JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Unless drastic measures are implemented, the world will not meet its targets for reducing poverty and millions of people will die needlessly during the next decade, according to a major U.N. report released Wednesday.
Despite progress globally, many countries are falling behind, especially in sub-Saharan Africa (search), where the HIV/ AIDS pandemic is dramatically reducing life expectancy and creating financial and social burdens that slow development.
The stark findings contained in the 2005 Human Development Report were presented to world leaders a week before they meet in New York for a U.N. summit to review progress toward the Millennium Development Goals. The goals include halving extreme poverty, reducing child deaths by two-thirds and achieving universal primary education by 2015.
The goals "are a promissory note, written by 189 governments to the world's poor people," said Kevin Watkins, the development report's chief author. "That note falls due in less than 10 years time, and without the required investment and political will, it will come back stamped 'insufficient funds.'"
Since the U.N. Development Fund's (search) first report in 1990, more than 130 million people have been lifted out of poverty, Wednesday's report said. Life expectancy has increased by two years in developing countries, there are 2 million fewer child deaths annually and 30 million more children in school.
Yet 18 countries — 12 of them in Africa and the rest in Europe — registered lower scores on the UNDP's human development index than in 1990.
The index ranks 177 countries based on key indicators such as income, life expectancy and education from 2003. Norway (search) tops the list, while Niger is last.
Despite increasing global prosperity, more than 1 billion people still survive on less than $1 a day; 10.7 million children die before their fifth birthday; and 115 million children are not in school, the report said.
HIV/AIDS has inflicted the single greatest reversal in human development, claiming 3 million lives in 2003 with another 5 million left infected. South Africa, which has more people living with HIV than any other country, has dropped 35 places on the development index since 1990.
Life expectancy in Botswana has dropped 20 years since the 1970s to just 36. A person living in Zambia has less chance of reaching 30 than one born in England at the dawn of the industrial revolution in 1840.
In many instances, the gap between rich and poor also is widening, the report said. One-fifth of humanity live in countries where people can spend $2 on a cappuccino. Another fifth survive on less than $1 a day.
In many of the countries that are making progress, only the wealthiest are benefiting. The gap between child mortality rates among rich and poor is increasing in countries like Ghana, Zambia and Uganda.
In India, the death rate in children under 5 is 50 percent higher for girls than boys.
Such disparities present one of the greatest barriers to progress, Watkins argued. At the current rate, 115 countries with a combined population of almost 2.1 billion are off track by more than a generation on at least one millennium goal.
Reducing the number of children who die before 5 is projected to take until 2045. That translates into 41 million more child deaths over the next decade than if the target were met.
Missing the target on reducing poverty would mean 380 million more people surviving on less than $1 a day.
Governments of developing countries can help turn these trends around by tackling inequalities, respecting human rights, encouraging investment and rooting out corruption, the report said. But their success will depend on the support of wealthy nations.
This year saw the eight richest nations devote unprecedented attention to poverty at their summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, including a pledge to increase aid by $50 billion by 2015.
But aid levels are still far from keeping pace with growing incomes in the wealthiest countries, the report said. Much of the help is poorly coordinated and comes with too many strings attached — including the purchase of goods and services from donor countries, which reduces the value of aid by almost $2 billion in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
Improving aid will be meaningless without giving poor countries a fairer share of world trade, the report said. Donor countries spend $1 billion a year aiding agriculture in developing countries and $1 billion a day subsidizing their own farmers.
Twenty-two of the 32 countries in the lowest development category have experienced armed conflicts since 1990. The cost in lives is huge, but the leading killers are associated hunger and disease, and not bullets.
The report urged greater efforts to control the deadly small-arms trade, support for regional peacekeeping initiatives and post-conflict reconstruction to avoid a return to war.
"As a global community, we have the means to eradicate poverty," the report said. "If ever there was a moment for decisive political leadership to advance the shared interests of humanity, that moment is now."