What the U.N. Is Good For

When the United Nations established the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 — setting ambitious targets for reducing poverty, disease and other problems that have plagued the world from time immemorial — it was greeted with fairly united skepticism and viewed as good intentions wrapped in high-minded rhetoric and bureaucracy — as more politicians’ promises.

Let every cynic stand and applaud.

They promised to halve the percentage of people living in extreme poverty and hunger and without clean water and sanitation, while getting all children into school and cutting childhood deaths by two-thirds. By the year 2015. Who could believe it?

Yet, whereas in 1990, more than 12 million children died before their fifth birthday, in 2013 fewer than 7 million did. Although they fell short of the target to cut child mortality by two-thirds, millions more children now survive each year because the world decided to care about child deaths and to marshal resources to curb them.

As unsympathetic as we may be toward the cause of the United Nations in general, such an achievement deserves recognition. Millions of human beings literally owe their lives to the improbable idealism of these diplomats, for whom cynicism is not only an occupational hazard but a professional skill set.

To be sure, we cannot accept the U.N. pronouncements uncritically. The data is lacking in both quantity and quality. For example, claims about poverty eradication in Botswana are based on a single household survey from 1993. Discrepancies between international and local data abound — as in Mozambique, where national estimates show that 90 percent of primary pupils who start grade one go on to finish primary school, nearly double the corresponding U.N. estimate.

Moreover, a large portion of the facts and figures presented are imprecise at best. Most of the available numbers are not based on verified outcomes but on projections and estimates, wishful thinking in the guise of demographic curves. Add to that the built-in bias of agencies reporting on the grand success of their pet projects, and skepticism seeps back in.

But if even half of it is true — even a tenth of it — then instead of 7 million lives saved, it was only 700,000. That still means something.

The final results won’t be formally presented until the next Millenium Goals are set in September 2015. Hopefully, by then the U.N. will have hardened up some of the facts and will state its conclusions with transparency and candor. There is hope for this. The Accelerated Data Program (ADP) is improving this situation, providing support to 45 national statistical offices to maintain online survey catalogues to assist researchers and program planners.

So, assuming that in the final analysis a year from now, the achievement, or a large part of it, still stands, then it deserves not only recognition but reflection.

U.N. members are already preparing new goals for 2030, to be discussed at the September 2015 meeting. This time, seeking to be more inclusive, the U.N. asked stakeholders around the world what they think about what’s needed for the future.

The result: 169 targets contained in a document of 4,369 words. This may not sound like so much; there are more countries in the U.N. than that (193). But it’s runaway inflation compared to the first Millenium statement, which consisted of just eight targets expressed in a mere 374 words.

As one critic succinctly put it: “Promising everything to everyone gives us no direction. Having 169 priorities is like having none at all.”

Some of the new targets are really just blather. Like the one promising “full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities.” And everybody should have a nice life, too.

Another thought, closer to home: We who have suffered so much from the decades-long anti-Israel barrage emanating from the Security Council, the General Assembly, the United Nations Council on Human Rights and elsewhere in the U.N., must admit that the organization is good for something other than Israel bashing.

Indeed, it is almost as if there are two U.N.s: one for obsessing over Israel and the Palestinians; the other for trying to help people through such agencies as the World Health Organization and the World Food Program.

Perhaps, then, the time has come to consider splitting the U.N. into two separate, distinct bodies, one political and peacekeeping, the other socially oriented. Say, the Security Assembly and the Humanity Assembly. It might make it easier to ignore one while supporting the other.

Such an idea may seem unrealistic. But then that’s also what many people said about the Millennium Development Goals back in 2000…