Despite everything, the UN justifies its existence

October 6, 2015

It’s easy to be disillusioned with the United Nations. Seventy years after its formation, the Security Council remains unreformed and unrepresentative. And power politics on the Security Council means that blood still flows in Syria. And meanwhile, Saudi Arabia remains on the UN's Human Rights Council.

But behind the headlines, real work continues. Good work. Fifteen years ago the United Nations launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): eight targets involving hunger, education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health and combatting diseases and achieving environmental sustainability by means of global partnership. It was easy to scoff, and many did, at the supposedly utopian goals. And it’s true that they have not all been reached. But more progress has been made than many thought likely.

In the years since the MDGs were launched, the UN have released periodic “gap reports.” to keep an eye on progress, particularly the eighth goal. The most recent report, issued as the MDGs come to an end, shows that a miserable 0.29 percent of the Gross National Product of the OECD nations goes to development assistance. The agreed-to figure was 0.70 percent. And yet, despite this massive budget shortfall, really solid progress has been made.

In 1990 47 percent of the world’s population lived on less than $1.25 a day. That figure is now 14 percent. Achieving this goal of halving the number of people living in abject poverty was achieved five years early. Which multi-national corporation do you know has achieved an ambitious target in two-thirds of the allocated time and on less than half the promised budget? When the MDGs were launched a hundred million children did not attend school. That figure is now about 57 million. Infant mortality has almost halved and access to piped drinking water has almost doubled. Ninety percent of countries now have women in parliament. And 43 percent of the world’s population now has access to the internet, up from six percent in 2000.

Cynics and those hostile to the UN can sneer as much as they like, but these are impressive figures, brought in with significantly less funding than had been promised by member states. The challenge now is to maintain the momentum, so the UN is launching an even more ambitious range of goals. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) retain the focus of the MDGs with some additions involving climate change, gender equality conservation and trans-national co-operation.

The rising tide of inequality offers the wealthy nations two choices: build walls to keep the global poor at bay, or engage enthusiastically with the SDGs, so that the temptation to migrate evaporates and nations around the world can offer hope to their people. Which of these options is more in accord with the principles of planetary humanism?

Image by By Hu Totya [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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