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U.N. Report Highlights Surprising Global Progress On Poverty Goals


The last 15 years have brought unprecedented improvements to the lives of the world's poorest people. A report by the United Nations today highlights the progress. The number of people who live in extreme poverty has dropped by more than half. Many say a catalyst for this was a commitment by world leaders back in 2000. They vowed to a meet an ambitious set of goals to reduce poverty by this year, 2015. NPR's Nurith Aizenman brings us the first of a two-part report on these Millennium Development Goals, as they're called. Today - why the goals proved so surprisingly successful.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: For an agreement that's widely credited with bringing millions of people life-saving medications and access to clean drinking water in schools, the Millennium Development Goals had a pretty humdrum beginning. Mark Malloch-Brown was part of a small group of top U.N. officials who largely wrote the Millennium Development Goals. He sums up the process with the word simple.

MARK MALLOCH-BROWN: It's brilliantly simple. It was myself with some chums in a room kind of thing.

AIZENMAN: They came up with a short list of goals to be met by 2015. The process was so casual they almost forgot something.

MALLOCH-BROWN: You know, happily having sent these things to press, I ran into a smiling German colleague in the corridor who was the head of the environment program. I remember my blood falling to my ankles as I said, oh, goodness me, we've forgotten the environment goal.

AIZENMAN: They stopped the presses, added the goal ensure environmental sustainability, bringing the total to eight. Now, a big reason this could all be so low-key was that, at the time, people didn't expect much to come of the goals. Mark Suzman oversees global policy advocacy for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

MARK SUZMAN: It's not as if 2000 was the first time that the U.N. has come out and set lofty global goals.

AIZENMAN: But Suzman, who once worked with Malloch-Brown at the U.N., says the very simplicity of the Millennium Development Goals ended up making them uniquely powerful. International aid to poor countries had gotten kind of chaotic and scattershot during the 1990s. And by reducing the global agenda to eight narrowly defined priorities, the goals helped channel everyone's energies and money.

SUZMAN: What the goals did, by prioritizing and focusing, was actually put together major international donors, civil society partners on the ground, national governments focusing on the same sets of issues. And that allowed for a focusing of both policy change and resources and attention.

AIZENMAN: Countries and donors could track how they were measuring up against the targets. And this often spurred them to try harder. The upshot - 12 million people in poor countries now have access to HIV/AIDS aids drugs. More than 6 million lives have been saved thanks to malaria prevention and treatments. Now, the world hasn't met every single Millennium Development Goal, and a lot of the rise in poor people's incomes was the result of economic growth in China and India. Still, says Suzman...

SUZMAN: The last decade has seen arguably the greatest improvements for the largest number of people on the planet in the most countries than has ever happened in human history.

AIZENMAN: So as people started talking about what should replace these goals when they expire this year, there was one thing everyone agreed on - something this important should no longer be drafted by a bunch of technocrats in a room at the U.N. This time, they've reached out to every member country, local activists. They've polled 7 million people. All those cooks have added a lot of new ingredients. The latest draft has double the number of goals, quadruple the number of sub-goals. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow on this program, we'll hear about fears that this longer, broader list of goals could prove unworkable. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.