The basic message of this week is that the world must find a new model of collective leadership following the collapse of US authority. Like many crises, the fundamental decline of US leadership has been apparent for years, but it had proceeded gradually. Then, like a weak bank hit by a depositor panic, the collapse happened suddenly and in plain view.

At the UN, the world grappled with poverty, disease, hunger, and climate change in the near total absence of US leadership. This was pathetically underscored by President Bush, whose speech to the UN on Wednesday was filled with “terror,” “terrorists,” and “terrorism” 31 times, but didn’t include a single mention of “climate,” “environment,” or the “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs). By the time of the UN’s MDG Summit Day yesterday, the US was simply nowhere to be seen, neither in the plenary sessions nor in the breakout events.

In Washington, the heavy weight of eight years of incompetence of the Bush Administration took its toll on the economy and on national politics. The Bush administration could not put forward a clear and convincing rationale for its proposed $700bn bailout. Most technical analysts think that the Treasury-Fed plan has it wrong in serious ways. The person-on-the-street view is that Washington is simply bailing out the irresponsible and super-rich titans of finance, a view that the administration could not dispel. In the end, desperate pleas by the administration ended only in recriminations and a reported bitter debate at the White House Thursday evening. Americans have awakened to a new massive bank failure, a roiling financial crisis still lacking a strategy or plan, and a presidential campaign in surreal disarray as John McCain ostensibly suspends his campaigning and his participation in today’s scheduled debate.

As the writers say, you couldn’t make up this stuff.

The prospects for the world, however, are nowhere near as grim as an American-centric view would suggest. The really remarkable thing about the UN MDG week has been the evidence of a new global coalition of governments, businesses, civil society, and international organisations that are inventing new models for effective global action and cooperation. A remarkable meeting on malaria, for example, brought out global companies (News Corp, Exxon-Mobil, and Sumitomo Chemical just to name three), foundations and NGOs (Gates Foundation, UN Foundation, Nothing but Nets, Malaria No More), international organisations (including the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria), top business executives (Bill Gates, Ray Chambers, Rajat Gupta, and Peter Churnin, among others), activists (Bono, Youssou N’Dour), and world-leading scientists and public health specialists (Awa Coll-Seck, Awash Teklehaimonot, David Nabarro, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan), to unveil an impressive 7-year plan to bring this killer disease under decisive control. And this time, the plan is backed not only by these powerful sectors, but by real money, billions of dollars (including a significant contribution from the US government in this unusual case).

We have arrived in a multi-polar world. As German Finance Minister Peer Steinbruck put it in Berlin yesterday, “The US will lose its status as the superpower of the world financial system.” Yet a multi-polar world not only makes sense (given that the US has only 5 per cent of the world’s population, and a declining share of its income), but can also bring forth countless areas of shared leadership and entrepreneurial creativity from all sectors of global society.

No doubt, we have entered a much more complex global scene. Success for the world – in finding peaceful solutions to huge global challenges – will depend mainly on our capacity to cooperate with each other across sectors, cultures, and regions. Despite the weighty absence of the US from most of this week’s UN proceedings, there are grounds for optimism that the world can and will find a new successful course. And after January 20, 2009, perhaps – and we must hope – the US will be back at the table, with its international peers in a new multi-polar setting.

Gordon Brown delivered a speech with passion, vision, and clarity this morning at the UN. With all of the weight of national politics and a reeling economy on his shoulders, the prime minister powerfully and forcefully raised the sights of the world to fulfill the hopes raised by the Millennium Development Goals. And he got specific: decisive malaria control, massive deployment of community health workers, 24m more children in school by 2010, and seed and fertiliser for millions of hungry subsistence farm families in 30 poor countries. Great speech, vision, and global leadership.

Despite the US financial crisis, the world is not paralysed on the challenges of poverty and climate change.  The world is moving forward, with or without the US  Ministers of environment and development gathered at the UN early today to put forward highly innovative strategies for addressing the global climate change crisis.  Specific, bold, and creative approaches were presented – by Switzerland, the European Commission, Norway, Mexico, and other countries.  An emerging theme: we should use carbon taxation (or the auctioning of carbon permits) to shift economies to sustainable energy, and use the carbon revenues to meet global challenges. According to the Swiss Government’s proposal, a $2 per ton levy on carbon dioxide would raise around $48bn per year, money that could
play a critical role in helping impoverished countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals and to adapt to climate change. I believe that we’ll be hearing a lot more about carbon levies in the months ahead, as a practical approach to climate change control and development finance.

At moment when American politics seem to be in a meltdown at least as bad as the financial meltdown, it’s reassuring to know that leaders in other parts of the world are doing their job, and doing it well.  All through the day today at the UN, governments put forward important and novel strategies to fight disease, poverty, and human-induced climate change.  This morning, the governments of Switzerland and Norway, and the European Commission came forward with specific proposals to put a levy on carbon in order to finance development and climate adaptation in poor countries.  The Government of Norway has also described its recent partnership with Brazil, in which Norway has committed $1bn to slow deforestation in the Amazon – with the money paid to Brazil upon performance.

The afternoon was no less exciting.  Superstars Shakira and Alejandro Sanz brought several Latin American Presidents together to discuss ways to protect and promote early childhood development (children under six years) in Latin America.  This was no mere photo op. President after President, including Felipe Calderon of Mexico, Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, Martin Torrijos of Panama, Antonio Saca of El Salvador and newly elected President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, all spoke movingly about the plight of the poor, and knowledgably and with considerable technical detail about innovative programs to reach the poor young children with health care, nutrition, and early schooling.

The world is not the US, seeing enemies everywhere (hence, the 31 mentions of “terror” in President Bush’s UN speech on Tuesday), or parroting some ludicrous laissez faire ideology, or simply looking away from the real global challenges of climate, poverty, environment, and population. The world is rallying to the need to solve dire problems, and the US financial crisis, rather than paralysing the UN meetings, is strangely adding a measure of grit and determination to the global problem solving underway in session after session.

President Bush’s speech before the United Nations was literally terrifying. He mentioned “terror” (or “terrorists” or “terrorism”) 32 times, “extremists” 7 times, and “tyranny” 4 times. “Millennium Development Goals, “climate change,” and “environment,” did not merit a single reference. “Disease” got 3 mentions, while “poverty” and “education’ each got 2. “Health” got 1.

The imbalance in the President’s approach to the world is stunning. This is the week, after all, in which the world leaders have assembled at the United Nations to ensure the success of the Millennium Development Goals, now at their halfway mark to 2015. This is the year in which progress in climate change was to be made in advance of a planned Copenhagen Protocol next year.

It is this relentless disregard for the concerns of the rest of the world that has sent the U.S. into its biggest tailspin in modern history. The U.S. stands alone, diplomatically, financially, and politically. Or more accurately, the world feels the brunt of U.S. neglect, whether its neglect of poverty reduction, climate change adaptation and mitigation, or financial market regulation.

The U.S. Government willfully ignores, or seems to be unaware, of its own commitments in these areas. After all, the U.S. Government committed in Monterrey, Mexico in March 2002 (with Bush present), to make concrete efforts to reach 0.7 percent of GNP in official development assistance. The U.S. Government committed in Rio in 1992 (with Bush’s father present) to stabilize greenhouse gases to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference.

One might have thought that with miserable economic mismanagement by the Bush Administration now threatening the entire global economy, Bush might have been slightly more attuned to the needs and concerns of the rest of the world.

He might have offered his good offices to address common problems. But we should know better by now. For that approach we will have to await the next Administration, and indeed hope for the best.

America’s ill-conceived and even worse-implemented “war on terror” has actually stoked terror while leaving neglected the very basic factors – poverty, famine, bulging populations, financial plunder – that have done so much to foment global instability.

Yesterday, Oxford Professor Paul Collier wrote in the New York Times that the Millennium Development Goals were “devoid of strategy”.  The meetings yesterday at the UN made a mockery of such claims. World technology leaders like Ericsson, media trendsetters like MTV, social campaigners like Oxfam, and dozens of leaders and community activists in poor countries told story after story of strategic breakthroughs: malaria coming under control, child survival soaring, mobile phones empowering village-based businesses and emergency medical response teams, food production tripling.  The goals of ending poverty, hunger, and disease will succeed; the question is not if but when.

Ending extreme poverty is complicated problem solving, with hundreds or thousands of hands on the jigsaw puzzle. Ingenuity abounds. It has to, since the name of the game is to make huge social and economic progress with extraordinarily limited resources.  Many great solutions were discussed yesterday, such as Malawi’s voucher programme to double food production, and UNICEF’s mass distribution of anti-malaria bed nets.  Governments in poor countries are showing guts, such as Rwanda’s efforts, described yesterday by the Foreign Minister, to reduce population growth through the active, high-profile promotion of voluntary fertility reduction.

Not if but when. When the world loses time on scaling up the dramatic successes described yesterday, children die – roughly 9m per year.  Young children lose vital nutrition, causing a lifetime of disabilities.  Kids stay out of school, guaranteeing a lifetime of poverty.  When solutions are taken quickly, infant mortality and malaria deaths plummet, as has occurred in Rwanda in the past three years.

Many countries were at the table yesterday, but some big ones were exceptionally quiet.  The US, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and Canada, think that the MDGs are a spectator sport.  Yes, the U.S. has stepped up its financing of disease control, but its overall aid level of 0.16 per cent of national income is the lowest of all rich countries (and compared with far more than 4 per cent of national income for the military).  Why aren’t successes being scaled up?  Not for lack of solutions and strategy, but for lack of follow through by the rich countries that promised (and promised and promised) to help.

The UN meetings were abuzz that the US could find $700 billion for a bailout of its corrupt and errant banks but couldn’t find a small fraction of that for the world’s poor and dying.  It didn’t make sense to the world community.  The puzzlement was all the greater since the very banks being bailed out so generously had awarded themselves more than $30 billion in bonuses early this year, roughly the world’s entire aid budget for 800 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.

If there was one message from the UN gathering yesterday, it was No More Excuses.  Clearly the strategies are in place and have been proved; successes at local and country scale abound; the money exists to end poverty; remarkable partnerships are in place, and the momentum is growing. Will the rich and powerful be part of the solution?

Around 140 world leaders are arriving at the United Nations today and in the next few days for this week’s focus on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  The timing is crucial, as the MDGs have reached the halfway mark of the 15-year period from 2000 to 2015.  Monday’s sessions will focus on the MDGs in Africa while on Thursday the political leaders will take on the MDGs worldwide.

Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will highlight some great success stories, including the scaled-up war on malaria. He will also point to urgent areas where much more needs to be done, and fast, such as helping subsistence farmers to grow more food in Africa. The Secretary General’s Africa MDG Taskforce has identified a strategic roadmap for MDG success in Africa.

Throughout the week, dozens of special events with government leaders, policy makers, scientists, CEOs, and celebrities will highlight the proven investments and strategies that can overcome hunger, poverty, food and nutrition security, AIDS, malaria, water, climate change, and more.  The challenge is turning these strategic ideas and local successes into national, continental, and indeed global successes.  If the MDG week is successful, we should end it with a much clearer roadmap on how to “scale up” successful strategies to achieve the MDGs.

It’s easy to be cynical about grand challenges like the MDGs.  When world leaders assembled at the UN in September 2000 on the eve of the new millennium and adopted eight goals to fight poverty, hunger, disease, and deprivation by 2015, most of the leaders at the UN and those in public paying attention probably expected that the goals would sink out of sight by the next week’s news cycle.  Global goals are for photo ops, not for grown-ups, is a popular view of our cynical age.

Yet something has happened which brings world leaders back time and again to declare their commitment to the MDGs.  Part of it is the stark reality that 10 million children under the age of 5 die each year of extreme poverty.  Even the most hardened of cynics know that this stark fact is dangerous for our hopes for peace and stability, as well as for sustaining human values and quality of life on a crowded planet.

Part of the continued interest is the understanding that the MDGs are not fantasies but practically achievable objectives.  Measles deaths have been reduced by 91 per cent in Africa since 2000 through MDG-based initiatives.  Malaria deaths have plummeted in recent years in Rwanda, Sao Tome, Zanzibar, Ethiopia, Kenya, and other countries, because of the mass distribution of bed nets and effective medicines.  Food production has roughly doubled in Malawi because of an ingenious voucher program for seed and fertiliser for impoverished farmers.

A third reason for the MDG staying power is that poor people and their governments have taken seriously the call to fight poverty.  Throughout Africa, governments and NGOs have devised specific plans of action – to grow more food; train community health workers; extend coverage of medicines for AIDS, TB, malaria and other killers; pave roads; and install solar-power pumps for safe water and irrigation.  The plans have been made.  Special financing mechanisms like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria have been devised, and have proven their worth.

The laggards in the struggle for the MDGs are not the poor countries or their ostensibly corrupt governments.  The laggards are the rich world, so full of promises and high rhetoric and so low on delivery.  The MDGs are falling short because of a lack of promised financing to put in place the clinics, schools, roads, power, and other investments needed for their success.  Six years ago, the rich countries pledged in Monterrey, Mexico to “make concrete efforts toward the international target of 0.7 per cent of GNP in official development assistance.”  Yet the United States stands are 0.16 per cent, Japan at 0.17, Italy at 0.19, Canada at 0.28, Germany at 0.37, and France at 0.39.

In a week in which the US taxpayers will put out almost $1,000bn for a bank bailout and a year in which the US will spend $700bn on the military, it’s hard to credit the idea that the promised development aid is simply unaffordable. Wall Street bonuses in recent years, topping $30bn per year, have exceeded all of the world’s annual aid to Africa.  The shortfall in meeting the MDGs is not their great expense or their lack of feasibility.  It is, rather, the short-sighted choices we’ve been making in the rich world – to fight wars and to stuff the pockets of rich bankers, the ones who are looking for their own handouts this week.

The MDGs are still alive because they are vital to humanity and because they can still be achieved.  This week will determine whether the rich and the poor can find the common ground and the practical means for success that they promised the world eight years ago.

The MDG blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Bono and Jeffrey Sachs blog for FT.com from the Millennium Development Goals summit and surrounding meetings in New York

Bono is lead singer of U2 and co-founder of the One campaign


Jeffrey Sachs is a development economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University

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