The Millennium Development Goals Take Center Stage in Davos

If Bono did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. The big press conference at Davos today was full of important people making important statements about how very important it is that we meet the Millennium Development Goals; it fell to Bono to be the scold, and to say how disappointed he is in what the world has achieved so far. Politicians, even good ones like Gordon Brown (who gave an excellent, forceful speech) are by their nature much better at optimism than pessimism, which is why it is that Bono always has a place on such panels: he’s the yang to the politicians’ yin.

The great and the good who gave speeches at the press conference are acutely aware that in some sense the MDGs are already a failure. There is zero chance that they will be met on time, by 2015, and the amount of progress that the world has made since they were announced, in 2000, is quite pitiful given the ambition of the goals and the fact that we’re now halfway to deadline.

Then again, as Bill Gates noted, the MDGs are very useful things even if they are not met. They give the world a way of measuring progress in the fight against poverty, and they constitute a global consensus on the most important priorities in that fight.

On the other hand, no one mentioned today that there are big weaknesses to the MDGs as well, not least the fact that there seems to be much more progress than there actually is. If no governments and no NGOs and no corporate citizens and no Swiss talking shops ever did anything at all about the MDGs, the growth of India and China alone would make an enormous dent in them. What’s really important is what Paul Collier calls the "bottom billion": the poor who live in slow-growing countries in sub-Saharan Africa and other places like Haiti. Since the MDGs are global, the world can kid itself that it’s making progress when people come out of poverty in China and India, even if Africa continues to decline.

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