This was United Nations week in New York, and what caught our eyes were the pyrotechnics: The big-power leaders sparring and parrying, the Pope feinting left and punching right, the showdown over Syria. Beyond the podium, the overwhelming narrative was one of historic self-congratulation. The speeches of scores of leaders and every senior UN official lauded the organization for having accomplished something huge and important.
In 2000, to mark the turn of the millennium, the 193 UN member countries announced a set of lofty and unlikely Millennium Development Goals: They would, within 15 years, halve the proportion of the world's people living in poverty, slash the rates of child mortality, gender inequality and HIV infection and dramatically raise the percentage of children in school. These goals, especially the big ones, were called impossible.
It turned out they were very possible. The headline goal, of cutting the proportion of people living in poverty in half, was achieved five years early, in 2010, by which time a billion people had left absolute poverty. And now the rate of poverty has fallen to less than a third of its 1990 level (that is, from 47 per cent of the world's people to 14 per cent).
The other MDGs saw impressive outcomes. The percentage of malnourished people has been cut in half. So has the number of children dying before the age of five, and the percentage of people without access to clean drinking water. The maternal mortality rate has almost dropped by half. The number of primary-age children out of school fell from 100 million to 57 million; the primary enrolment rate in sub-Saharan Africa rose to 80 per cent from 52 per cent. New HIV infections annually fell from 3.5 million in 2000 to 2.1 million in 2013.
Given those accomplishments, you'd think the UN and its members would have reason to be proud. No wonder they launched, this week, a more ambitious sequel: the Sustainable Development Goals call on countries, agencies and corporations to spend $3-trillion a year to wipe out poverty and hunger completely, make gender-equality near-total, reduce income inequality, improve health and protect against climate change, all by 2030.
There's a problem with all the self-congratulation, though: Nobody has been able to find any connection between those impressive outcomes and anything done by the UN since 2000.
Charles Kenny and Andy Sumner of Washington's Center for Global Development have spent the decade tracking the progress of the UN's goals. In a series of studies, they've found that in most areas the goals had little or nothing to do with the outcomes.
Howard Friedman, an economist at Columbia University, found that every one of the Millennium Development Goal indicators started rising long before the goals were declared in 2000, and "there was no trend in statistically significant accelerations in the MDG indicators after 2000."
The millennium goals did cause worldwide foreign-aid spending to rise, from a historic low in 2001 when wealthy countries spent $80-billion (or 0.21 per cent of gross domestic product), to $127-billion (or 0.32 per cent of GDP) in 2010. Foreign aid changed, during these years, from an instrument of colonial and Cold War dynamics into a policy built around goals and numbers.
But, as Mr. Kenny writes, aid spending had little to do with the improvements: "If the main channel for the MDGs to deliver development outcomes was through aid, their impact was probably marginal." Not zero, he notes, but not the big contributor.
What did cause the world to improve so dramatically between 2000 and 2015? In large part, two things: After 1990, the old closed, nationalist economies of the postcolonial era and the Cold War broke down (with ugly results at first) and gave rise to the set of phenomena we call "globalization." And after 2000, countries in Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and much of Africa started developing better institutions of government, education and health. Stronger liberal economies and stronger states worked wonders.
The UN's new post-2015 goals at least recognize that economic growth is crucial (they call for an astonishing 7-per-cent growth a year in the poorest countries). It may, in fact, be the only key factor – and it's the one the UN can't control.