Ten years ago, at the crack of a new millennium, the United Nations gave the world’s poorest countries 15 years to halve their poverty rates, reverse the spread of AIDS, enroll 100 percent of their children in elementary schools, and give 100 percent of their pregnant women access to medical care.
Since then, these Millennium Development Goals have been the benchmarks for aid agencies, and the yardstick against which democracies and autocrats alike can measure their progress.
A decade into the program, analysts concede that many of these ambitious goals won’t be reached. But which ones might? Who’s winning the race to 2015?
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– Drew Hinshaw, Correspondent
5. Southeast Asia
This week, while UN technocrats try to re-crunch the numbers on how a misgoverned nation like Zimbabwe can possibly halve its poverty rate by 2015, delegates from Vietnam and Thailand will toast a fait accompli. The percentage of Vietnamese living on less than $1.25 a day has not only already fallen by half since the 1990s – mission accomplished – it’s fallen by two thirds. Childhood mortality in Thailand is a quarter of what it was at the start of the period.
World Bank spokesman Phil Hay says you can feel that change in the way the world’s economic tides are pulling, as Vietnamese cities insource factory jobs from China.
“The old idea that Southeast Asia is outside of the global economy is thinking that is at least 15 years old,” he says.
By 2007, half of the Millennium Development countries had already flattened the male-to-female ratio in their schoolhouses. A generation down the line, the world’s houses of parliament are bound to seat some of those same women, researcher Liesbet Steer says of the Overseas Development Institute in London.
“There are really some great signs of progress,” she says.
That progress is happening in some of the world’s biggest nations – like China and India. But it’s also flourishing in corners you might not expect.
“The top performing countries in terms of improving gender equality are almost all from Sub-Saharan Africa,” she says.
3. The Financial Crisis
The 2008 financial crisis rocked the world, affecting the poor more than most. This year alone, some 64 million people will see their salaries slide below $1.25 a day, the World Bank estimates. Another 40 million will go hungry – lots of critical development budgets will starve, too.
“What the financial crisis most certainly did, is it knocked so many countries sideways,” says World Bank spokesman Phil Hay.
But there’s a silver lining.
The crisis cast a harsh, critical light down the halls of governments, disabusing autocrats of their delusions of competence, says Liesbet Steer of the London-based Overseas Development Institute.
“There is definitely a consensus that the crisis affected the world’s poorest the most,” she says. “But there’s also a consensus now that with good governance, and good poverty reduction targets, a crisis can be offset, and nations can be resilient.”
2. Ghana, Ethiopia, and Africa’s Success Stories
Viewed through the unflattering lens of bad governance, Africa’s less-than-stellar performance on poverty reduction during the financial crisis makes sense, says Steer. The continent’s poverty rate has dropped only 12 percent in the past 18 years. Infant mortality has barely fallen at all.
But the first decade of the new millennium hasn’t been a complete wash for the earth’s oldest continent, Hay says.
“Sub-Saharan [Africa] is moving more slowly, but it’s moving,” he offered.
The West African nation of Ghana stands out as a success story. It’s cut hunger levels by 75 percent since 1990.
Across the continent, in Ethiopia, the percentage of people scraping by on $1.25 a day cascaded from 60 percent to 16 percent.
Angola and the Senegal have already halved their poverty rates.
1. Africa’s Future
There’s one sector where Africa has undoubtedly soared: Education.
The percentage of children in school desks leaped from 52 to 74 percent since 1990. The continent started the race with many of the lowest enrollment rates, but even in absolute terms, Africa boasts nine of the top performers on boosting enrollment. Look at Madagascar – the country was temporarily overthrown and ruled by a disc jockey last year, but has managed to put 99 percent of its kids in school.
“Sure, we need to look at the quality of those schools, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that millions of young children are going to school that wouldn’t have 20 years ago,” Steer says.