Meeting the Millennium Development Goals: The Best Investment We Can Make?

07/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This September marks nine years since leaders from 192 countries around the world endorsed the Millennium Declaration, a commitment to build a safer, more prosperous and equitable world through the achievement of eight objectives - the Millennium Development Goals, by 2015. The endorsement was based on the belief that, for the first time in history, one generation has the opportunity to end extreme poverty, hunger, and disease.

Almost a decade after that historic meeting, we find ourselves in the worst economic recession of the last several decades. Industrial giants have filed for bankruptcy, housing prices have collapsed, and the US unemployment rate has climbed to its highest point in a quarter century. With these crises on our doorstep, can we afford to keep the promises we made to people living in places many of us have never heard of, and fewer of us have ever seen?

In fact, we can't afford not to. Now, it is critical that we not only reaffirm but accelerate our commitment to tackle the many dimensions of extreme poverty around the world. The financial crisis threatens poorer countries even more than it does the developed world.

Unemployment and reduced wages, as well as slowing remittance flows, will increase the number of people living in poverty by 46 million in 2009. The World Bank, in a report published on March 8th, warns that infant deaths in developing countries may be 200,000 - 400,000 per year higher on average between 2009 and the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target year of 2015 than they would have been in the absence of the crisis.

Those numbers conjure up very emotional images for me, and I suspect for you as well, but I'm going to ask you to consider this result of the economic crisis somewhat dispassionately. Think for a moment of the kind of economic backsliding and failure that will bring about this mortality. Consider the other, far-reaching effects of the poverty, disease and despair that would make it possible. Also consider the deterioration of global health, the rise of pandemics, the loss of markets and prosperity and the negative impacts on global security that would result. Moral imperatives aside, alleviating poverty is one of the most cost-efficient investments we can make.

Although recent history is one of global wealth disappearance, the decade in which we currently live saw the rise of vast private fortunes and, consequently, a staggering increase in the number of foundations and NGO activity in both developed and developing countries. Much of this activity was innovative; from Millennium Promise's unique approach to mobilizing a network of corporate and philanthropic partners, to the Millennium Villages' proof of concept initiative. These give us guidance as to how to do development better, and how to get more out of every precious dollar we spend.

The Millennium Villages are proving that rural Africa can achieve the MDGs through a comprehensive approach -- one that is community-led; use advances in science and technology such as remote sensing, geographic information systems and internet connectivity; and includes simple, cost-effective solutions like providing high-yield seeds, fertilizers, drinking wells and materials to build schools and clinics. In Mayange, one of the poorest sectors in Rwanda, improvements in health service delivery have resulted in lower rates of TB, malaria, and deaths due to AIDS. Mortality of children under five has plummeted. The utilization rate of health services is nearly double that of the rest of Rwanda, and the rate of assisted births increased from 52% to 81%. In the wake of these health improvements, businesses and cooperatives are springing up throughout the community and wealth and prosperity are on the rise.

The model pioneered by the first Millennium Villages is now being replicated in 80 communities across 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa encompassing more than 400,000 people. The lessons learned earlier in this decade will enable us to target investments even more efficiently in the future, to get more out of every dollar. These lessons must be applied far beyond Millennium Villages, however, if the world is to keep its promise to the billion people living on less than $1 per day. And though we now know how to use aid dollars more efficiently, we can't make something out of nothing.

Official development assistance to Africa has remained essentially unchanged since rich countries promised in 2005 to double it by 2010. We cannot allow this to continue. Just six years from the target date of 2015 it is clear that we are not on track to meet the MDGs, especially in Africa, if we continue with business as usual.

A child in sub-Saharan Africa dies of malaria every 30 seconds, despite the fact that effective and cheap prophylaxis and treatment exist. The cost of lost production due to malaria in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to be more than $1.8B per year. The cost of crime and civil unrest due to the resulting poverty is likely even greater. We simply have to invest, for everyone's sake.

Bill Clinton said it well in his address at the UN in February: "Do you want to be living, when we come out of the other side of this financial crisis, with the wreckage of yet more years of neglect or do we want to keep on going on this when you know as well as I do, that working in the poorest countries in the world is the least expensive thing we can do to fulfill our responsibilities as global citizens?"