To be living in Europe and working on development at the moment is something of a schizophrenic existence. On the one hand, European countries are facing austerity, cuts and recession. On the other, supposedly less “developed” countries are experiencing growth, expansion and improvement. It’s a context that makes the discussions about the next set of global development goals very interesting indeed. Where exactly are the problems in the world that our new goals should fix, and what exactly are they?
Twenty years ago, when the last set of development goals was agreed upon in the form of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the answers were a bit clearer. Extreme poverty was the norm in many regions. In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, more than half of the population lived on less than $1.25 in 1990. Between a quarter and a half of all children in those two regions were underweight, and in Africa only half of all children were in school.
Things are different, and better, in 2013. While extreme income poverty has been slow to decline in some areas, particularly Africa, the rate of extreme income poverty has shrunk to well under half of the population in Asia. Social indicators have improved at a faster rate. One- to two-fifths of children are now underweight. Three-quarters of children in Africa are now in school, with that proportion well above 90 percent in most of Asia. It is true that an unacceptably large number of people still suffer from extreme poverty. It is also true that much of the improvement in the global picture has been driven by improvements in a few big countries, most notably China, and that in some countries and regions progress has been slow to nonexistent. Nevertheless, it is clear that at a global level progress is tremendous.