UN Convenes To Assess Global Progress

In 2000, nearly every country in the world made a promise to achieve a set of eight goals, including poverty reduction, women's empowerment and universal primary education by 2015. How far have we gotten? Host Michel Martin speaks with two opposing voices about the progress made thus far: John McArthur, CEO of Millennium Promise, and William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Now we turn to matters of the global economy. The United Nations kicked off a summit this week on the so-called Millennium Development Goals. Those goals stem from promises that world leaders made at the dawn of the new millennium to grapple with issues like extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education and gender equality. Heads of state from 140 nations have been called to give a final update before the 2015 deadline.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the goals help, quote, "the most vulnerable and poorest people," end-quote, and must be met. But not everybody thinks they can be met. Some critics believe that the goals are just too ambitious.

MARTIN: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good." And I welcome you both, and thank you so much for joining us.

WILLIAM EASTERLY: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Mr. McArthur, why don't you start us off and give us your assessment of the status of the goals, how much progress has been made and what is yet to do.

JOHN MCARTHUR: I guess the first thing is that it's a bit of a breakthrough for the international system that we're even having this conversation today, 10 years after world leaders set these targets.

You know, this was, at the time, the largest-ever gathering of world leaders, set some very ambitious goals, a lot of ambitious words and actually set some very concrete, time-bound targets for 2015.

We've now been able to see a lot of momentum in a lot of different areas, I would say in particular in global health, and we've seen a lot of gaps in progress, too.

MARTIN: And Professor Easterly, a very different perspective from you. You wrote a year ago, in a piece titled "The Tragedy of the Millennium Development Goals," let's face it, it's over. The MDGs will not be met. And you said that the above statement was based on trends before the economic crisis hit.

And then you go on to say that while this was probably a helpful initiative in focusing the world's attention in a way that had not been done before, you say that the point of the campaign was that it precisely defined success and failure using specific goals, and so on its own terms, it's a failure.

EASTERLY: Yeah, the goals are not being met. There are some goals that were already set for 2005 and for 2010 that were missed. You know, in hindsight, we now know that this was a tragically wasted effort to help the world's poor.

The problem here is that who exactly in the world was responsible for meeting these goals? You cannot really hold anyone accountable. These 189 world leaders, there's 21 U.N. agencies, 31 national aid agencies, five regional development banks, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and none of them can be held individually accountable for this failure.

MARTIN: Why do you say it was a wasted effort?

EASTERLY: Well, I think any step attributable to the Millennium Development Goals would be a step backward. We had already had working (unintelligible) aid with some progress on health. That has continued not because of the Millennium Development Goals.

And what we really need now in aid is the kind of accountability that I said is so missing in the Millennium Development Goals. That's where our effort should have been focused.

You know, why is it that we still have two million babies dying every year for lack of 10-cent oral rehydration therapy kits that would save them from dying from diarrhea after, you know, trillions of dollars of foreign aid and poor countries getting a fifth of their income from foreign aid? Why is that still happening? It's time for accountability. But that time has been lost in this wasted exercise.

MARTIN: Mr. McArthur, that's a pretty tough critique.

MCARTHUR: Yeah, and I guess it differs from what I see on the ground around Africa and around the world. And there's no question many of the great breakthroughs in global health have been very much part of a coalition strategy where there is no, unfortunately, single point to accountability for the world.

I'm not sure if, Bill, you're recommending a world government or something, or central plans for the world. But what we're really recommending is identifying the practical mechanisms where we don't have all that alphabet soup of institutions even competing on what the metrics of success are, but really putting forward trying strategies for success.

And you can look at something like malaria control for example or mass distribution of bed nets. And the goals played a crucial role and the stories are very precise around how many policy leaders, many business leaders really took on a really specific effort to work with community based programs and national governments, the Global Fund to fight Aids, TB & Malaria, and help get a breakthrough in the protocols where the protocols beforehand, were very much limited by - first of all a lack of funding, second of all, a lack of targets for universal access to basic healthcare.

So the goals have really helped to motivate that area of breakthrough. They've helped to motivate breakthrough in AIDS control and treatment. There are breakthroughs in Tuberculosis education. Does that mean that each particular goal has a single person responsible globally? I'm afraid we have no issue globally for which that works, as much as that might be rational. So we have to avoid the central planning instinct.

EASTERLY: Oh, come on, come on, John. John. You know I'm not saying that.

MARTIN: Well, let me just, can I just separate the two ideas out here for just one minute. Mr. McArthur, we're not going to list all of the goals, we'll have that on our website. But eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Achieve universal primary education. Promote gender equality and empower women. Reduce child mortality. Improve maternal health. Combat HIV, AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Insure environmental sustainability. Develop a global partnership for development.

Well, let's just say at the midpoint in the timeline, reducing absolute poverty by half is within reach for the world as a whole according to the United Nations. The rest of it doesn't identify specific achieved targets. Is it enough to say progress made, more yet to do?

MCARTHUR: Well, I think there's two things here. One is the goals themselves. The goals really give us this common reference point for what success can look like. And the point is not to say because this has been the trajectory until now; this will be the trajectory moving forward. Quite the opposite is to say, how can we change the trajectory as we've done with Measles control, with AIDS control, with Malaria control, and so forth.

MARTIN: But what about professor Easterly's point that nobody's going to lost their job if these goals aren't met.

MCARTHUR: Well, no one loses their job when the global financial system goes into implosion. No one loses their job when all sorts of global (unintelligible) happen.

EASTERLY: I'm not sure you want to set the standards that low, John.

MCARTHUR: Well no, but people do lose jobs when certain things aren't achieved. I and Bill, I think, really very much agree on the need for points of accountability. We've both been fighting for that for a long time.

EASTERLY: You just admitted that this program is not holding anyone accountable, and of course I'm not talking about a world central government or central planning, you know that. I'm talking about the World Bank, as it's in charge of the Malaria program, that it in fact delivers the goods on bed nets being delivered and actually being used and actually saving lives.

MCARTHUR: And I would argue that too.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I am speaking with John McArthur, CEO of Millennium Promise. That's an international non-profit organization which is committed to supporting the achievement of the Millennial Development Goals. Also joining us, is William Easterly. He's a professor of Economics at New York University, and he's a skeptic of the Millennium Development Goals.

Let me ask you this question, professor. By your standard, was the possibility of success never there? Because there's a problem that the goals themselves are too vague or is it there was never any mechanism for accountability?

EASTERLY: There was never any mechanism for accountability, and the goals were very badly designed for any kind of accountability. One of the goals is to reduce mortality by 75 percent from 1990 through the target date of 2015. But there was no data in 1990 on maternal mortality for most countries in the world. So, you know, the UN was giving this precise numerical goal where there's not even data available.

MCARTHUR: Can I clarify?

MARTIN: Can just ask, let me just ask this one question. The professor, what about Mr. McArthur's point that were it not for this, we wouldn't even be having this conversation? Now that may be a debatable proposition. You know, maybe you and I would be, but that just focusing the attention of the leaders of all these nations is at least acknowledging that this is something to be attempted. That that has its own value. Do you buy that?

EASTERLY: Well, I don't count summits as progress, frankly. You know, what we're talking about is an effort that spends most of its time in summits and very little on the kind of concrete action. And as advocacy, it's not successful.

MARTIN: What would have been a better method, which is why you wrote a book obviously since you have an opinion about that? But, just give us for those who have not had the opportunity.

EASTERLY: No, it's very simple. You just hold each individual aid agency accountable for what they say they're doing. If they say they're delivering, you know, oral rehydration therapy to babies to save two million lives, make sure that they do that. And that's all that you need to do that is have an independent evaluation afterwards, and then have some consequences for that.

Do they continue to get more financing if they're failing? No, they shouldn't. It really comes down to that. We have none of that in the existing aid system. None of this Millennium Development Goal activity has solved this central problem in foreign aid, which has existed for 50 years.

MARTIN: I do appreciate you both elucidating your respective points of view, so I would like each of you to have a final word. So Mr. McArthur if you'd start. Five years to go on the goals, what do you anticipate we will have to show for them?

MCARTHUR: Well, I think the proof is in the pudding and we'll see the results. And one of the core issues the Millennium Development Goals is that the future isn't prewritten. It's up to the world and the various constituencies involved with various segments of health, education, agriculture, infrastructure, and so forth, to identify the best mechanisms to get to scale up - accomplishments in the bank.

MARTIN: Alright, Mr. Easterly, you've already told us that you think this has been a wasted effort. And yet there's still a commitment to five years more. If you were - we give you the magic wand and you get to wave it. How do you think this next five years should be spent?

EASTERLY: Let me say, I respect John a lot. We're friends. We disagree honestly. I really don't think that using words like action steps, integrated sets of activities, strategies, summits; I don't think that's the way that problems get solved. Problems get solved the same way they do in our country. Someone has a set of incentives to fix a problem, and then they fix it.

You know, like a private corporation, say the Apple Corporation, they have marvelously solved our iPhone and iPad needs because they get the reward for satisfying the customer, and we all go away happy. Well, that doesn't work in aid, because no one aid agency ever really bothers to check whether its customers, the intended beneficiaries, have gotten a product that they're happy with or have gotten a product at all. No more action steps, integrated sets of activities, and strategies, just incentives and accountability. Then aid will start to work.

MCARTHUR: And I agree with all that.

MARTIN: Ok, William Easterly is professor of Economics at New York University. He's the author of "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good." And John McArthur is the CEO of Millennium Promise and they both joined us for spirited discussion from our bureau in New York, as you just heard. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

MCARTHUR: Thank so much.

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