04/05/2013 03:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013

Millennium Development Goals: 1,000 Days to Go

Just 50 years ago, at the height of the civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King Jr. was in a Birmingham jail. A group of moderate clergymen published a letter arguing that King's tactics were "unwise and untimely" in trying to force change before the time was right. It was, they suggested, inevitable that African-Americans would "eventually" gain their rights. The implication was to stick to moderation and "due deliberate speed."

King responded with a letter that argued passionately that it was a "tragic misconception" to act as if time would bring inevitable progress. "Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [and women]."

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim evoked King's words in Birmingham in a speech April 2 at Georgetown University. He had two punch lines: that "the time is ripe to do right," and "progress is never inevitable." Thus he focused on setting goals, "precisely because nothing is inevitable." Goals help us "to challenge external obstacles -- but also to defy our own inertia." Goals keep us "alert to the 'urgency of the moment,' to push constantly beyond our own limits." Goals help to fight fatalism and complacency, "both deadly enemies of the poor."

"We set goals so that, every day, every hour, we can ensure that our actions are aligned with our deepest values -- those we can affirm without shame before the judgment of history."

Dr. Kim's focus on goals has special poignancy today as we stand at one of those moments in time raw numbers bring home. The clock is ticking on the ambitious goals that all the nations of the U.N. set as the millennium turned in the year 2000. The end of the year 2015, the deadline, is ticking down and today is just 1,000 days away.

Injustice, we know well, does not vanish "inevitably," whether it is racial or gender discrimination or the injustice of penury and suffering amidst plenty. Injustices must, as Dr. King pointed out, be "rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action" spurred by "the urgency of the moment."

Surely nowhere does that admonition speak more forcefully than where raw, brutal poverty and suffering are concerned. It also speaks to two other themes that Dr. Kim suggested on Tuesday: action on the existential threat of climate change and the equally demanding if more elusive challenge of addressing deep inequalities in societies that poison social trust and a common sense of fairness and justice.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are grounded in three vital realizations.

The first is that, for the very first time in human history, we have the tools, the knowledge, and the resources to end poverty. What that means is that the ideal of religious and philosophical traditions alike when they speak of human dignity, rights and human flourishing can in truth, in reality, be realized. Educating all people is possible. Decent nutrition, health care, sound application of laws, all are possible. Benighted societies where conflict seemed a fatal and permanent condition have been transformed into just and peaceful societies, often in a remarkably short time frame. Because we can do it and it is so clearly right to end suffering, we also have a responsibility to make it happen.

The second fundamental principle is often expressed, far less poetically and persuasively than King's phrases, as a need for accountability for results. We "treasure what we measure" so we need to count and to monitor. Deadlines help us all to stick to priorities. Identifying who is responsible keeps everyone on track.

And third, achieving vast and demanding goals requires leadership, coordination and discipline. But it also requires a fire of the spirit, a gift of communicating across bogs of complexity, combatting inertia and competing priorities. The MDGs were launched with fervor but Sept. 11, 2001 and continuing social and economic crises have made it hard to keep up the momentum. They are far from easy or inevitable.

Faith communities are a vital part of this ambitious global compact to act with conscience and science, though they have rarely been as visible and vital partners as they should be. The moral imperatives that underlie a commitment to caring for others as true neighbors are often expressed in the most compelling way in spiritual terms. And the call to action, to put hands to work, to stick to promises, all are essential parts of what faith communities stand for at their finest.

So, the call coming today from many quarters is that we must, as a community of humanity, keep the promises and goals of that millennium moment alive as the clock ticks down to December 2015. Neither economic growth and poverty reduction nor protection of people and environment are inevitable, so we need concerted, purposeful, passionate and faithful action. Thus we need to think boldly about what we can do beyond: Dr. Kim has urged that the goals of ending absolute poverty by 2030 and arresting climate change are feasible and are moral imperatives. It's an important part of a continuing reflection on what has been achieved, what remains to be done, and where we should look as we turn our eyes to the horizons of the future.