While it isn’t quite obvious on the surface, the state of the human population is vastly better off than it was fifteen or twenty-five years ago. Today, fewer people are living on cents a day. More children, especially girls, are attending school. Fewer and fewer people are dying unnecessarily from easily preventable and treatable diseases. Yet with only 500 days until the end of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) there remains a hesitation to label the initiative a resounding success.
At the beginning of the new millennium, the world decided to make tackling global poverty a top priority. The MDGs attempted to address this through a set of eight specific goals and 21 targets. The framework focuses on economic poverty, communicable diseases, gender equality, education, environmental issues, and global partnerships. In an unprecedented manner, developed nations rose to the challenge of addressing the key issues facing humanity by instituting innovative programs and significantly increasing funding.
While valid criticisms surround the current MDGs, their success in reducing poverty is difficult to ignore. In honor of the 500 day marker, it is worth reflecting on some of the countries that have not achieved overall MDG success, but have nonetheless managed to improve the lives of millions of their citizens despite large challenges:
Target 1.A: “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1.25 a day”
Out of all the countries not “on target” to achieve this goal, Bangladesh has made some of the most significant progress. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and has a rapidly growing population. Nevertheless, from 1990 to 2010, when accounting for population growth, approximately 10.5 million Bangladeshis advanced above the $1.25 per day threshold.* Another 12 million moved above the national poverty line — approximately 8 percent of Bangladesh’s current population.
Compared with China, which has reduced its number of extreme poor by 81 percent — about half of one billion people — Bangladesh’s number may seem insignificant. But it’s important to remember that over the past two decades, China has experienced 77.8 percent growth in gross domestic product, or GDP, per capita. In comparison, since 1990 Bangladesh has only experienced 7.6 percent growth in GDP per capita.
Target 2.A: “Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling”
The number of children enrolled in primary school has increased in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), from about 49 percent in 1991 to 61 percent in 2010, with almost equal numbers of boys and girls. Overall, it has increased only 25 percent and will absolutely not meet the universal goal by 2015. However, it is important to consider that between 1993 and 1999, completion in the DRC fell from 52 percent to 32 percent. The subsequent increase since the adoption of the MDGs is approximately 92 percent, meaning nations have been able to fill schools to pre-Rwandan Genocide — which sparked instability in the DRC — and First Congo War levels, and then some.
The DRC has made these gains despite persistent civil conflict, often referred to as “development in reverse.” Resources are extremely scarce in the country, and it is often ranked as one of the poorest in the world. However, its government recently increased the proportion of the national budget allocated to education from 6.5 percent to 13.8 percent — a largely unheard-of phenomenon in any country, let alone one where the gross national income, or GNI, per capita is $400.
Target 5.A: “Reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio”
Mauritania has decreased its maternal mortality rate by 51 percent, from 1,200 out of every 100,000 live births in 1990 to 590 live births in 2010. In absolute terms, this change equals 610 lives saved per every 100,000 live births. Only two other countries, Lao PDR and Bhutan, have greater reduction rates in absolute numbers, but both officially pass the three-quarters threshold. Mauritania will not pass this threshold by 2015 and continues to combat on of the highest poverty rates in the world and persistent political upheaval.
Meanwhile Belarus, which reduced its maternal mortality rate by 89 percent between 1990 and 2010, achieved the target by saving only 33 lives per every 100,000 live births — much less than the number saved in Mauritania. Again, this is an important accomplishment, but it is an example of how easily percentages can eclipse absolute realities on the ground.
Pulling back from these notable victories and continuing challenges, the global community must now look toward the next 15 years with lessons learned but also a great sense of accomplishment in the number of lives saved and improved — even if targets and goals are not fully met in 500 days’ time. It is, and will always be, a challenge to apply a uniform set of targets and goals to all nations, but with continued, focused efforts, we may see a world without poverty by 2030.
* Note: Unless otherwise indicated, data is based on author’s calculations using the World Bank “Trends and projections of each MDG indicator for each country,” 1990–2010.