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Pro-Life series: Proclaiming Good News to the Poor

This is the 7th post in our "What Being Pro-Life Means to Me" series! What does being pro-life mean to you? Over this fall, we'll hear various writers respond to that question. Learn more and subscribe for weekly email updates. 

Two weeks ago, I think there was a celebration in heaven. The Bible speaks of a God who expresses anger, sadness, and joy; a God who rejoices in creation, in us, and in life – and in the acts of truth, hope, and creativity of which human beings are capable.

On September 25th, in direct defiance of the chaos and death which can dominate our minds when we think of the world, 193 countries said a resounding yes to life, life in well-defined fullness. One-hundred ninety-three country delegations – the majority led by their heads of state – voted unanimously to ratify 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Pope Francis came too!

There was tangible hope in this cynical city. Even though Manhattan was awash in black SUVs (and one small black Fiat) with residents suffering delays, security checks, and grid-lock, their attitudes were almost festive. There seemed to be an awareness that something very good, something hopeful was happening.

I’ve worked in relief, development, and social justice for over 40 years in places as diverse as Bangladesh, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, West Africa, and the United States. I can be cynical about “high level” meetings and “blue ribbon panels” making fine pronouncements because I know first-hand the hypocrisy of those in power, the intractability of socio-economic systems that extract wealth from the poor and transfer it to the rich, and the years of hard, daily work it takes – mostly on the part of those who are poor – to make hopeful aspirations come true.

But I have also learned the value of aspirations. Clear aspirations can be transformative, provided they come with public goals that 1) can be owned by those they affect; 2) can be seen, counted, and reported; 3) can hold us and the world accountable; and 4) relate directly to life and thriving.

The SDGs are not the first set of development goals the world has adopted. They are built on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In 2000 this same body – 193 nations – adopted eight Millennium Development Goals: Cut poverty in half, cut infant and maternal mortality by 2/3rds, make primary education universal, improve gender equality, reduce endemic diseases such as HIV-AIDS and Malaria, and increase money for development assistance.

All of these goals were pro-life. They refocused the world’s attention away from meaningless measures such as GDP to measuring what really matters – reducing death and safe-guarding life. Christians all over the world – including the Christian Reformed Church – endorsed these goals as “echoing the voice of the biblical prophets.” We saw them as deeply rooted in the character of Christ and the example of his ministry.

So what happened during the 15 year life span of the MDGs?

In 2004, in my journal, I wrote down my predictions for the 8 goals. How many of them would be achieved? How much movement would we see in major indictors of hunger and health? I was off the mark on every single goal. I predicted that none of the goals would be achieved. I predicted small but significant improvements in most of the goal indicators. But my predictions of improvement were low for every single goal. There has been more success than I or most other development practitioners thought possible – even if you adjust for bad data.

Here is a highlight summary of what has happened:

Goal #1: Halving the number of people living on less than $1.25 was accomplished – several years before the deadline! We missed halving the percentage of the world’s population who are malnourished by a whisker – it went from 23.3% to 12.9%

Goal #2: Full enrollment of all children in primary education was not achieved, but there was an astounding increase from 83% to 91% between 2000 and 2015.
Goal #3: One measure of gender equality – an equal number of girls and boys in school – was achieved in nearly all regions. This is a delightful surprise – especially when one sees the numbers from Muslim countries like Bangladesh.
Goal #4: In 1990 almost 13 million children died before they reached their first birthday; This year it will be half that – around 6 million. How many million children are alive today who would have died if the world had gone about its business as usual? But the goal was a reduction of 2/3 – which was not achieved.
Goal #5: The number of women dying in childbirth was to be reduced by 2/3rds as well. This was not achieved – but the rate was cut in half.
Goal #6: The target of halting and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/Aids by 2015 has not been met, although the number of new HIV infections fell by around 40% between 2000 and 2013.
Goal #7: Clean drinking water is a necessity of life. The world agreed to cut the number of people with no access to good water by 50%. This was achieved 5 years ahead of schedule. Some 2.6 billion more people now have access to decent drinking water.
Goal #8: Between 2000 and 2014, overseas development assistance from rich nations to developing countries increased by 66% in real terms, and in 2013 reached the record figure of $134.8 billion.

The MDGs and the SDGs are not perfect. But would this progress against poverty and death have been made without the MDGs? Maybe, but I doubt it. And if the world had made this level of progress, would we even know about it?

If you are pro-life, celebrate the MDGs and the millions of people who are alive and thriving because of them – and support what comes next – the SDGs.

International management guru Peter Drucker once famously said: “You measure what is important to you, and what you measure becomes important to you.”

The world is finally measuring the right things. That is progress. To LIFE!

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[Image from United Nations Photo]

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