A Pioneering Perspective: The Global Social Movement against Extreme Poverty

By Sachs, Jeffrey | Harvard International Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

A Pioneering Perspective: The Global Social Movement against Extreme Poverty


Sachs, Jeffrey, Harvard International Review


The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) pose a profound challenge for the world. Is it possible for the global community to set ambitious goals and then work together to achieve them? The MDGs address the scourges of extreme poverty, hunger, and disease, but the larger question they pose--about the world's capacity to cooperate in order to achieve common and bold objectives--applies as well to nuclear proliferation, the control of climate change, and other global public goods.

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This article steps back and examines the broad contours of the global social movement to end extreme poverty and how the MDGs have helped to shape and energize that effort. Strengths and weaknesses of current MDG efforts will be discussed and suggestions made as to how we can proceed after the MDG target date of 2015. The MDGs may not be enough to end extreme poverty, but the goals are definitely playing an enormously important and salutary role in that effort.

It is easy to be cynical about the MDGs. After all, the "world community" is not much of a community. Working together across countries, continents, and classes is not the hallmark of this era. The many partners in the MDG effort--national governments, international agencies, private businesses, civil society--all have their separate agendas, glaring imperfections and inconsistencies, and propensities to be distracted from any prolonged effort, especially one without direct and easily captured economic and political returns. However, such cynicism blinds us to the larger reality of the MDGs.

The MDGs are still very much with us a decade after their adoption by world leaders in September 2000. This is the best evidence of their deep staying power. The MDGs in fact play a surprisingly important role in shaping the formal development agendas of dozens of low-income countries. They have also captured the attention of the international business community, major nongovernmental organizations, donor agencies, and scientific and professional bodies. Despite all the flaws of the international system, the MDGs have gradually yet powerfully given rise to a new awareness about the remediable conditions of extreme poverty on the planet. Lessons learned from the MDGs have also shed light on how to meet several other urgent global challenges, especially those concerning environmental threats and sustainable development, since the same kinds of complex efforts and alliances needed to meet the MDGs will be needed to fight climate change and preserve biodiversity.

The MDG Effort in Perspective

Ending extreme poverty is an epochal challenge, on the historic scale of ending slavery and colonial rule. It is partly an ongoing historical process, linked with the economic growth and technological advancement that occurs even without national or international directed efforts. It is partly a matter of high politics, in which governments and international organizations mobilize in light of specific challenges such as HIV/AIDS. It is also partly a matter of social action and the realization of human rights, so that excluded groups (such as indigenous populations, religious minorities, and girls and women) can obtain the rights of citizenship already enjoyed by others in society.

Critics find it easy to mock or scorn the MDG effort as an attempt to "accelerate history." However, the MDG outcomes--reductions in poverty, hunger, disease, and environmental threats--will be the result of vast economic, social, political, and technological processes. Ending extreme poverty cannot be achieved by simply turning a policy dial, though policy dials must indeed be turned. A serious fight against hunger, poverty, and disease must be understood as part of a large and deep flow of history. If the world economy is barreling forward down a great and tortuous river, people can at best help to steer through the rapids, stay away from the banks, miss the dangerous and jagged rocks in the way, and pull the oars with all their strength when opportunities arise. …

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