Last week was the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) summit. Back in 2000, the international community agreed to end hunger, send more kids to school, keep mothers and their babies healthy, and stop HIV/AIDS from becoming a death sentence – all by 2015. We now know that, at the due date, most countries will have failed to meet most of these goals. But those who focus on our failure to reach the targeted numbers are missing the point.
Many complain that the MDGs are just one-size-fits-all goals that do not even tell us how to achieve them. But that is precisely what is significant about them. The very fact that 192 United Nations member states and at least 23 international organizations succeeded in agreeing on a set of goals to make the world a better place for the most vulnerable is a historic achievement in its own right.
These goals are most valuable when viewed as a reminder of the bleak contrast between the world we have today and the world we want. The MDGs are a powerful guidance tool when working with governments on setting policy goals – because they stand as already established benchmarks covering a comprehensive range of development needs. Working with a country that is reluctant to invest in basic education? Remind them of their MDG commitment and you are guaranteed to find a more receptive hearing.
The high profile of the MDG has raised global consciousness to unprecedented levels (thank you, Bono!). Official development assistance from industrialized nations increased by 34 percent between 2004 and 2010. While it is true that progress has been mixed and that the economic growth of China and India has largely driven some of the changes, recent monitoring reports show verifiable successes, particularly in cutting by half the number of people living in extreme poverty, achieving universal primary school enrollment, and fighting infectious diseases. This progress shows that change is indeed possible, and that together we can do it.
To answer the critics, yes, next time we set development goals at a global level, we should be more careful about defining the goals in unequivocal ways by clarifying who is accountable for what goal and covering areas such as electricity, governance, and population control. But for the next five years, we should use the MDGs for what they do best: guiding policy discussions and keeping the eye on the big balls. Despite their imperfections, their influence on government decision-making is manifestly better than it would have been without them. Similarly, the idea behind this week’s lofty summit is to inject some political will and secure new commitments that will further reduce the gap to reaching the MDGs. It will remind leaders that now is the time for bold, concrete, and accountable action plans.