Broken promises

The U.N., noting that rich nations spend 10 times more on defense than on aid to the poor, says progress in reducing child mortality has been "depressingly slow."

Published September 8, 2005 2:16PM (EDT)

The world is heading for a "heavily signposted human development disaster" of needless child deaths, illiteracy and abject poverty unless urgent steps are taken to boost aid, open up Western markets and end conflict, the United Nations warned Wednesday.

In advance of next week's summit in New York to assess how much has been achieved toward meeting the millennium development goals agreed on five years ago, the report shows that the U.N. member states' progress has been "depressingly slow" and that the "promise to the world's poor is being broken." The organization's annual Human Development Report concludes: "This year marks a crossroads." One option is a "decade for development," the other is "business as usual."

It continues: "This is a choice that will result in the current generation of political leaders going down in history as the leaders that let the MDGs [millennium goals] fail on their watch.

"Instead of delivering action, the U.N. summit could deliver another round of high-sounding declarations, with rich countries offering more words and no action."

The report says there has been some progress, which has included an increase in life expectancy of two years, child deaths being cut by 3 million a year, an extra 30 million children in school and 130 million removed from extreme poverty. These achievements should not be underestimated, the U.N. says, but "nor should they be exaggerated."

According to the U.N., 18 countries, with a combined population of 460 million, registered lower scores on the Human Development Index than in 1990 -- an unprecedented reversal. The Human Development Index assesses life expectancy, income and literacy. Top places in the table are dominated by Scandinavian countries, while sub-Saharan African countries fill the bottom 25 places.

"In the midst of an increasingly prosperous global economy, 10.7 million children every year do not live to see their fifth birthday, and more than 1 billion people survive in abject poverty on less than $1 a day," the report says. "One fifth of humanity live in countries where many people think nothing of spending $2 a day on a cappuccino. Another fifth of humanity survive on less than $1 a day and live in countries where children die for want of a simple anti-mosquito bed net."

Calling HIV/AIDS the biggest setback to development since the 14th century Black Death, the U.N. says that life expectancy in Zambia is now lower than in Britain in 1840. In 2003, the pandemic claimed 3 million lives and left an additional 5 million people infected. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for a rising share of child deaths: The region represents 20 percent of births worldwide and 44 percent of child deaths.

But the slowdown extends beyond that region. Some of the most visible globalization "success stories," including China and India, are failing to convert rising incomes into a decline in child mortality.

"Deep-rooted human development inequality is at the heart of the problem. On many of the MDGs the poor and the disadvantaged are falling behind. Cross-country analysis suggests that child mortality rates among the poorest 20 percent of the population are falling at less than half the world average. Because the poorest 20 percent account for a disproportionately large share of child mortality, this is slowing the overall rate of progress towards achieving the MDGs."

The report says the world's richest 500 individuals have got a combined income that is greater than that of the poorest 416 million; and 2.5 billion people, or 40 percent of the world's population, are living on less than $2 a day.

Redistributing 1.6 percent of the income of the richest 10 percent of the global population would provide the $300 billion needed to lift the 1 billion people living on less than a dollar a day out of extreme poverty, at least temporarily.

The U.N. says that achieving sustainable poverty reduction requires dynamic processes allowing poor countries and their inhabitants to produce their way out of deprivation. This means scaling up aid, breaking down trade barriers and halting civil wars. Since 1990 increased prosperity in rich countries has done little to enhance generosity, the report says: Per capita income has increased by $6,070, while per capita aid has fallen by $1.

The U.N. says that for every $1 rich countries spend on aid, they allocate $10 to military spending. "Just the increase in defense spending since 2000, if devoted to aid instead, would be sufficient to reach the ... U.N. target of spending 0.7 percent [of gross national income] on aid. Spending on HIV/AIDS represents three days of military spending."

The report predicts that the target for reducing child mortality will be missed by 4.4 million avoidable deaths, the equivalent to three times the number of children under 5 living in London, New York and Tokyo. An additional 380 million people will be living on less than $1 a day.

The "development disaster" will be counted in avoidable deaths, children out of school and lost opportunities to cut poverty. "That disaster is as avoidable as it is predictable."

By Larry Elliott

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