Four years have passed since world leaders gathered at the United Nations to make a commitment to end extreme poverty by 2015, part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Jan Vandemoortele, a Belgian national and a key United Nations leader in the implementation of the MDGs, assessed the progress toward those goals at an October 19 meeting at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The program was co-sponsored by the Wilson Center and the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area.

At the 2000 Millennium Summit in New York, the member states of the United Nations agreed to an ambitious set of goals and targets, bringing together many of the commitments made during thematic summits in the 1990s. The member states committed to "spare no effort to free our fellow men, women, and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty." The result was 18 numerical and time-bound targets that seek to achieve gender equality, halve the proportion of people suffering from hunger, guarantee that all children complete primary school, reduce by two thirds a child's risk of dying before age five, and cut by three quarters a mother's risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes.

Vandemoortele explained that the quantitative targets were established by assuming that the rate of progress from 1990 to 2015 would equal that observed during the 1970s and 1980s. Progress in the 1990s was slower than expected, Vandemoortele reported, and much of it bypassed the countries and people most in need. Only half of the global agenda is on track, and without rapid acceleration, most targets will not be met by 2015. However, with deliberate efforts to improve progress, the MDGs could be reached.

According to the UN Development Programme's Human Development Report 2003, the human development indices in 21 countries declined in the 1990s, up from only 4 countries in the 1980s. Vandemoortele blamed the HIV pandemic and rising gaps in income, health care, and education for the declines.

The under-5 mortality rate rose for the bottom quintile of the population in twenty-five surveyed countries, for example, and income gaps also widened in many countries. Vandemoortele concluded, "Without deliberate efforts to make progress pro-poor, it is unlikely that the global MDG agenda will be realized."

Vandemoortele also said that target setting must be tailored to the pressing needs of specific countries. "Adaptation is crucial for tailoring the targets to local realities, so that they can strike a judicious balance between ambition and realism."

Perhaps most importantly, Vandemoortele argued, the pursuit of these goals must be more creative and imaginative. Conventional wisdom explains poverty reduction as a universal "good" resulting from economic growth and macro-economic stability. "In practice, however, an honest search for real solutions to human poverty inevitably leads to tough trade-offs, difficult compromises, and divisive policy choices—-including tax reforms, trade reforms, and financial sector reforms."

Lastly, Vandemoortele cautioned against viewing global agendas in a negative light. "It is not true that global targets are ‘easily set but never met'—they have made a difference in the past. It is pessimism, skepticism, and cynicism that are the three worst enemies of the anti-poverty agenda."

Vandemoortele continued, "Its three best friends are, first, the space to adapt and tailor global targets to the national context so as to generate a strong sense of ownership. Second is an explicit focus on equity. Assuming that reforms and investments will be pro-poor does not guarantee it. We have learned, many times over, that what works for men does not automatically benefit women; the same applies vis-à-vis the poor."

"Third is a quantum leap in imagination," Vandemoortele explained. "Conventional wisdom and standard approaches have resulted in outcomes that raise the specter of reasonable doubt in the court of economic analysis."

As Vandemoortele observed, "Prudence is silver, but for the sake of the MDGs, ambition is golden."


  • Jan Vandemoortele

    Principal Advisor and Poverty Group Leader, United Nations Development Programme