Saving the children: A remarkable drop in child mortality vindicates the UN’s targeted approach. But much more needs to be done


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The Independent Online

Today we celebrate an extraordinary achievement. New figures released by the United Nations reveal that the number of children worldwide who die before the age of five is falling faster than ever before. The number of deaths remains horrifying: 6.3 million small children died last year, mostly from preventable causes, which amounts to around 17,000 deaths every day. Yet that is nearly half the number that died in 1990, even though the world’s population is far larger today.

Since then, campaigns to immunise children against diseases like measles, and timely treatment for routine killers such as pneumonia, malaria and diarrhoea, have given many millions of babies a chance to grow to adulthood. 

The world has achieved this remarkable improvement thanks in part to the galvanising effect of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), alongside growing prosperity in many of the worst-affected nations.

This is progress of the most concrete and significant sort. Readers with long memories will recall that reducing child mortality by two-thirds was one of the eight development goals unveiled by world leaders in 2000, with the aim of eradicating global poverty and human suffering by 2015. The goals were clear, easy to understand, uncontroversial to all but the most bigoted – and very ambitious.

Amazingly, two of the most important of them were actually achieved years ago. In 2000 world leaders declared their intention to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger – in concrete terms, to halve the global proportion of those living on $1 (later revised to $1.25) per day, by 2015. The goal was reached five years early, in 2010. Again, economic growth in China and parts of Africa played a major role in reaching that target – but the MDGs focused laser-like attention on the issue.

Some of the goals, however, are very far from being achieved. Fifty-seven million children get no primary education. Gender inequality and violence against women remain entrenched in many countries. And the world’s failure to agree on an adequate strategy to combat global warming means that many of those children who survive beyond five will come to adulthood in environments where out-of-control logging has led to landslides and flooding, or in cities where pollution blights their lungs and where rising temperatures and water levels make their lives ever more perilous.

As the deadline for achieving the goals approaches, the picture therefore is a very mixed one. Yet taken overall the idea of setting these clear, simple, ambitious goals, agreed by the world community, has been vindicated. As Ban Ki-moon put it recently: “MDGs are [now] very strongly reflected in domestic policies of all national governments.”

If that is the case, the question is – what next? UN diplomats are struggling to agree on a second instalment, these ones to be called Sustainable Development Goals. As usual with that Tower of Babel on the Hudson known as the UN, the trick is to get any kind of unanimity. So the working group composed of diplomats from 70 countries set up to agree on the goals came up with 17 goals and 169 targets – too many, too varied, too local and too woolly to catch the world’s attention, let alone its imagination.

The challenge now is to boil that down to a list as short and pithy as the original one. Instead of bringing “national perspectives” to the process, the Secretary-General noted, “we expect [member states] to come up with a global vision.” And if they can do that, gradually, measurably, life on earth will improve.