10/18/2010 07:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can Women and Technology Save the UN Development Goals?

"We live in a blessed time," Jeffrey Sachs said. We met at a cafe outside the UN to discuss the Millennium Development Goals to fight poverty and disease and, with these words, Sachs left me thinking really? With all the news about floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, war and political oppression that dominate world news, the words "we live in a blessed time" seemed out of touch. But they're true. And Sachs -- UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special adviser on the MDGs -- is optimistic. We're behind on our 15-year goal to reduce world poverty by half by 2015, yes. But breakthrough technologies and a focus on women's empowerment may allow us to catch up and save lives as never before.

"In the past deprivation was inevitable," he said. "Now it can be ended."

He gave examples. Anti-malaria bed nets have revolutionized the control of that disease. Supercharged fertilizer and seed may allow a poor farmer to grow crops on arid land. Water storage, as well as filtration technologies, may save poor women a day's walk to a well. Sachs has a long list. "There are many, many other examples of technological breakthroughs in the last ten years that make the MDGs far more achievable quickly than was the case at the beginning of this process," he said.

Now comes the hard part: galvanizing aid.

Why should we?
In the days leading up the recent MDG summit in New York, Selim Jahan, Director of the Poverty Division for the UN Development Programme, met with congressional aids in Washington to pitch the goals as an investment. Painted often by conservatives as either flabby, toothless and corrupt or cunning, dangerous and corrupt, the UN is a tough sell in the US. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that he met a certain reluctance. Why should our tax dollars be spent on these things? they asked. Americans have little appetite these days for state building at home, let alone abroad.

"Suppose in Country X, because of deprivation, international policies, inequalities or natural disasters, the level of poverty and deprivation has become so severe that people become desperate and a civil war brakes out," he said. "Once that happens, the international community, including all the developed countries, will try to send peacekeeping forces, will then try to provide humanitarian assistance, will try to contain that thing. But that's down the road. If you spend your money upstream, you may not have to do anything downstream," he said. "Saving two dollars now may cost 200 dollars later on."

Jeffrey Sachs made a similar point. "When people connect the dots to the world's big instabilities in places like Afghanistan, Somalia or Sudan," he said. "they see a lot of that has its roots in extreme poverty and make, what I believe, is the ultimate connection: That this is not only about the important values of being good global citizens and humane people. This is also about peace on the planet."

Eight Goals, One System
The UN and its partners implement MDG programs through a complex network of government policy, state agencies, community leaders, NGOs and private sector investment. On a global level, the eight goals (which include poverty relief, primary education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, environmental sustainability, combating disease, and global partnership) are seen as equally important, eight pillars to a kind of development system. The UN tries not to prioritize because the goals are "synergistic," as they put it. Progress on one will lift the sagging state of another -- or decline with it.

Compared to its neighbors, for example, Malawi has largely ended extreme hunger. But it's fallen behind on school enrollment, leaving any progress vulnerable.

Meanwhile, in parts of Africa where the population suffers from a high rate of HIV / AIDS, combating disease is clearly the biggest challenge. "Without a healthy population, what kind of development can you have? That has an impact on your employment, your income, child mortality and all other things," Jahan noted.

Ironically, the goal with the widest impact on development, the most integrated of the eight, is the most neglected. Women's empowerment may not seem as urgent as solving hunger, disease, or child mortality, but the world is slowly realizing it's the key to all three.

Women Buy Food, Men Buy Motorcycles
If the MDGs are interconnected -- a kind of system for development -- then poor women are its handyman. In the villages, they're the farmers. They collect the water and they collect the fuel wood. Women raise the kids. The women take care of the children in a health crisis. Women engage the schools. "It's a sad true message to the men out there that the women carry a disproportionate share of the burden," Sachs said. "In poor areas it's shocking sometimes."

That may never change. But if empowered with credit, Sachs notes that these women could buy fertilizer, improve seed and at least sustain their families where they toil now in vain. At home, with solar panels providing electricity, they could save hours spent collecting fuel wood and money spent on kerosene. They could live in a safer home, and in a more productive country. Their children could finally study at night.

"So many things can be done that are simple and very empowering," he said.

Jahan pointed out to me that women are more prudent with money as well. Policy experiments show women invest more in family welfare, he said. "If you give women money, the first thing they do is buy better food for their children, send their children to school, or take on their children's health issue."

And men?

"If you give them the money, they'll drink beer, buy a TV or a motorcycle, these kinds of things."

That's good to know. But knowledge and ideas are of little worth without the mother. Another long neglected goal in the developing world is maternal health. Hundreds of thousands of women die in child birth not only tragically but needlessly, due to complications that basic emergency care would prevent.

The MDG Summit and UN Women
In typical UN fashion, the MDG summit came and went with a lot more pomp and circumstance, a lot less transparency and action, than the media, NGO observers, and member states would have liked. "Many of us came into this event with very high hopes," Joanna Kerr, CEO of Action Aid International, told the press. "We know that almost a billion people are living in chronic hunger, and yet we have the solutions to address that on the table."

Kerr called the summit's outcome document, the Action Plan, "a very long laundry list with many wonderful aspirations. But you can't eat an aspiration."

"Many of us feel there's too much complacency at the UN building," she said. "We were hoping much more commitment and much more money was going to be pledged."

Her frustration is understandable. But hopefully this wont be the last word on the world's commitment. The agendas of the G20 and other international forums will allow for follow-ups on unmet pledges -- and status checks on action, Jahan said.

And on the final day of the summit, at least, the UN did make progress on its women's goals. At an event titled "Every Woman, Every Child," Ban Ki-moon announced a new global strategy for women's and children's health that he projects, through committed pledges of more than $40 billion over the next five years, has the potential to save the lives of more than 16 million women and children.

The Secretary General also introduced former-Chilean president Michelle Bachelet as the leader of UN Women, a new "superagency" charged with equality and empowerment missions around the world. Having lobbied several months for a leader with internationally credibility and experience, Women's rights advocates celebrated the choice as "top notch."

Behind The Curve, But ...
Seeing a mixture of hope and pessimism in its aftermath, it's hard to make MDG projections out of the summit. Before the meeting, in conclusion, I asked Sachs where we were.

"We're behind the curve," he said. "But we could accelerate tremendously."

"What would that take? It would take increased financing from major donor countries and putting that money into the most effective countries in a carefully directed manner."

"If we do that, we'll achieve the success we want," he said.

Pledges came. But to the extent that the world's poor needed? Probably not. But UN Women and technological breakthroughs remain X factors. And the MDGs remain our promise to keep.