Leading article: A promise is a promise

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It is now 10 years since the world's leaders signed up to the Millennium Development Goals, aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and hunger in the world, reducing disease, improving gender equality, achieving universal primary education and ensuring environmental sustainability. And it is now only five years away from the year 2015, when these targets were to be met.

The aims were ambitious, the intentions sincere and the means approved. Yet it would be foolish to think that, a decade on, we are anywhere near achieving these goals. Strides have been made in improving primary education (enrolment is now 90 per cent outside sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia). Malaria is being progressively tackled. More than 1.6 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water since 1990.

And yet the commitment of developed countries made at Gleneagles five years ago of devoting 0.7 per cent of their GDP to aid has been missed. The money going on development has been badly skewed towards middle-income countries rather than the poorest. There has been almost no progress on specific goals on child mortality, maternal health and gender equality.

Lack of money has been partly to blame. The UK has been notable for its willingness to live up to its commitments. But some of the major donors, France and Italy in particular, have failed miserably.

It is too easy to cast the blame on individual miscreants, however. Two-thirds of the way through the programme, our collective momentum towards the MDGs is falling away. The mood amongst even the richest countries has been depressed by the recession. Natural disasters have taken the headlines from medium-term objectives. Aid itself has come under fire from economists criticising its effectiveness and assumptions. Even in Britain, the Government, although admirably ring-fencing the sums, is talking of promoting aid more as an exercise in undermining terrorism and ensuring British security than simply helping those least able to help themselves.

That is the wrong approach. Most British citizens support charity abroad as well as at home and ministers should be championing the cause when the UN meets to review the goals later this month.

The going may be harder and purses tighter, but the Millennium exercise, with its targets and measurement tools, was one of this century's worthiest commitments. There is no excuse for slackening the pace now.