The Clock’s Ticking for the MDGs

The final deadline for the Millennium Development Goals is fast approaching. There is much that can still be done says John McArthur.

By: /
25 September, 2013
John McArthur
By: John McArthur

Senior fellow, Brookings Institution 

If global development targets followed a National Football League format, we would be approaching the two-minute warning. December 31, 2015, marks the final deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, the global anti-poverty targets that have mobilized an unprecedented generational success in tackling extreme poverty around the world, most notably the burdens of disease in the poorest countries. We are now facing the final moment to bend the relevant curves of progress. For decision makers, 2013 is the real 2015.

It is difficult to overstate how important the final 2015 results will be. As ends unto themselves, the statistics measure outcomes across billions of people. For indicators like hunger, income poverty, and access to drinking water, each percentage point of developing world progress will represent approximately 60 million lives improved. But the deeper effects will take hold over the medium term, when governments and citizens decide how seriously to pursue any subsequent goals through to 2030. In global political terms, success begets success, and the next generation needs to feel an obligation to achieve at least as much as its predecessor.

Some observers believe 2015 should not be an over-inflated deadline amidst the grand sweep of human progress. But the reality is that the 2015 targets bring unique political salience, having been set in 2000 by the then-largest ever gathering of world leaders, at the dawn of a new millennium. Moreover, the statistics will form some of the most scrutinized policy data in history. Limitless commentaries, academic articles, and even PhD dissertations will be written on how, why, and where each thematic goal did or did not boost success. The operative question is not whether the end-2015 data will matter. The real question is how much the data will motivate sustained global co-operation efforts in the future.

Two years might seem too brief to make inroads, but there is still room for huge progress. From 2000 to 2006, Cambodia cut child mortality by a stunning average of nearly 20 percent every two years. Between 2005 and 2007, Malawi pioneered an agricultural support program that doubled national cereal production and helped turn the tide on a history of global policy failures. During 2009 and 2010, more than 230 million anti-malaria bednets were distributed, mostly in Africa, affording unprecedented protection for twice that many people. From 2010 to 2012, life-saving AIDS treatment expanded nearly 50 per cent, remarkably now reaching about 10 million people.

On April 5 of this year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called attention to the final 1,000 days of the MDGs and the need for continued momentum. Some organizations like the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations set 1,000-day targets to deliver front-line pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines to 50 countries around the world. The Nigerian Ministry of Health established admirably specific goals for training health workers and expanding access to basic drugs and services en route to eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission.

But many of the world’s major economies, including Canada, still need to set similarly specific commitments. Most notably, the Obama Administration will have been in office for nearly half the MDG era. Representing the world’s largest economy, the United States has now endorsed the goals en route to a long-term vision of eradicating extreme poverty and disease within two decades. But it still needs to set explicit objectives for the end of 2015. The administration, led by its highly talented development chief, Raj Shah, can straightforwardly set targets as intermediate metrics for its second term. Joining the international timetable would bring enormous political mileage across foreign policy priorities.

Although each developed and developing country has its own respective opportunities, some global urgencies stand out, like this fall’s replenishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. No institution has done more to transform global anti-poverty expectations and outcomes over the past decade. It pressingly needs $15 billion in commitments in order to help save and improve countless millions of lives over the next three years.

The clock hasn’t stopped yet. World leaders are now gathering at UN headquarters in New York to take stock on the final stretch to 2015 and beyond. They need to huddle-up and recognize the pivotal nature of the next several weeks in setting the terms for a generation’s final lap. Their decisions will largely be self-fulfilling. Those who choose to make stretch efforts amidst global complexity will improve their own odds of success. Those who quietly avoid the challenge will meanwhile lower everyone else’s chances.

Ambitious goals don’t simply achieve themselves. They are attained when individuals and organizations take specific and practical steps. This fall, development leaders from government, business, and civil society should not just be advocating for the world’s international development goals. They should recognize they are making their final millennium development decisions.

This post originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.

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