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Millennium Development Goals: time to get serious

Amid U.S. election fever, wacky pastors, and assorted other events, it’s easy to miss the momentous opening of the U.N. Summit on the Millennium Development Goals. It happens on September 20 in New York, as about 150 heads of state and others converge on the United Nations for the annual shebang of the General Assembly. New York is always a chaotic scene when the General Assembly meets. But there’s a special challenge for 2010.

Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. Secretary General, sets the bar high: “The summit will be a crucially important opportunity to redouble our efforts to meet the Goals.” The Millennium Development Goals, alias MDGs, were the inspirational and aspirational result of the effort to find a worthy response to the turn of the millennium ten years ago. The answer was: end world poverty. An odd blend of political rhetoric and lessons from business, the resulting MDGs have targets, deadlines, numbers, and limits. The idea is that if you do not have a deadline, no one pays attention. If you do not measure and count, goals turn to fluff. If you try to do everything, nothing happens.

So the MDGs came about. They set a deadline: the year 2015. They are limited: seven goals plus a broad eighth partnership goal.

2010 is a pretty clear marker on the road from 2000 to 2015: the deadline is getting close. And the basic message from the U.N. experts is pretty bald: far too little progress, a host of disappointments. But it’s not time to give up.

Let’s take a look at the goals: Halve poverty. End hunger. Enroll girls (and boys) in school. Tackle HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Each goal has specific targets and they “drill down” by country and even district.

The goals acknowledge a basic fact: For the first time in human history, we have the capacity, the resources, and the knowledge to end the miseries of poverty. Do we have the will?

The MDGs are a wonderful architecture, a framing and an inspiration. They set forth bold and important principles: we have set goals and we have deadlines. They are about the welfare of the world’s poorest people. We have, as the richer nations, accepted a responsibility to do something — not someday, but now.

It took some time for religious groups to buy into the MDG challenge. Targets and deadlines, bald realities of what might be done and of course what won’t, are hardly inspirational sermon material.

But the crucial, demanding, central point of the MDGs has inspired a movement for action. The Micah Challenge, Religions for Peace, and others are mobilizing in New York in the weeks ahead.

The MDGs are framed for today’s wisdom of mobilization: set deadlines, keep it simple, limit goals to a finite number, and make them real so people can visualize them. Turning the challenge of global poverty – billions of our neighbors who live in conditions that are morally unacceptable, not to mention dangerous to our security – into goals that we take to heart, is what this is all about. We need to pay attention to the MDG challenge and focus on this summit, whose aim is to take stock and look to the path ahead. The challenge of caring about and acting for those left behind is what truly will determine our common future.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

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