Poverty in all its forms is the greatest challenge to the world community. Some 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day, another 1.6 billion on less than $2. Together these groups make up nearly a half of the world’s population. Can anything be done?
A new annual report, A Better World for All, is a step in the right direction. In the first ever report to be signed jointly by the United Nations, the OECD, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, it shows progress towards the goals to reduce poverty by 2015. By agreeing to them, the international community has made a commitment to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable – and to itself.
In just 24 pages, the report succinctly addresses the seven goals whose achievement over the next 15 years would improve the lives of billions of people. The goals are rooted in the agreements of the world conferences organised by the United Nations in the first half of the 1990s.
The first of the seven goals is to reduce the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by half between 1990 and 2015. In part this requires sustained economic growth to cut poverty rates, as occurred in Asia in recent years, though not in Africa.
The second aim is to enrol all children in primary school by 2015. Enrolment rates are not rising fast enough. On current trends, more than 100 million school-age children will not be in school in 2015.
The third of the seven objectives is to demonstrate progress towards gender equality and empowering women by eliminating gender disparities in education by 2005. Though the gender gap may be narrowing, girls’ enrolments are persistently behind those of boys.
The fourth goal is to reduce infant and child mortality rates by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015. Here more needs to be done: for every country that cut infant and under-5 child mortality rates fast enough to reach the goal, 11 lagged behind, often because of HIV/AIDS.
More has to be done to save mothers’ lives as well. Skilled care during pregnancy and delivery can help to avoid many of the half million maternal deaths each year. The proportion of births attended by skilled personnel rose slowly in the 1990s. Continuing along this path is the fifth goal laid out by the international organisations, with the aim of reducing maternal mortality ratios by three-quarters between 1990 and 2015.
The sixth goal is again family based: it is to provide access to reproductive health services by 2015 to all who need it. The proportion of people in poverty may have declined through the mid-1990s, but population growth meant that the number of poor people has increased. 120 million couples are without contraception; addressing their needs would help.
The seventh goal is broad, calling for the implementation of national strategies for sustainable development by 2005 in a bid to reverse the loss of environmental resources by 2015.
As A Better World for All clearly warns, none of the goals will be easy to achieve. Yet the task ahead is by no means a hopeless one. In fact, some countries have shown what can be done. China reduced its number in poverty from 360 million in 1990 to about 210 million in 1998. Mauritius cut its military budget and invested heavily in health and education. Today all Mauritians have access to sanitation, 98% to safe water, and 97% of births are attended by skilled health staff. And many Latin American countries have moved much closer to gender equality in education.
But there are major concerns, chief among them the prospects for Sub-Saharan Africa, where armed conflict is undermining social development. Malnutrition remains a severe problem too, for although there are 150 million underweight children in the developing world, Africa is the only region where the proportion is not falling. Moreover, sustained economic growth – that vital ingredient for long-run reductions in poverty – still eludes half the world’s countries; for more than 30 of them, real per capita incomes are lower today than they were 35 years ago. And in the transition countries of the former Soviet Union, the proportion of poor has increased sharply in the last ten years.
The seven goals can be met, but it will take hard work. Goals cannot be imposed – each country must identify its own particular path to development, through dialogue with its citizens. That means giving stronger voices to the poor and achieving growth that helps them. It means providing basic social services for all, opening markets for trade and technology and providing enough resources for development. In this, the support of the international community and the high-income countries is vital.
Everything is interlinked of course. Only with better government can there be better policies, greater access to markets and a more effective use of resources. Likewise, although each of the seven goals addresses one aspect of poverty, they are mutually reinforcing. Higher school enrolments reduce poverty and mortality, just as better basic healthcare reduces poverty and increases enrolment.
But the overriding aim of these seven goals is that most compelling of human desires – a world free of poverty and misery. The prize might not be quite the fully integrated, global economy and society many would like, but at least, achieving the goals by 2015 will make the world better, and safer, for all.
• A Better World for All: Progress Towards the International Development Goals, UN, IMF, World Bank, OECD, Paris, 2000. Available online at www.paris21.org/betterworld and in print from http://www.oecd.org/bookshop/
©OECD Observer No 221/222, Summer 2000