What do Shakira
, Annie Lennox
, Bono, Sir Bob Geldof
and Antonio Banderas
have in common? They are all goodwill ambassadors, or, really, foot soldiers in a battle that most Americans aren't aware has been fought since the turn of this century.
Starting Monday, those celebs -- along with almost 150 heads of state, former heads of state and a cross section of the globe's most impressive leaders -- hope to change that, focusing attention on a campaign that parts of the world are relying on to shape their future. These luminaries will attend (or, in the case of Bono and Lennox, both ultra-involved
but unavailable this week, throw their name and reputation behind) the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Summit,
addressing an ambitious agenda
the United Nations set up 10 years ago to halt the spread of global poverty and disease. The 15-year plan involves a package of objectives known to wonky development types as the MDGs -- Millennium Development Goals.
The United States is among the 189 countries that signed on (though, during the Bush years
, the government balked at continuing the commitment) to the MDGs, which were intended to radically overhaul how wealthy countries view development, how commitments are made by donor countries, and how commitments are made by recipient countries to meet expectations based on that help. "We must not fail the billions who look to the international community to fulfill the promise of the Millennium Declaration for a better world," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report titled "Keeping the Promise," issued in advance of the summit. "Our world possesses the knowledge and the resources to achieve the MDGs," Ban said. He called not meeting the goals "an unacceptable failure, moral and practical."
Below is an advance look at what, exactly, the goals are, what progress is being made (we're faltering on some, terribly behind on others, grudgingly successful with a few) and what happens this week when those leaders and celebrities descend on Manhattan to focus poverty reduction, lifting up women and girls globally, changing the lives of children, and halting or radically reducing disease infection rates.
"When the MDGs were formulated in 2000, some criticized them as not ambitious enough, and some that they were pie in sky," Olav Kjørven, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations Development Programme
, told a group of journalists gathered last week in the offices of the United Nations Foundation for a three-day intensive immersion, a study plan to bring the conduits of information up to speed on what they'll hear about this week. "The MDGs can actually be achieved. If we put our minds to this it will not even cost that much money. And create huge dividends in terms of a future for all."
What are the goals? Here's the list:
MDG 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
(The goal was to halve the number of people living on less than $1.25/day by 2015.)
MDG 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education
MDG - 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women.
MDG - 4: Reduce Child Mortality
MDG - 5: Improve maternal health
MDG - 6: Combat HIV/AIDS Malaria, TB, and other diseases
MDG - 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability
MDG 8: Global Partnership for Development
While all of these goals were meant to be a package, some have surged ahead while others have proven intractable. "The value of the MDGs is that they are a coherent set of objectives," said Robert C. Orr, assistant secretary-general for planning and policy coordination since 2004. Nonetheless, he said that "we have to be steely-eyed" as to why some are succeeding and others not. Maternal and children's health
are among those lagging, and "there is an echo effect if a mother dies in the process of giving birth: One can assume the family from which she comes, the extended family can be affected in many ways."
This focus on women and children, and by extension families, will be a theme repeated throughout the week. Canada, which hosted the G8/G20
summit in June, has put infant and maternal health front and center. The United States, with its broad-reaching Global Health Initiative, has focused on the importance of maternal and infant health
as a foreign policy goal. Also, in June, a massive three-day Women Deliver
conference gave the needs of this group a broader platform, with the oft-repeated assertion that "no woman should die giving birth."
Asked why, after 10 years, women and children are only now moving into the forefront of the MDG package, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs,
director of the Earth Institute (as well as a Columbia University professor and adviser to the U.N. secretary-general), said plainly: "There is no mystery to any of this. Politicians like to pick and choose, so they picked AIDS, TB and malaria. And with [The Gates Foundation], they picked immunizations, and those areas got funding. The basic point is that if you put resources in, in a sensible way, you get big results. . . . This year mother/child health is high on list."
"I personally don't like the idea of one" point of emphasis, Sachs continued, saying that "it's hard to focus on eight [goals], but actually we need eight and they are all important."
The problem, he said, is that for the journalists who must spread the information to the public, it's a complicated, sprawling picture to cover, with many interconnections. Maintaining women's health, for example, requires infrastructure. "We need to be able to do several things," he said. "Life demands food and safe delivery and roads and power and hospitals."
An example of the integrated effort needed to achieve the MDGs will be launched by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week during the Clinton Global Initiative, an annual event also being held in New York. A "Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves,"
a public-private partnership to be lead by the United Nations Foundation, will aim to put an end to the 2 million deaths that occur each year from toxic smoke from open fires and open cookstoves in developing countries.
That's just one of dozens of smaller initiatives being put forth these days. Non-profits and non-governmental organizations are tacking on their own plans to the MDG Goals Summit. Another will be launched this week by ONE (the advocacy organization founded by Bono): No Child Born With HIV by 2015,
an effort to stop mother-to-infant transmissions (totally preventable yet currently occurring at a rate of about 1,000 infections per day).
Greg Adams of Oxfam told reporters last week that President Barack Obama has chosen to focus on the MDGs, and he pointed out again and again that achieving these goals is a question of "security, prosperity and values." Nearly 90 percent of Americans polled believe that achieving these goals is the right thing to do, and "we want Obama to clarify the mission," he added, noting that aid is a tool, not an end in and of itself.
In the words of Shakira: "Making poverty history: It's completely nonsense that every few seconds a kid dies from avoidable causes. That 50 percent of the worldwide population earns less than $2 a day."