It was a global compact aimed at saving the world: high-minded targets that would lift millions out of poverty for the new millennium. But as world leaders gather at a summit in New York tomorrow, figures suggest the chances of meeting any of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by the target date of 2015 are remote.
The targets, set in 2005 – on poverty, education, women's rights, child mortality, maternal health, the spread of HIV, the environment and aid – were always ambitious.
Thanks to the global recession, and complacency from many of the 189 countries that signed up, the interim targets that were set are in many instances still far from being met, which means that progress may slip by as much as a decade.
Progress has been even slower for women, who continue to bear the brunt of poverty and its far-reaching effects, according to new research by Plan International and Africa Progress Panel. Girls are still much more likely to die before the age of five than boys – largely from preventable diseases such as malaria and TB. According to Plan, the MDG tracking system ignores the plight of girls, so the particular impact of poverty on them goes unrecorded.
Many rich nations that pledged aid are reneging on their promises, with a knock-on effect on the other seven targets. Overall donations in 2010 are estimated at $108bn, a shortfall of $18bn against commitments made in 2005.
Claire Godfrey, a senior policy adviser for Oxfam, said: "We're disappointed; it all seems a bit half-hearted now. There's been a lot of talk about this summit not being about money and more about attitudes, but the fact is that promises made in 2000 and 2005 on the financial side haven't been met."
Yasmin Ahmad, who manages data collection at the OECD, said: "It is disappointing to see promises not fulfilled. Some donors are not going to meet their promises. The EU made a promise of donating 0.51 per cent of GNI for 2010. Greece, Germany, Austria, France, Portugal and Italy will not meet that. Japan made a promise to give an extra $10bn by 2010, and they will have fallen short by $3.6bn."
Experts argue that lacklustre progress is not wholly due to economics. The seventh millennium goal, to ensure environmental stability, has failed so far as it requires fundamental social change.
Andy Atkins, a director of Friends of the Earth, said: "Goal seven is definitely the forgotten goal. But if you trash your environment, you trash your economy and you trash livelihoods."
Geoffrey Dennis, Care International's UK chief executive, said: "Of all the MDGs, the world has made the least progress in achieving the targets set for goals four and five: reducing maternal and child mortality and helping women access reproductive healthcare."
Richard Morgan, director of policy and planning at Unicef, said: "We need to strengthen our focus in some areas, particularly nutrition, maternal health and sanitation. It would be great to meet the MDGs statistically. What would be even better is if, as a result, we pull a large number of people out of poverty and misery, and save large numbers of lives in the process."
Target: To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Joyce, 20, Zimbabwe
"My parents couldn't afford to pay for my school or exam fees so I decided to go to South Africa. I thought my life would improve. My three friends and I didn't tell our parents where we were going. We had to cling to a rope to get across the Limpopo River. We were at the mercy of the river and you could be swept away.
"Across the border we were met by an armed gang. We tried to escape but they threatened to shoot us. We were left hungry and they forced us to have sex with them. We were kept locked in a house for a month and they regularly forced themselves on us. We were so hungry and scared we contemplated killing ourselves.
"One day the neighbours broke down our door and freed us. We learnt that if we had stayed any longer we would have been sold and forced to work in a brothel. We went to the police and were deported back to Zimbabwe. Today, I am learning dressmaking. When I finish, I will be given a sewing machine to keep. I hope now I can give my siblings a chance to improve their lives."
Target: Complete primary education for all by 2015
"I was six when my family sent me to work as a housemaid for a wealthy banker in Kathmandu. We were very poor and at the mercy of a local landlord who employed my family. Promises made to us were quickly broken.
"I worked non-stop from 6am until 10 at night. I never had a day off. I made the food, cleaned the house and looked after the children. I was not allowed to go outside unless to the market to buy food, and never had enough money to have real freedom of movement. I wasn't allowed to get in touch with my family.
"At age six, I looked after the master's daughter, aged five. I would take her to school and, after the children finished, they would stay on and play. Sitting watching other children my own age having fun while I worked gave me a real sense of unfairness. Eventually, my brother encouraged me to escape.
"With the help of Plan Nepal, who provided basic photography training and rent, I started a small photo studio in my village. I take passport pictures and weddings. What happened to me is still going on. We need to warn other parents not to make the same mistakes."
Target: Eliminate gender inequality in schools by 2005 and in all education by 2015
Fatou and her six-year-old daughter Awa, Senegal
"I had been out and when I came home I found my daughter sleeping. She hadn't eaten and she went straight to bed. The next morning she went off to school without having her usual shower and later I found her underwear soaked in blood. At first, she was too scared to say anything because the person who had done this to her said he would kill her. But I took her to the gynaecologist who told me she had been raped.
"My daughter was at school in the toilet when a man raped her. The school authorities weren't very helpful. It could have been an older schoolboy, it could also have been a teacher or a neighbour. There is no security in the school; people can come and go. We look after our children at home. At school, they are the responsibility of the headmaster.
"My daughter has changed. She tells me she doesn't want to stay in Dakar. She wants to live in our village with her granny. She hasn't been back to school since, and the police are still looking for the man."
Target: To reduce by two-thirds the under-five mortality rate by 2015
Harakat and Muhbibilah, 24, from Afghanistan lost their daughter during childbirth
"I sent for a community doctor, but he wouldn't come. I sent a horse to bring him and the doctor came. When he came, he gave my wife a drip; we had to pay 250 Afghanis. The doctor said he couldn't help any more than that. I sent to find a car, but we couldn't find a car. So we carried her on our shoulders," said Muhbibilah.
On the way to the clinic, Harakat was haemorrhaging blood. Eventually, she gave birth in the back of a car to a stillborn child, but had to endure another hour in the car with the baby still attached to her. After the ordeal Harakat could only reflect that she was lucky to be alive: "When I left my house, I thought I would die," she said.
Target: To improve maternal health
Verdict: Fail – the least progress of all eight targets
Mohammed Fofana and his son Hassan, aged three months, Sierra Leone
"Throughout the pregnancy Fudia was fine. We planned that after the birth she would start training to become a hairdresser. I'd like to be a tailor, but I can't afford the training. Fudia gave birth with a local traditional birth attendant a short walk from the house.
"During the delivery, she lost a lot of blood and felt very weak. After three days, we took her to the hospital. We couldn't afford to pay for a transfusion so the doctor gave us syrup and medicine for her to take. She tried to stay active, but her condition did not improve. Some days later she said she was not feeling well and saw the pharmacist. He said he couldn't do anything so we took her home. The next day we took her to the hospital in a taxi, but she died as we arrived. Only God knows why. On the way home I felt terrible for Hassan. He was so fragile and I wondered how we would manage. The rebels cut my left leg off just above the knee, which makes it harder for me to care for him, but I have the support of good people here."
Target: To have halted and begun to reverse the spread of the disease by 2015
Verdict: Some progress but mostly failed
Florence Okello, 58, Pader district, northern Uganda
"My husband died at the beginning of the war. He was HIV positive. I was left with 10 children. My sister also died, and I now care for her 10 children too. After my husband died, I found out I was also HIV positive. His family rejected me and became violent. They took away all my property and goods. They claimed all the land and left me in the house with nothing. I told the authorities who thankfully intervened and I managed to get the land back but my possessions had already been sold.
"I joined a women's group run by Care International to save some money and use small loans to support my family. I've been able to put five children through school with the help of Care. I've also bought a bicycle and a cow. Being part of the group helps in many ways. It was the women who persuaded me to take an HIV test and encouraged me to take anti-retrovirals. I am stronger now."
Targets: Integrate sustainablity into policies; reverse loss of resources; halve number of people with limited access to safe water by 2015; improve lives of 100 million slum dwellers by 2020
Verdict: Mostly failed
José Santos Guevara, 38, community leader, Lower Lempa, Guatemala
"The rainy season used to be calm, but the climate has changed. Now we get floods every year and every year we risk our lives. Because we are poor, we are forced to live in these vulnerable places prone to flooding. Our houses have been destroyed four times since Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The worst part of the floods is that now we suffer from water pollution, diseases, epidemics and many other problems, such as the loss of property. When there are floods, the contaminated water pollutes the water wells, making it difficult for people to get drinking water, contributing to all sorts of gastrointestinal diseases and dengue. We have managed to repair 114 houses, but there are still about 600 damaged that have not been repaired because there's not enough money."
Seven targets: concerned with developed countries pledging 0.7 per cent of national income for aid
Verdict: Fail - only 5 have reached target
Ibrahim Agali, 56, chief of the nomad village of Tajae, Niger
"Of course, there is solidarity but it is not sufficient. The people who want to help the weakest do not have enough to help themselves. There is nothing inside my grainery. It has been empty for four months.
"The first drought I remember was in 1974. Back then we were forced to start growing crops as well as keeping our animals. Now the droughts are every three to four years. It's very difficult. We run out of food, and men leave and they don't come back. But who can blame them? They are going in search of food and work. Women and children are the first to be affected by droughts. The husbands leave the family alone and all they can do is wait for him to send back money. Yes, it comes, but it is not always enough. Some of my villagers have lost 20 per cent of their cattle in the last drought, some as much as 80 per cent."
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