Halfway to the Millennium Development Goals

The following appeared as an op-ed in The Guardian Online on Thursday, September 25th.

This week, over 150 world leaders are gathered at the UN for the opening of the general assembly. If recent years are any indication, news outlets will focus on the disagreements aired on Tuesday, when George Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the podium.

But the real drama occurs today (Thursday), when the same global leaders that butted heads earlier in the week take stock of one of the most far-reaching and noble statements of international cooperation ever agreed upon, the millennium development goals.
These eight benchmarks, agreed upon at the World Summit in 2000, are meant to be a statement of world support for the idea that all the world’s citizens have the right to basic healthcare, education and nutrition, and the mechanisms necessary to support themselves, among other things. This week’s meeting roughly marks the midpoint to the 2015 target date.

So far, the glass looks half empty, but time has not yet run out. What is required now above all is a renewed commitment to global development on the part of the US, which, despite the recent economic downturn, remains the world’s largest economy and dominant power.

First, the good news. Thanks to improvements in prevention programmes and the availability of anti-retroviral treatments, we are starting to see a decline in the number of people who are becoming infected and dying from HIV/Aids for the first time since the UN started collecting data. Measles is also on the decline. Deaths from measles fell from 750,000 worldwide in 2000 to under 250,000 in 2007. Investments in malaria prevention are also showing results. The distribution of life-saving insecticide-treated bed nets is now widespread in 16 out of 20 malaria-endemic countries. Finally, thanks to campaigns to forgive the debts of so-called “highly indebted poor countries”, the share of developing countries’ export earnings devoted to paying external debts has fallen from 12.5% in 2000 to 6.6% in 2006.

We have seen some progress. But data shows that it has been spread unevenly across the globe. The situation in sub-Saharan Africa remains particularly bleak. The global economic slowdown and rising cost of food has hit this region the hardest. The goal of reducing by half the number of people who live on a dollar a day will not be met there. To make matters worse, higher food prices threaten to push 100m more people into poverty and erode the measured progress we have made toward reducing childhood malnutrition. To compound all of these problems, international trade negotiations (the so-called Doha round) are years behind schedule and, even if they succeed, are in danger of being less development-focused than was once hoped.

Still, there is enough time for us to reach most, if not all, of these goals. The US will play a pivotal role in whether or not those goals are achieved. The first thing we need to do is increase foreign aid. Americans are a generous people, and we expect the same of our government. But most Americans would be surprised to learn, however, that only 0.17% of our gross national income goes to government-sponsored development assistance programmes. That puts the US second to last (ahead of Greece) among developed countries’ official development assistance expenditures. True, our philanthropic and private sectors are much more active than in any other country. But even the wealthiest philanthropy is no substitute for what the federal government can do.

Just throwing money at the problem, however, is not the answer. We also need to reorganise our entire foreign aid apparatus, which has not undergone a significant overhaul since 1961. According to the Modernising Foreign Assistance Network, US foreign assistance is spread across as many as 24 government agencies and 50 programmes. The Treasury department, state department, department of agriculture and sub-cabinet-level agencies like USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation compete with each other for precious foreign aid dollars. On top of that, individual members of Congress often add earmarks to fund foreign aid projects of their own parochial interests instead of what’s best for those in need.

We need a strategic and comprehensive view of how to spend taxpayer dollars more wisely and toward a common purpose. The Modernising Foreign Assistance Network advises that the next president fold these multiple arms of our aid apparatus into a single entity, which they recommend as a cabinet-level department of global development. Clearly, a foreign aid bureaucracy developed in 1961 needs to be updated to meet 21st-century challenges.

There are hopeful signs that both our presidential candidates get this. Barack Obama has proposed doubling America’s foreign development assistance to $50bn. And, like Obama, John McCain considers eliminating extreme poverty and fighting HIV/Aids imperative to American national security interests.

These are decent first steps, but not enough. Fighting global poverty today is a wise down payment on a more stable and prosperous future. The millennium development goals tells us what needs to be done to live in a world free of extreme, endemic poverty. The next president can show us how to get there.