measure progress around the world and in specific countries. (This site lists all the targets and shows the progress toward them.) And the measures apply to things that everyone can rally around, like saving children’s lives and preventing maternal mortality. I’ve been writing about measurement a lot this year, because I’ve found that measuring progress is the only way to drive lasting success.
Second, the MDGs quickly got on the global agenda, even if they’re not that well-known here in the United States. I would visit a country like Ghana, and the leaders would be eager to discuss how they were doing on the MDGs. (Quite well, in Ghana’s case: They cut hunger by 75 percent between 1990 and 2004, for example.) I remember going to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and seeing for the first time a series of sessions on health and development. I doubt that would have happened without the MDGs. And Melinda and I never would have expected that in 2008, one of our daughters would come home from school with an assignment to learn about the Millennium Development Goals.
Third, the MDGs show how we can solve problems that might seem intractable. Sometimes people look at poverty or childhood deaths and say, “I feel bad about that, but there’s no way we can make progress on that in my lifetime. It’s just too depressing and complex.”
The MDGs cut through that complexity. The results prove that success is possible and real. Fewer children are dying and fewer people are living in poverty. The death rate from malaria has fallen by more than 25 percent since 2000. The proportion of people in extreme poverty has been cut by more than half, meeting MDG 1 five years early.
The success has been infectious. When donors see that their money is having an impact, they want to do more. Net foreign aid has gone up since 2000, and a large part of the increase has gone to global health.
How much credit do the MDGs get for this progress? There’s no way to put a precise number on it, but they probably had a bigger impact on health and education than on poverty. About three quarters of the drop in extreme poverty is due to China’s economic growth, which would have happened with or without the MDGs. But without the goals, it’s unlikely the world would have focused as much as it did on malaria, HIV/AIDS, maternal mortality, or childhood diseases.