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U.N.'s effort to fight global poverty faces hurdles at summit

WASHINGTON—Five years after world leaders adopted the ambitious set of anti-poverty targets known as the Millennium Development Goals, the project faces a key moment at a United Nations summit that begins on Wednesday.

Leaders of more than 170 countries meeting in New York are expected to review progress on the goals, which call for major improvements by 2015 in hunger, disease, illiteracy, gender inequality and other problems that plague the world's poorest countries.

The results so far aren't encouraging. Despite some pockets of progress, the vast majority of poor countries are well off track, notably in sub-Saharan Africa, where most nations are projected to meet few if any targets.

The new U.N. Human Development Report, published last week, ranked 177 countries based on quality of life. Twenty-four African nations were at the bottom.

The child mortality rate in Africa is now 29 percent higher than in rich countries, and the share of people living on less than $1 a day is 11.5 percent higher than it was in 1981, the report said.

But it cited some successes in Africa, including broad gains in universal primary education and greater public investment in health and education. A handful of countries, including Ghana and Mozambique, are seeing rapid economic growth.

The millennium goals were undermined and the summit preparations thrown into turmoil two weeks ago when John Bolton, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, proposed deleting all references to them from a document that world leaders would sign in New York.

Last week, Bolton backed off and said the United States would accept reference to the goals, but wouldn't endorse them.

A leaked draft of the final summit document urges developed countries to raise the foreign aid budgets to the equivalent of 0.7 percent of their gross national products. The United States' $19 billion aid budget is 0.17 percent of its GDP.

World leaders also will agree that the international community should intervene, as a last resort, to stop genocide, according to Caroline Green of the aid group Oxfam International, which is closely following the talks.

But U.S. hopes of establishing a powerful new U.N. Human Rights Council to replace a discredited commission whose members have included Libya and Sudan were being blocked by Egypt, Pakistan and China, diplomats said.

The aid dispute illustrates the philosophical differences between much of the international community and the Bush administration on foreign aid. U.S. officials have resisted binding targets and pushed a development agenda that's based on rewarding countries that demonstrate good governing practices and the primacy of free markets.

"It's part of a philosophy that the U.S. should not be tied by international agreements, that everything we do is voluntary," said Princeton Lyman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador to South Africa.

Many academics agree with the administration's belief that the millennium goals focus too much attention on aid and don't require recipient countries to make policy changes such as fighting corruption and promoting the rule of law.

"If you don't attach any conditions, you simply reward irresponsible behavior," said George Ayittey, an economist at American University in Washington. "The millennium goals have value if they also point us in the direction of what African governments need to do."

President Bush's response to the millennium goals was the Millennium Challenge Account, created in 2002, which gives development aid to countries that meet certain criteria on promoting civil liberties, investing in health and education, and maintaining sound fiscal and trade policies. The program so far has signed agreements with four countries—Cape Verde, Honduras, Madagascar and Nicaragua.

Chester Crocker, a Georgetown University professor who was assistant secretary of state for Africa under President Ronald Reagan, agrees with the approach but says more is required.

"There has to be a policy for addressing places of bad governance," he said.

The millennium goals don't explicitly deal with governance. Instead, they call for halving the proportion of people who live on less than $1 a day, ensuring universal primary education, reducing the child mortality rate by two-thirds and the maternal mortality rate by three-quarters and reversing the spread of deadly diseases such as AIDS and malaria.

U.N. officials fear that U.S. reluctance to embrace the targets will prevent the summit from issuing a call to action on development after a summer when the Group of Eight leading industrial nations agreed to cut the debt of 18 of the world's poorest countries—14 of them in Africa—and to double annual aid to Africa by 2010.

"The great hope was this summit would build on that momentum and give substance to some of the agreements that were generally outlined," said Kevin Watkins, director of the U.N.'s annual Human Development Report. "We haven't seen that happen so far."

The millennium goals can serve as a road map for continued improvement, Watkins said.

"There is no reason Africa cannot become a success story," he said.

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(Knight Ridder correspondent Warren P. Strobel at the United Nations contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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