Pro-Life Series: I Was Proven Wrong

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Two weeks ago, I think there was a celebration in heaven. The Bible speaks of a God who expresses anger, sadness, and joy; a God who rejoices in creation, in us, and in life – and in the acts of truth, hope, and creativity of which human beings are capable.

On September 25th, in direct defiance of the chaos and death which can dominate our minds when we think of the world, 193 countries said a resounding yes to life, life in well-defined fullness. One-hundred ninety-three country delegations – the majority led by their heads of state – voted unanimously to ratify 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Pope Francis came too!

There was tangible hope in this cynical city. Even though Manhattan was awash in black SUVs (and one small black Fiat) with residents suffering delays, security checks, and grid-lock, their attitudes were almost festive. There seemed to be an awareness that something very good, something hopeful was happening.

The SDGs are not the first set of development goals the world has adopted. They are built on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In 2000 this same body – 193 nations – adopted eight Millennium Development Goals: cut poverty in half, cut infant and maternal mortality by 2/3rds, make primary education universal, improve gender equality, reduce endemic diseases such as HIV-AIDS and Malaria, and increase money for development assistance.

All of these goals were pro-life. They refocused the world’s attention away from meaningless measures such as GDP to measuring what really matters – reducing death and safe-guarding life. Christians all over the world – including the Christian Reformed Church – endorsed these goals as “echoing the voice of the biblical prophets.” We saw them as deeply rooted in the character of Christ and the example of his ministry.

So what happened during the 15 year life span of the MDGs?

In 2004, in my journal, I wrote down my predictions for the 8 goals. How many of them would be achieved? How much movement would we see in major indictors of hunger and health? I was off the mark on every single goal. I predicted that none of the goals would be achieved. I predicted small but significant improvements in most of the goal indicators. But my predictions of improvement were low for every single goal. There has been more success than I or most other development practitioners thought possible – even if you adjust for bad data.

Here is a highlight summary of what has happened:

  • Goal #1: Halving the number of people living on less than $1.25 was accomplished – several years before the deadline! We missed halving the percentage of the world’s population who are malnourished by a whisker – it went from 23.3% to 12.9%.
  • Goal #2: Full enrollment of all children in primary education was not achieved, but there was an astounding increase from 83% to 91% between 2000 and 2015.
  • Goal #3: One measure of gender equality – an equal number of girls and boys in school – was achieved in nearly all regions. This is a delightful surprise – especially when one sees the numbers from Muslim countries like Bangladesh.
  • Goal #4: In 1990 almost 13 million children died before they reached their first birthday; This year it will be half that – around 6 million. How many million children are alive today who would have died if the world had gone about its business as usual? But the goal was a reduction of 2/3 – which was not achieved.
  • Goal #5: The number of women dying in childbirth was to be reduced by 2/3rds as well. This was not achieved – but the rate was cut in half.
  • Goal #6: The target of halting and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/Aids by 2015 has not been met, although the number of new HIV infections fell by around 40% between 2000 and 2013.
  • Goal #7: Clean drinking water is a necessity of life. The world agreed to cut the number of people with no access to good water by 50%. This was achieved 5 years ahead of schedule. Some 2.6 billion more people now have access to decent drinking water.
  • Goal #8: Between 2000 and 2014, overseas development assistance from rich nations to developing countries increased by 66% in real terms, and in 2013 reached the record figure of $134.8 billion.

The MDGs and the SDGs are not perfect. But would this progress against poverty and death have been made without the MDGs? Maybe, but I doubt it. And if the world had made this level of progress, would we even know about it?

If you are pro-life, celebrate the MDGs and the millions of people who are alive and thriving because of them – and support what comes next – the SDGs.

International management guru Peter Drucker once famously said: “You measure what is important to you, and what you measure becomes important to you.”

The world is finally measuring the right things. That is progress. To LIFE!

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Peter, 

There is so much joy and gratitude in your report, and I appreciate the spirit with which you wrote it. 

It is therefore with great reluctance that I further inquire into what this means.

Another great international business consultant, John Vandonk, once said that we report what we want to see, and what we see is not necessarily what truly is.

Without testing, I would hypothesize that reported attendance figures for any daily Vacation Bible School are approximately 20% higher then the actual attendance. We want it to be true. 

Could you offer a died in the wool cynic such as myself any reassurances that the numbers you cite are somewhat close to reality? Because if they are, this news deserves much greater publicity than a little blog tucked away on the CRCNA network website. 

On the other hand, if the numbers you cite were generated by the same models that predict the rising and lowering of the oceans, there may not be enough consensus about your numbers to start  the celebration. 

Peter, I believe, help my unbelief.

Community Builder

I think much progress has been made on the MDGs, although I differ as to what caused that progress to be made.  I could have personally established these goals for the world back in 2000 and then claimed success in achieving them when observing progress had been made.  Association doesn't mean causation.

The fact is, the world has been and is, on the whole, increasingly opening up to free (or freer) market economic policies.  This is the cause for MDG progress.

Take China for example.  Despite the government being a dictatorship, China has implemented policies of open market economic principles, both internally and internationally.  Those policies haven't been implemented and executed without problems, but the move away from China's government controls of the past (under Mao) has brought a level of economic prosperity that few predicted possible or likely in the Mao days.  And all of that prosperity works in favor of each and every United Nations MDG goal.

World poverty alleviation advocate, Bono (yes the singer with U2), began his advocacy career by meeting with high level government officials, urging them to fight worldwide policies alongside the United Nations with its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  After years and years of advocacy, Bono has figured out that what the world needs more of is not more government effort but more free market economic activity.  He has even publicly laughed about himself, saying who would have thought when he started his world-wide crusade that after this many years, he'd become a fan of free market capitalism and be asking governments to get out of the way.

So now, the UN sets more goals.  That's OK I suppose, but just so we don't become fooled about why so much progress was made on MDGs.  What I will celebrate is when whatever government of whatever country decides that open markets -- which really is nothing more or less than recognizing the truth contained in that old Kuyperian concept of "sphere sovereignty" -- is a key to all kinds of success.  If the UN then wants to later take the bow for the success, that's OK, so long as it doesn't get in the way of the progress being made, or of the measures being taken by governments who have figured out what it takes to make economic progress, and thereby progress on pretty much everything else.

Community Builder

Thank you, Peter, for this summary and personal confession of doubt turned to gratitude. I was a member of Canada's Kairos board when the MDGs first came out. It was a matter of serious debate in that ecumenical organization whether or not we should endorse and support those goals. Some of the reluctance was because certain evangelical organizations in the US were supporting them and did we want to be associated with them? Well, with the careful, articulate support of a Catholic member of the board, Kairos did indeed lean in appropriately. 

Fast forward to now. I'm long off the Kairos board and don't know if the organization has continued to track MDGs. But--and allow me to change tracks--I've been listening to Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything when I walk or work on canoes. Klein is so far left even I can hardly see her sometimes, but she also takes note in one section about the remarkable decrease in poverty especially the Global South that coincides and in some cases was part of the MDG project. Yet, when she links that to her main thesis about the on-going planet-wide environmental destruction based on short-term profitable "extractionism," she claims that poverty reduction, longer life, better health, etc. in all the places she cites go hand in hand with environmental degradation. I can't prove it, but she's likely accurate at least on that count.

So, as often happens, I am left to wonder, feel helpless and sometimes want to live in a cave. But I know that's irresponsible. . . . So I pray, repent, walk more, while using fossil fuels and rare metals (all extracted) even as I write this. Regardless, I am pleased that more people are healthier and less poor than not so long ago, even if I don't know how long the earth can survive with us on it. Thanks again in any case for writing.