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Issue Date:  October 5, 2007

Media frenzy buries U.N. goals

When the U.N. General Assembly opened its 62nd annual meeting Sept. 25, the disproportionate attention accorded the controversial Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad overshadowed other topics. Granted, the fuss that followed Ahmadinejad forced valuable debate over such themes as freedom of speech, hospitality (or lack of it), and tolerance for half truths and misinformation. Nevertheless, his appearance was among a stream of high-profile events at the United Nations that siphon attention from significant projects underway in the wings. Not everything notable relates to government leaders and their theatrics.

Established in 1945, the 192-member General Assembly occupies a central position as the United Nations’ chief deliberative, policy-making organ. It provides a forum for multilateral discussion of a full spectrum of international issues. Not least are efforts to improve conditions of human life. During a summit meeting in September 2000, the General Assembly unanimously adopted the Millennium Declaration, pledging: “We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than 1 billion of them are currently subjected.” The declaration led to the articulation of eight specific development goals to be achieved by 2015 (see box).

At its September meetings, the General Assembly celebrated the midpoint of this international undertaking. Though the work accomplished to date and the people committed to its success deserve public applause, this anniversary received precious little attention. Too often, the United Nations’ failures and inefficiencies get highlighted at the expense of quiet, sustained efforts that constructively affect the lives of people around the world.

The Millennium Development Goals are an unprecedented effort to meet the needs of the world’s poorest people. In the 2007 report, Ban Ki-Moon, U.N. secretary general wrote, “They have become a universal framework for development and a means for developing countries and their development partners to work together in pursuit of a shared future for all.”

The eight development goals bind countries to join forces in the fight against poverty, illiteracy, hunger, lack of education, gender inequality, child and maternal mortality, disease and environmental degradation. The eighth goal calls on rich countries to relieve debt, increase aid and give poor countries fair access to their markets and technology.

As noted in a previous report on progress: “The Millennium Development Goals are a test of political will to build stronger partnerships. Developing countries have the responsibility to undertake policy reforms and strengthen governance to liberate the creative energies of their people. But they cannot reach the goals on their own without new aid commitments, equitable trading rules and debt relief. The goals offer the world a means to accelerate the pace of development and to measure results.”

The results thus far are mixed. The midpoint report demonstrates how much remains to be done. Yet, it points to significant gains and maintains that success is still possible in most parts of the world. It notes encouragingly some progress is being made in even those regions where the challenges are the greatest.

For instance, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty fell from nearly a third to less than one fifth between 1990 and 2004. If the trend continues, the poverty reduction target stated in the goals will be met for the world as a whole and for most the regions. More children are now attending school in the developing world. Women’s political participation has been growing, albeit slowly. Child mortality has declined globally and key interventions to control malaria have been expanded.

Still, daunting challenges lie ahead. More than half a million women die each year from preventable or treatable complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The number of people dying from AIDS worldwide increased to 2.9 million in 2006. Most economies have failed to provide employment opportunities for their youth. Warming of the climate is now unequivocal.

Individuals and groups pursuing the millennium goals are not naive. They know the obstacles all too well. But they also know of the capacity within developing countries and their development partners for establishing effective policies that will provide the financial and technical support necessary for success. The developed countries have an obligation to deliver on their commitments. The U.N. system may be far from perfect, but as a wise representative of a nongovernmental organization said, “The U.N. is like water dripping on a stone. It will take time, but the stone will wear and its shape will be transformed by the sustained effort of even the slightest of drops.”

Kudos to the folks making the millennium goals happen, to the nongovernmental organizations involved in the work, to the countries committed to carrying out the mandate, and to the visionaries who were unwilling to settle for the status quo.

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2007

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