It was easy to miss the miracle that occurred in New York in the fall of 2000. The miracle was one of the reasons why, over the ensuing decade, humanity experienced the fastest decline in poverty in history.
On September 8, 2000, at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, 189 heads of state signed a lofty set of promises that they called the Millennium Declaration. In it, they committed “To halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and, by the same date, to halve the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water. To ensure that, by the same date, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling and that girls and boys will have equal access to all levels of education.” They also promised to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters and under-five child mortality by two thirds, while also reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other major diseases.
Most people who heard the news at the time yawned and moved on. And why not? Politicians have taught us not to take their promises too seriously, especially when, like the Millennium Declaration, they are proffered at that annual tournament of mendacity and hypocrisy called the UN General Assembly. Inevitably, the Declaration quickly disappeared from the public’s view as more attention-grabbing news filled the headlines: the Palestinian Intifada, Saddam Hussein’s refusal to accept UN inspections, Hillary Clinton’s ascent into the Senate, and the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize George W. Bush as the 43rd president of the United States.
Yet since that September, 13 years ago, there are 500 million fewer people living in conditions of extreme poverty, while malaria-related deaths have dropped by 25 percent and infant mortality has fallen by 30 percent. Two hundred million inhabitants of the poorest neighborhoods in the world have gotten access to water, sewage systems, and better homes.
This progress was a result of many factors—high rates of economic growth, especially in Asia, more employment options and better salaries, increased public spending on healthcare, and more effective social policies. Countries like China and India becoming more deeply integrated in the global economy through trade and investment also contributed to the enormous reduction in poverty levels. In China for example, extreme poverty rates dropped from 60 percent in 1990 to 12 percent in 2010.
Poverty alleviation may have been propelled by a variety of forces, but the widespread adoption of the Millennium Declaration was a surprising catalyst of this unprecedented progress in the living standards of the poor. It was surprising because, rather than vague promises and generic statements of governmental intention, the Declaration’s goals were concrete, measurable, and time-bound. It defined eight goals, 21 specific objectives, and 60 indicators to track progress toward the goals. Moreover, it was a very public commitment with an expiration date: the year 2015. These factors created healthy competition among governments. In some countries, progress—or lack thereof—toward attaining the Millennium Development Goals became part of the national political debate.