- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2008

As the Group of Eight focuses on the slumping world economy at its summit that kicks off Monday in Hokkaido, Japan, reports say the prospects of achieving the ambitious U.N. Millennium Development Goals to eliminate global poverty by 2015 have dimmed.

“The scale of the shock really threatens to derail macro-stability and [progress toward] the Millennium Development Goals,” said Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Even before the price increases, there was already doubt about the achievability of the MDGs and whether we were on a path to meet them,” Mr. Strauss-Kahn told reporters last week. “But now the problem is much more important and the ability to reach the MDGs is even lower.”

The IMF chief was referring to soaring food and energy prices, which have eroded the hopes of international financial researchers and private aid groups to reach eight global development and economic goals by the target date of 2015.

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Aid groups and many developing nations had put huge stock in the goals, seen as a benchmark to measure global progress on a series of social, economic, environmental and health indicators.

The series of hard targets under a strict deadline include halving the percentage of the world’s population living on less than $1 a day, cutting mortality rates for children younger than 5 by two-thirds and reducing the ratio of women who die in childbirth by three-quarters.

The surging world economy of 2003 to 2005, including the emergence of China and India as engines of economic growth, plus strong progress by several African and Middle Eastern countries raised hopes that the goals would be reached.

Economic growth and government fiscal management allowed Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest countries, to provide cheap fertilizer for farmers, cut AIDS/HIV infection rates while distributing free drugs to treat the virus, boost salaries for nurses by 50 percent and provide universal primary education for the first time.

But an IMF report introduced by Mr. Strauss-Kahn last week found that low-income countries in particular have been rocked by the surge in prices of basic commodities since 2006.

Thomas Helbling, an adviser in the IMF’s research department, noted at the briefing that, since 2003, world food prices have doubled, world metal prices have tripled and world energy prices have quadrupled.

The result: Governments around the world are struggling just to feed their people and keep their economies and government budgets from imploding, leaving them with little time or resources to tackle the targets of the Millennium Development Goals.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon plans to convene a major gathering in New York in late September to monitor progress toward the goals halfway into the 15-year project.

“The problem of global food prices could mean seven lost years” on the goals, he told a U.N.-sponsored trade and development conference last week. “We risk being set back to square one.”

Both Mr. Strauss-Kahn and Mr. Ban said protectionism and other efforts of some countries to isolate themselves from global supply and price shocks could worsen the problem.

“If not handled properly, this crisis could result in a cascade of others,” Mr. Ban warned, “and become a multidimensional problem affecting economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world.”

Food riots and fuel protests have erupted around the globe as governments struggle to limit the effects from the soaring costs of staples.

A second IMF report released last week looked specifically at Africa and identified 18 countries where the twin fuel and food price shocks have been especially damaging.

Benedicte Christensen, acting director of the IMF’s Africa department, said higher energy bills in the past two years amount to more than 2.5 percent of gross domestic product for many poor African nations.

Malawi, which reported early progress, is one of eight African countries where higher food and fuel costs in 2008 were equal to more than half of the country’s international reserves.

“The scale of the shocks and the central importance of the commodities involved threaten to derail macroeconomic stability, growth and efforts to achieve the MDGs,” the IMF survey concluded.

Oxfam International, a leading development activist group, concluded in a report last month that the Millennium Development Goals “will not be met if current trends continue.”

The aid group slammed the United States and other developed countries for failing to honor pledges to help poor countries meet the development goals.

It is pressing the G-8 countries this week to provide an additional $150 billion in “high-quality annual aid” to jump-start the world economy and help low-income countries cope with higher costs.

The progress made in the first years after the goals were issued in 2000 makes the setbacks “all the more unacceptable,” Oxfam said.

“Rapid increases in food prices threaten to reverse what gains have been made, thus driving millions back below the poverty line,” the group said. “At halftime, instead of coasting to victory, the world is staring at defeat.”