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Explainer: U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals

  • At the start of the new millennium, world leaders pledged to tackle poverty, disease, ignorance and inequality. They went beyond generalities and committed themselves to eight specific goals to be met by 2015.

    A decade later, some progress has been made, but many countries are still struggling to meet the 2015 target.

    Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited leaders of the 192 U.N. member nations to a three-day summit in New York starting Monday to review what has, and what hasn’t, been achieved.

    But recent reports show that the world's poorest countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, have made little headway in eradicating poverty. Africa, Asia and Latin America have seen a lack of progress in reducing mother and child deaths, boosting access to basic sanitation and promoting women's equality.

    In his report in preparation for the summit, Ban said the world possesses the knowledge and the resources to achieve the goals. “Our challenge today is to agree on an action agenda."

    See where things stand with the development goals and vote on what you think should be the world’s top priority.

  • Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty & hunger

    Image: A family cooks a meal in a city square where they are living under a makeshift tent in downtown Asuncion
    Jorge Adorno  /  Reuters
    A family cooks a meal in a city square where they are living under a makeshift tent in downtown Asuncion, Paraguay, Sept. 8, 2010. According to official data some 38 percent of the 5.6 million Paraguayans live below the poverty level. 

    Goal: To halve the number of people living below a poverty line of $1.25 a day and halve the number of people going hungry.

    Where things stand: Overall, the world is on track to halve the numbers of people in extreme poverty, though some critics say it's mainly because of tremendous improvements in China and India.

    The proportion of people living on less than $1 a day in developing countries fell from 46 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2005 and should reach the target despite the economic crisis. Even so, the U.N. said, about 920 million people will still be living on less than $1.25 a day in 2015.

    The world is not on track to halve hunger by 2015, mainly because of setbacks caused by record food price increases in 2008. In 1990, the share of hungry people was 20 percent; by 2005 it had dropped to 16 percent, but rose to an estimated 19 percent in 2009.

  • Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education

    Jerome Delay  /  AP File
    Malawi schoolchildren listen to the teacher from their outdoor classroom in the village of Chiseka, outside Lilongwe, Malawi.

    Goal: Ensure that by 2015 children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete primary school.

    Where things stand: Primary school enrollment rose from 83 percent in 2000 to 89 percent in 2008 – but 69 million children worldwide are still out of school, according to UNESCO.

    According to World Bank data, 50 poor countries have achieved universal primary education and seven more are on their way. Still, 38 countries, mostly in Africa, are off track and unlikely to achieve the full-enrollment target.

    That pace of progress is not sufficient to ensure the goal of universal primary education by 2015.

  • Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women

    Image: Sierra Leone academic year begins
    Ahmed Jallanzo  /  EPA
    A teacher instructs students in English at a school at the border town of Jendema, Pujehun, Sierra Leone in September 2010.lliteracy rates in West Africa are the highest in the world, cramping development and weakening citizens' power to effect socio-economic and political change, say education agencies, who are calling on governments and donors to establish literacy and education efforts.

    Goal: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.

    Where things stand: Gender equity remains an elusive goal in many parts of the world, but there have been some gains.

    Between 1990 and 2005, all regions except Europe and Central and East Asia saw an increase in the number of women in national parliaments, according to the U.N. Development Fund for Women. The percentage of women with paid jobs outside agriculture also grew from 35 percent in 1990 to 40 percent today, according to the U.N.

    Violent crime against women continues to be a serious problem, with rape and other attacks being used as a weapon of war in some violence-torn countries. But according to the U.N. agency for women, there has been some progress. In 2002, only 45 countries had specific laws on the books about domestic violence. By 2006, the number of countries had risen to 60.

  • Goal 4: Reduce child mortality

    Georges Gobet  /  AFP/Getty Images/ File
    A sick child awaits treatment on his bed at the Phebe hospital near Gbarnga, Liberia. 

    Goal: Cut by two-thirds deaths of children under age 5.

    Where things stand: Only about one-fourth of developing countries are on track to reach this goal.

    Each year about 8 million children die before they are 5, largely from preventable causes. Some 38 percent of the deaths occur in the first month of life due to infection, low birth weight stemming from poor maternal nutrition, or birth asphyxia.

    Nearly half of the deaths are from preventable and treatable illnesses such as pneumonia and diarrhea.

  • Goal 5: Improve maternal health

    Felicity Thompson  /  AP
    Yaumu Sesay, 40, looks on as her two-day old baby boy, Allasane, is held by his grandmother at Princess Christian Maternity Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone on Sept. 10, 2010. Despite success stories in the battle against maternal mortality, the troubling reality is that hundreds of thousands of pregnant women still die unnecessarily every year. 

    Goal: To reduce by three-quarters the maternal mortality rate and achieve universal access to reproductive health.

    Where things stand: There has been a big drop in the number of women who die giving birth, but the progress falls short of the goal.

    Globally, more than half of all maternal deaths are concentrated in six countries: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

    The number of deaths decreased by 34 percent from an estimated 540,000 two decades ago to 358,000 in 2008, according to a U.N. report — an average annual decline of just 2.3 percent, or half of what is needed.

    In the U.S. and other industrialized countries, 24 women die for every 100,000 live births, but that number soars to as high as 1,400 in Afghanistan and 1,000 in some of the other poorest corners of the globe. 

  • Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

    Image: -
    Tony Karumba  /  AFP/Getty Images
    A south Sudanese woman lays on a bed at a health clinic in Terekeka, Sudan, where the population is exposed to malaria, a vector-borne, infectious parasitic disease that is a leading cause of death of infants and children in Africa.

    Goal: Halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS; by 2010 provide universal access to treatment for HIV and AIDS. Halt and begin to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases.

    Where things stand: The goal of halting and reversing the AIDS epidemic is unlikely to be met. The number of people living with HIV/AIDS has risen from 8 million in 1990 to an estimated 33 million people in 2008, according to the United Nations AIDS program, or UNAIDS.

    While the number of new infections has fallen from a peak of 3.5 million in 1996 to 2.7 million in 2008, UNAIDS said five people are becoming infected for every two who start treatment. Two million AIDS-related deaths still occur every year.

    Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region hardest hit by HIV, accounting for 67 percent of all people living with the virus worldwide, 71 percent of AIDS-related deaths and 91 percent of all new infections among children.

    But African nations whose populations have been devastated by AIDS have made big strides in fighting HIV, with new infections down 25 percent since 2001 in some of the worst-hit places, according to a UNAIDS report released ahead of the summit.

    African countries with the biggest epidemics, including Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, are leading the decline, thanks to better use of prevention methods and greater access to life-preserving drugs, UNAIDS said.

    Although the number of new HIV infections is steadily falling or stabilizing in most parts of the world, the report said major problems still exist in certain regions and among particular high-risk groups.

    Eastern Europe and Central Asia have rapidly expanding HIV epidemics — the disease is spreading in that region at a rate of 500 new infections a day — and in several high-income countries there has been a resurgence of HIV infections among gay men.

  • Goal 7: Ensure environmental stability

    Image: Women carry tubs of water on their heads
    Issouf Sanogo  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Women carry tubs of water on their heads at a drinking water collection site on Aug. 10, 2010 in Abobo, a poor neighborhood in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Women from various parts of the country's economic capital often spend the night lining up to get potable water.

    Goal: Integrate sustainable development into national policies and reverse environmental losses; reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010; halve the number of people living without safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

    Where things stand: According to the U.N., a decisive response to climate change is still urgently needed. Deforestation shows signs of decreasing but is still alarmingly high, the U.N. says.

    There has been much greater progress on expanding access to safe drinking water. Between 1990 and 2008, more than 1.6 billion people in developing countries gained access to improved sources of drinking water, raising the proportion of population with access to 84 percent from 72 percent.

    Still, half the population of developing regions lives without sanitation, according to the U.N.

  • Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development

    Goal: To address cooperation in aid, trade, debt relief and access to technology and essential drugs.

    Where things stand: Aid has remained constant at about $38 billion a year since 2008, falling short of promises, according to the IMF.

    Countries have failed to conclude the latest round of global trade talks despite repeated pledges to reach a deal.

    There has been progress in writing off the debts of most of the world's poorest countries.

  • Vote

    What do you think should be the U.N.'s top goal?

  • Sources

    The Associated Press, Reuters, UN, World Bank, IMF

Map: UN Millennium Summit

Video: Are U.N. hunger goals achievable?


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