Meeting the Millennium Development Goals by Thinking out of the Box

By Roberts, Joseph | UN Chronicle, September-November 2005 | Go to article overview

Meeting the Millennium Development Goals by Thinking out of the Box


Roberts, Joseph, UN Chronicle


Not long ago, I was sitting on a beach in Jomtien, Thailand, watching the waves and trying to relax. As I was looking out at the beautiful ocean scene in front of me, a young Thai boy, about eight, walked down to the edge of the ocean near where I was sitting. In his hands he carried a long stick with a rope fastened to one end. Attached to the other end of the rope was a large brick. The boy had made himself a fishing pole, complete with a "brick fish". Curious about what he was going to do next, I watched him as he threw the brick into the ocean. He stood there, pole in hand, patiently waiting for something to take his bait. Suddenly, the fishing line became taut. The boy became excited knowing that a "fish" was on the line, and pulling with all his might he somehow managed to bring his catch to shore. Then he turned around in my direction and looked at me with an excited expression on his face that seemed to say, "Can you see it? Can you see this huge and magnificent fish that I just caught?" Well, I could. I could see it, because I did the same thing when I was his age. And I used the same method to do it: imagination.

Imagination is one of the greatest gifts we possess; only the human species has the ability to imagine things that are not yet part of reality. This special gift allows us to dream of new possibilities, to envision the future and take corrective action to avoid future mistakes. It is what leads to new inventions, innovative art and progressive social development. It is what allows us to rise above mediocrity.

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It is one of the primary reasons underpinning our advance as a species. When imagination and action meet, great things can happen. Perhaps, the most important example of this in the twenty-first century is the United Nations Millennium Declaration. What is this document if not the product of collective imagination? After all, the sustainable world it is designed to create is clearly more of a dream than reality, existing primarily in the imaginations of men and women of goodwill.

The shared values and principles contained within the Declaration gave rise to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development. These MDGs must be met by the target date of 2015, but it is becoming clear that the majority of developing countries will not be able to do so due to numerous reasons, such as insufficient official development assistance from donor countries, lack of transparency and good governance in recipient countries, the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS, massive economic inequality in the developing world, widespread environmental degradation, population growth accelerating faster than economic growth, and economic growth being underpinned by unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

If one starts from the premise that every problem has a solution, then meeting the MDGs is clearly a problem in need of a new solution. The history of scientific discoveries has shown that the search for new solutions is frequently related to the ability of the researcher to use imagination-to "think out of the box". There is no simple policy change or discovery that will lead to a perfect situation where all the MDGs will be met by 2015. But this does not mean that we do not have an obligation to present and future generations to rethink the problem, to see if something is missing from the MDG-based development plans that could potentially maximize the probability that these goals will be met at some point in the near future.

What is missing, I think, is the promotion by the United Nations of a research and development project to develop and deploy by 2010 a new energy system that can meet the demands and requirements of sustainable development on a global scale. …

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