A new mood at the MDG Summit

Breathe the atmosphere here at the UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals this week and, for the first time in several years, there's a whiff of hope. Less of the language of ‘Development Emergency', and more encouraging numbers – on just how many more girls are attending school, for example, how many children are being immunised, and how many households now have clean water. The shift is subtle, but it is real, and is reflected in speeches, media stories, and in the conversational buzz in the crowded coffee bar in the temporary UN Building.

Who would have predicted that in the current economic situation we would feel more optimistic about the MDGs? Why the change? There are, perhaps, three reasons.

 •  First, the UN organisers decided that in today's cash-strapped world it was smart to present the cup as half full. Many politicians are looking for the chance to cut back further on aid programmes, and stories of ‘development failure' would be a great excuse.

 •  Second, a number of analytical pieces focused for the first time on absolute gains made on MDG indicators rather than progress relative to the goals. The MDG Report Card released by ODI last week shows that 11 of the top 20 performers in terms of absolute progress over the past decade are in Africa.

 •  Finally, as year succeeds year, there is growing evidence that we are learning from our mistakes and that most development programmes now actually work rather well. Factors contributing to this have been detailed in a number of reports including in a series of development progress stories to be released in the coming months.

As a result of this tone, and perhaps influencing it, the final media release from the New York Summit lists many new pledges from private and public donors and $40 billion in support of the new Global Strategy for Women and Children's Health .

But isn't there a risk we might be getting a bit too complacent?  The success stories are true, and it is right that hope has more airtime than despair. But most countries are still off-track on most of their MDG goals, and there remain many pitfalls in the final five years of the MDGs. To be fair these were all well-covered in the more than 80 side events at the Summit this week.  

Amnesty International's ‘maternal death clock' , showing the number of mothers who have died since the beginning of the Summit, was a painful reminder of the MDG that is farthest from being reached: MDG5 on the reduction of maternal mortality. Inequality and gender were also central themes in discussions, as they are in ODI's work on the MDG ‘fundamentals' .

Recent research by UNICEF shows that reaching the most impoverished communities will be essential to reaching the MDGs. Climate change also entered the MDG debate in a big way for the first time at the Summit. It could steal back many of the gains made.

Many thoughtful reports made the rounds at the Summit. The Chronic Poverty Research Centre 's evolving key messages for policy makers, following its 2008-9 second Chronic Poverty Report ‘Escaping Poverty Traps' presents a balanced and professional approach on how we could do better in the future.

If there was a MDG target for earnest words spoken, and good intentions aired, the MDG Summit event would have taken us over the winning line. But even with all the hot air, the egos, the chaos, and UN inefficiency, I think something rather important was going on here. Now back to the hard work of turning all of these good intentions into action.

22 September 2010