09/26/2010 09:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Religious Leaders See Modest Progress In Millennium Development Goals

By Chris Herlinger
Religion News Service

NEW YORK (RNS) Prominent religious, humanitarian and ethical leaders gave mixed grades this week to progress on meeting the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the global yardsticks on fighting poverty.

The ambitious goals, established in 2000 with a target date of 2015, include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality and improving maternal health.

World leaders meeting at the United Nations this week for a three-day (Sept. 20-22) summit acknowledged that several of the global aims--including those around maternal health and child mortality--are not likely to be met by 2015, one reason U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced a $40 billion global health initiative aimed at mothers and children.

"More could have happened, more could be done," the Rev. David Beckmann, a Lutheran minister who serves as president of the Washington-based advocacy group Bread for the World, said Wednesday (Sept. 22) at a forum assessing progress on the MDGs and the overall global fight against poverty.

Beckmann, a 2010 World Food Prize laureate, called the progress made against poverty "the great exodus of our time," and "an extraordinary liberation," making him "profoundly hopeful, because hundreds of millions of people have escaped from extreme poverty in the last 20 years."

"When I look at what's happened, and I believe in God, this is God moving in our history," Beckmann said at a forum sponsored by Yale Divinity School at the Church Center for the United Nations. "This is our loving God answering the prayers of hundreds of millions of people."

Others assessing progress on global poverty saw some progress, but were far more measured in their evaluations. Yale professor Thomas Pogge was downright pessimistic, saying that while there are some success stories, the world's poor continue to face "enormous headwinds."

"The remarkable thing is that things are getting worse despite all these successes," Pogge said. "There are much larger forces at work against the poor than all these wonderful good forces in favor of the poor."

He noted that global hunger numbers remain high, with the United Nations reporting last year that the number of people in the world classified as "chronically malnourished" had surpassed 1 billion.

"Look at how many people are hungry, and you'll get a good sense of what's happening from the ground with regard to poverty," Pogge said.

Research also shows, he said, that one-third of all human deaths--some 18 million annually--are directly related to poverty, such as diseases "that cause little or no damage among more affluent populations."

A study issued in conjunction with the U.N. meeting by the British-based Christian Aid humanitarian agency also cast a critical eye on progress in the fight against poverty.

While praising the MDGs for having "raised the profile" of the need to eradicate poverty, the report also faulted the global effort for not recognizing that poverty "is not simply a lack of income, or ... housing, food, access to fresh water or consumer goods," but also "a lack of opportunity, a lack of power over one's own life and prospects, a lack of human dignity."

The report added that the goal of "empowering those in poverty was translated, somehow, into telling poor countries what their priorities should be," and that rich nations that were asked to meet their financial obligations to the poor were "largely exempted ... from accountability for their critical part in determining the global structures and systems that fuel poverty."