Millennium Development Goals: Drive to Combat Global Ills Gets a Boost at UN Summit

If a major company were to set itself a number of lofty goals to be reached, let's say, within 15 years, wouldn't it make sense for it to bring its top leadership together way ahead of the target date to gauge progress?

That kind of stock-taking and forward planning was in fact an underlying idea behind a three-day high-level event that took place at the United Nations in late September.

Its focus was on progress in reaching the Millennium Development Goals - a set of eight targets approved by Member States at the UN's Millennium Summit back in 2000. The goals, also known as MDGs, aim to slash extreme poverty and hunger, halt the spread of HIV and malaria, get all kids to school, empower women, and expand access to clean water, all by 2015.

If one were to judge a forum's importance by the level of participation, then the MDG Summit was clearly a big success: some 185 countries took part in its sessions at the highest level of representation, including scores of Heads of State and Government. But was it as strong on the substantive side?

There is a broad consensus at the UN and beyond that the Summit proved to be a key step forward on a road that may be strewn with obstacles, but is nevertheless vitally important to travel. In planning the forum, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wanted to achieve several things: renew political commitment to the MDGs, attain agreement on a concrete action plan for the coming five years and give Member States a chance to make specific investment commitments in a number of key strategic areas. Let's look at how the Summit fared on those fronts.

Governments, foundations, businesses and other partners pledged over $40 billion for women's and children's health over the next five years. This money, and the collective actions spelled out in the initiative launched by the Secretary-General, can save the lives of more than 16 million women and children, prevent 33 million unwanted pregnancies, and protect 120 million children from pneumonia.

In addition, the UK announced a tripling of its funding to fight malaria, the European Union offered a billion euros to the most committed and needy countries, and companies such as Dell, UPS International and PepsiCo put on the table initiatives to boost education, gender equality and access to clean water.

Without a Summit, it would have been hard to rally this level of support. The Millennium Development Goals rarely make it into the spotlight. They have been around for ten years - but most people, especially in the US, have never heard of them. Thanks to high-level events like the Summit, the Goals are making headlines.

And there is good news to report: Globally, the number of people living below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day declined from 1.8 billion to 1.4 billion between 1990 and 2005 - despite population growth. Enrolment in primary school in developing regions reached 89 per cent in 2008, up from 82 per cent in 1999. The death rate of children under five fell by 28 per cent between 1990 and 2008. The spread of HIV appears to have stabilized in most regions, and more people are surviving longer. And some 1.7 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water since 1990.

These global figures are a reflection of remarkable progress made by individual countries, including many poor ones: Malawi almost tripled its food production between 2005 and 2007, significantly cutting down hunger. Tanzania doubled the primary school enrolment ratio to 99.6 per cent between 1999 and 2008. Vietnam more than halved the mortality rate of children under five between 1990 and 2008. And Guatemala increased the proportion of the population who have access to clean drinking water from 79 per cent in 1990 to 96 per cent in 2006.

But we are not on track to achieve many of the Goals, and of course, a lot remains to be done. The Millennium Development Goals are like a marathon run, as Jeffrey Sachs said to a group of UN Goodwill Ambassadors supporting the campaign for the Goals, including champion runner Paul Tergat. We're in it for the long haul. But with just five years left to the deadline, we need to pick up the pace. Turning to Olympian Carl Lewis, who works with Tergat on raising awareness about the near-billion people who go hungry every day, Sachs said that now is the time to sprint to the finish line.

The challenge now would be to take the big push generated by this UN Summit, and follow through on the action needed to meet these Goals. But the effectiveness of that action hinges on the leaders' resolve to deliver on their commitments, and for all others -- businesses, NGOs, faith-based groups -- to stay engaged and do their part. People everywhere are paying attention, and world leaders had a chance to hear directly from ordinary women and men at the Summit through the Citizen Ambassadors to the United Nations video campaign.

"Between now and 2015, we must make sure that promises made become promises kept," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the close of the Summit. "The consequences of doing otherwise are profound: death, illness and despair, needless suffering, lost opportunities for millions upon millions of people."

We have seen the face of success; we know what works. The message of this Summit is that, indeed, together we can end extreme poverty.