Babu / Courtesy Reuters A boy plays in a bucket while waiting for his mother to fetch water from a nearby hand pump to bathe him, Chennai, December 30, 2013.

Promises to Keep

Crafting Better Development Goals

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The United Nations has always had lots of targets, goals, and declarations. You probably didn’t know, for example, that 2014 is the International Year of Family Farming and the International Year of Crystallography -- or that you are currently living through the Decade of Action for Road Safety. Such initiatives often reflect good intentions but rarely prove consequential. Between 1950 and 2000, at least 12 UN resolutions called for some form of universal education. In 1961, the so-called Addis Ababa Plan pledged that primary schooling in Africa would be “universal, compulsory and free” within two decades. Twenty years later, nearly half of all African children were still out of school. Countless other efforts promised equally lofty achievements, from gender equality to world peace, that never materialized.

But in 2000, something remarkable happened: the UN channeled its noblest aspirations into something more concrete. One hundred heads of state and 47 heads of government -- the largest meeting of world leaders in history -- descended on New York for the UN Millennium Summit and embraced a short list of ambitious challenges that later became known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The objectives -- to reduce poverty, fight disease, get kids in school, and so on -- essentially boiled down to nine specific, verifiable targets, subject to a hard deadline: December 31, 2015.

In the years since, governments, international institutions, and private foundations have backed the goals with billions of dollars, and much has improved. The promise to halve the proportion of the world’s hungry is a case in point. In 1990, the baseline year for all the targets, almost 24 percent of those living in the developing world were starving. By 2012, that figure had fallen to roughly 15 percent. If current trends hold, it will reach 12.2 percent by the end of 2015, just shy of the goal.

With the deadline nearing, discussion is now turning to what happens next. Some, including the philanthropist Bill Gates, favor keeping the focus on the current goals -- essentially launching MDG II. Many others want to tackle

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