Scores of world leaders assembled in New York and vowed to accelerate progress on the eight Millennium Development Goals to ward off a looming failure to meet the targets by 2015. They adopted an extensive 31-page document that reaffirms their determination to reach the goals, such as reducing poverty and hunger, increasing access to education, boosting maternal health and combatting disease. In the document, nations commit to policies that will help move the ball forward in each area, including fulfilling aid pledges made at previous gatherings. Here's a closer look.
To keep the pressure on, the document asks for annual reports on where the goals stand, plus another special summit on the matter in 2013. In an acknowledgment that efforts to improve the health of mothers and children are lagging, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon launched a fresh push to solve that predicament, bringing together countries and private donors to spend $40 billion (U.S.) on the cause.
Critics fault the summit for being long on pronouncements but short on concrete details. It was unclear, for instance, how much of the $40-billion hailed by the Secretary-General as fresh resources to improve maternal and child health was actually new funding. Oxfam estimated that nearly half the cash had already been pledged and said that wealthy countries were simply "putting old promises … in a shiny new UN wrapper," according to a spokesperson. The document contains high aspirations and astute observations, but "no plan, no timetable, and no accountability on the donors," said Jeffrey Sachs, an economist who advises the UN on the goals. The agreement reflects well on the diplomats who put it together, he said, but it gives no sense of how to advance in specific terms. "Diplomats don't make plans, they don't vote budgets and they don't do operations," he said.
The summit provided a rare opportunity for officials and experts from around the world to exchange notes on what's working and what's not. Although there is a large shortfall between today's reality and the desired level of progress, individual countries have made notable strides. In Africa, the most challenged region of the world, there are a number of bright spots. Ethiopia has more than tripled the proportion of its children enrolled in primary school since 1991, using increased local and international funding to abolish fees, train teachers and build new classrooms. Ghana has slashed the proportion of people whose income is less than $1.25 a day or who suffer from hunger, putting it on track to achieve those UN targets ahead of the 2015 deadline.
The road ahead is murky. The fact that world leaders gathered at the UN and publicly recommitted themselves to meeting the goals will provide additional momentum over the next several years. And some of the fruits of the summit - the product of informal discussions and brainstorming in the corridors of the UN - won't be evident for weeks or months. But given the ongoing economic stress in much of the developed world, many governments in wealthy countries don't have these issues at the top of their priority list. It is increasingly clear that meeting the Millennium Development Goals by the stated deadline will require an extraordinary effort, not one on autopilot. "We need to reduce child mortality four times faster if we're going to reach the finish line by 2015," noted Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of Save the Children International. "We know what needs to be done - but the message to world leaders is clear: Run, don't walk."