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Millennium Development Goals: Gains Were Significant Before the Crisis

Key Points

  • With the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) coming due in five years, global progress is mixed. Several of the goals are likely to be missed in many countries. It is important to note that the universal targets are more ambitious for poor countries, and starting points and country circumstances differ.
  • When the crisis hit, many developing countries, including low-income countries, had already made significant progress in reducing poverty. Poverty had fallen 40 percent globally since 1990, and the developing world was well on track to reach the target of halving income poverty from its 1990 level by 2015. Thanks to past gains, the poverty reduction target is still likely to be met. But the pace of poverty reduction will have slowed, and fewer people will escape poverty than in the absence of the crisis.
    The crisis is hampering progress on many other targets, including those related to hunger, child and maternal health, gender equality, access to clean water, and disease control.
  • The greatest risk from the global economic crisis is long term. While the immediate impact on hunger and poverty are already apparent, the full impact on other indicators like child and maternal mortality and primary school completion rates will materialize only after several years. A slow global recovery from the crisis could amplify these effects.


Factsheet Sections


Substantial progress is evident in many areas

  • Extreme poverty is falling rapidly. The number of people living on less than $1.25 a day in developing countries fell from about 1.8 billion in 1990 to 1.4 billion in 2005—from 42 percent of the population to 25 percent. While the pace of poverty reduction has slowed because of the crisis, the developing world is still on track to halve extreme income poverty (MDG 1a). This is largely due to strong progress in some regions before the financial crisis. By 2015, an estimated 920 million people—15 percent of the developing world’s population—are likely to be living below the $1.25 a day threshold for extreme poverty.
  • Thanks to substantial improvements, over 90 percent of primary-school-age children in more than 60 developing countries are in school. But the world will still fall short of the MDG 2 target of universal primary school completion.
  • Higher female enrollments are shrinking the gender gap in education. Almost two-thirds of developing countries reached gender parity at the primary school level by 2005, and the MDG 3 global target of achieving gender parity in primary and secondary education is likely to be met.
  • Access to safe drinking water is on track globally and in most regions. As many as 76 countries are on track to reach the target. But 23 countries have made no progress, and five others have fallen back.
  • New findings of maternal deaths suggest a significant drop worldwide in maternal mortality (Hogan and others 2010). Maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births decreased markedly from 422 in 1980 to 320 in 1990 and to 251 in 2008. The yearly rate of the decline in the global maternal mortality ratio since 1990 was 1.3 percent (with an uncertainty range of 1.0-1.5). Twenty-three countries are on track to meet this MDG 5a. In Sub-Saharan Africa, central and eastern regions showed some improvement since 1990, but southern and western regions showed deterioration because a significant number of deaths of pregnant women who died from HIV infection.


Progress has been mixed or lacking in some areas

  • The developing world is not on track to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. Child malnutrition accounts for more than a third of the disease burden of children under five. And malnutrition during pregnancy accounts for more than 20 percent of maternal mortality.
  • Gender parity is weak beyond primary education. MDG 3 also calls for gender parity in tertiary education, gender equality in employment, and greater political representation of women. The gender targets face added risk from the current crisis as women have been more vulnerable than men during past crises.
  • Access to sanitation has been elusive. Sanitation coverage (MDG 7) in low and middle-income countries rose from 43 percent in 1990 to 55 percent in 2006. But the global target will be missed as almost half the people in developing countries still lack access to sanitation.
  • Prospects are worst for most MDGs relating to health, such as infant mortality. The under-five mortality rate in developing countries declined from 101 deaths per 1,000 live births to 74 between 1990 and 2007. This is notable progress but insufficient to meet the MDG 4 target to reduce under-five mortality by two-thirds.
  • Little progress has been made in reducing maternal mortality and universal access to reproductive health. The maternal mortality ratio came down by less than 1 percent a year between 1990 and 2005, much slower than the 5.5 percent annual decline needed to reduce maternal mortality by 75 percent (MDG 5a).
  • Progress in halting the spread of major communicable diseases (MDG 6) has been mixed.
    • The rapid spread of HIV and related deaths recorded in the 1990s have shown some signs of decline in recent years. However, further actions are still necessary to achieve significant reversals.
    • Tuberculosis prevalence, which killed 1.8 million people in 2006, has been declining in all regions except Sub-Saharan Africa.
    • Mortality from malaria remains high—at about 1 million deaths annually, 80 percent of them children in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Progress varies by type of country

  • There is considerable variation in performance across income groups, regions, and countries. Performance at these levels often differs significantly from the global aggregate.
    • Middle-income countries as a group are on track to achieve the target for poverty reduction. But because of large populations and high income inequality, they remain home to a majority of the world’s poor people. Many middle-income countries also face major hurdles in achieving the other MDGs.
    • Progress has been weaker in low-income countries. It has been slowest in fragile and conflict-affected states—more than half of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. These states present difficult political and governance challenges for the effective delivery of development finance and services.

Figure 1.14 Fragile states
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The special case of Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Sub-Saharan Africa lags on all the MDGs, including poverty reduction. But that is only half the story—because there has been progress, with many countries beginning from very low starting points in 1990.
  • Performance on nearly all the MDGs has been headed in the right direction for more than 10 years in Sub-Saharan Africa. Achievements are more significant when viewed against the severe stagnation from the 1970s to the early 1990s.

Figure 1.15 Progress in Sub-Saharan Africa
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