Assessing the Millennium Summit

09/22/2010 03:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • George Kent Political Science Professor, University of Hawaii

Shrinking Commitments

Consider the treatment of the hunger problem, under Millennium Development Goal 1. In the Millennium Declaration of 2000, 191 member states of the UN committed themselves "to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world's people . . . who suffer from hunger." Some have assumed the idea was to reduce the proportion who are hungry to half what it was in the year 2000. A similar commitment was made at the World Food Summit in 1996, when a commitment was made to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their level at that time, 1996, by no later than 2015. On this basis, one might imagine that the Millennium people were thinking of 1996 as the baseline year.

However the project actually uses 1990 as the baseline. Since the proportion of hungry people has been going down until recently, setting the baseline as 1990 rather than 1996 or 2000 makes it easier to achieve the goal of reducing the proportion by half.

While the Millennium Declaration of 2000 promised to reduce by half the proportion of the world's population that are hungry, the FAO and the Millennium Development Project now focus on the percentage of people who are hungry in developing countries. Since developing countries have higher population growth rates, this makes the goal easier to reach. With any given number of hungry people, a growing population means they account for a decreasing proportion of the population.

As Figure 1 indicates, it is very unlikely that the proportion in developed countries can be reduced to half what it was in 1990 by 2015.


Figure 1. Proportion of people undernourished, over time. (Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2010.)

For most global indicators, the high level of aggregation tends to ensure that there will be few abrupt changes in the trend over time. Things can get better or worse quickly in particular locations, but when all of these changes are added up, net global changes tend to be modest. Nevertheless, if the Millennium Development Project had a real impact at the global level, we would expect the global trend lines to show distinctive changes for the better from the year 2000 onward. As the project spread and strengthened its methods, over time there should be increasing positive deviation from the trend line that would have been expected in the absence of the project.

It is difficult to find trends on any of the Millennium Development Project's chosen indicators that show distinct improvements beginning soon after 2000. Hunger has increased, not decreased. There has been a steady downward trend in the global child mortality rate, but there has not been any distinctive new dip in the new millennium. On the basis of the child mortality rate's history in the preceding thirty years, we would have predicted levels after 2000 close to the rates that have been observed. At the global level, there is no obvious impact of new programs.

Success Has Many Fathers

The summit of September 2010 is one many meetings and publications to assess the progress of the Millennium Development Project. The summit will rely on Millennium Development Goals Report 2010, the most recent of an annual series of published assessments by the United Nations.

What exactly is being assessed? What is the purpose of the summit? Certainly, there has been progress on some of the indicators of human well-being, as illustrated by the steady decline of child mortality worldwide, and progress has been slow or absent on other indicators, such as hunger. This would have been true with or without the Millennium Development Project.

Is assessing overall global progress the objective of these assessment exercises? Or is the purpose to assess the contribution of the Millennium Development Project? What has it contributed? The MDG indicators that have been selected show that they are looking at global progress overall. They are not trying to tease out the distinctive contribution of the project.

When things go bad globally, apparently it is no one's fault, but when things take a turn for the better, international agencies are quick to claim credit for it. For example, in 2007 it was announced that the number of children who die before their fifth birthdays each year fell to below ten million a year for the first time in 2006. Some said that the improvements were meager and questionable. UNICEF said, "global efforts to promote child immunization, breast-feeding and anti-malaria measures had helped cut the death rate of 
children under age 5 by nearly a quarter since 1990 and more than 60 percent
since 1960."

UNICEF's programs certainly have helped, but by how much? The United States Agency for International Development used to boast that child mortality rates were declining in most of the nations in which its child survival program was working. That might have been because there has been a steady worldwide decline in child mortality rates almost everywhere, a decline that has been occurring independently of any specific interventions. Where there are no extraordinary events such as armed conflict or epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, child mortality rates go down. Showing that there have been improvements is not the same as showing that a particular program or action has produced those improvements. Some of these "outcomes" would have taken place just as well in the absence of the programs or actions.

Most of the progress reports relating to the Millennium Development Project describe trends on indicators of interest, but they do not show that these results were related in any direct way to the activities of the project. We need to know not only whether there has been some improvement, but also whether the improvements were the result of the activities.

Global Plans?

The review summit is described as "an opportunity to re-energize the global MDG effort and agree on a concrete action plan to accelerate progress towards meeting the Goals by their target date of 2015." Has there really been a global MDG effort? The intention to agree on a concrete action plan to accelerate progress is laudable. However, this should not lead us to believe there has been a concrete global action plan from 2000 up to now.

Many people have the impression that there is a global Millennium Development Project underway. A vague overall plan for such a project was prepared in 2005, but it was not adopted. The reality is that at the global level there is only a small advocacy office in the United Nations Development Program in New York that calls for more effective work at the national level. The lack of programmatic global action is illustrated by the Millennium Development Project's Halving Hunger report. It offered a number of generalized recommendations, but had little to say about how they would be implemented, or by whom, or with what resources.

Where there is a serious commitment to a goal, we should expect to find a detailed plan of stepwise action under which designated actors use specific resources to arrive at a concrete target within a specified time. There would be specific provisions for making mid-course adjustments if the trajectory was not on target. There is no global plan for achieving the Millennium Development Goals that would really lead us to expect that the goals would be achieved by 2015. There is no serious plan for ending hunger in the world, or halving it--and there never has been.

Assessing the progress of the Millennium Development Project would make sense if there were in fact a global program and a global plan of action that is being carried out. However, the story is not about failing plans of action, but about absent plans of action. There is a huge difference. There is no way to assess the progress of plans that have not been made.

Hunger, like so many other issues supposedly addressed by the Millennium Development Project, is a challenge of global governance, and not just a series of national problems. No child is born into a poor world. Like many other concerns on the agenda of the project, hunger should be seen as a global issue. Global plans are needed to deal with global issues.