NEW YORK – Growing up as a child during the Korean War, I knew poverty first hand. I saw it around me every day; I lived it. One of my earliest memories is walking up a muddy track into the mountains to escape the fighting, my village burning behind me and wondering what would happen to my family and me.
The answer was the United Nations and other international agencies. With the help of many countries and friends, my country was able to get back on its feet and carry on after that terrible and devastating conflict. Thanks to decades of hard work and sacrifice by millions of Koreans, the Republic of Korea rose from desperate poverty to prosperity in less than a half-century. As Secretary-General of the UN, I am still living that story. Everyday, I work to help end the extreme poverty that traps nearly a billion of the world’s people.
You may imagine, then, the powerful memories that I felt when I visited the Mwandama Millennium Village in the deeply impoverished southern African country of Malawi. As in my youth, I saw once again the challenges and hardship of rural poverty. Yet I also saw, once again, the power of community spirit to overcome it – the same sense of solidarity and determination that launched Korea’s rural modernization five decades ago.
In 2000, the world’s leaders committed to achieve major reductions in poverty, hunger, and disease by 2015. These targets, endorsed by all UN member countries, comprise the eight Millennium Development Goals. The Millennium Village Project, a partnership of academia, business, and UN agencies, aims to show how these goals can be achieved in even the poorest communities in the world.
Like South Korea’s own experience in fighting poverty, Millennium Villages in Africa, and similar projects elsewhere, are now surging ahead in food production, children’s health, and in forging a sustainable pathway out of poverty itself. At the same time, I was impressed with one crucial difference between Korea’s efforts in the 1960’s and what is possible today. Touring the Mwandama Village, I saw the potential of modern technologies – smart phones and mobile broadband, improved seed varieties, the latest in drip irrigation, modern diagnostic tests for malaria, and low-cost solar-energy grids – to advance human well-being in ways that simply were not feasible even a few years ago.
I saw a community health worker using a smart phone to manage malaria treatment within a household. The worker used a low-cost diagnostic kit to confirm the malaria diagnosis, circumventing the need for a microscope and laboratory; a smart phone to key in the test results and receive advice from an “expert system” designed by public-health specialists; and state-of-the-art combination drug therapy to cure the illness. The child was cured within the home; a few years ago, that same child would have faced a high risk of death unless he was somehow brought to a distant clinic in time.
I saw other breakthrough changes in daily life. In a community that once could not feed itself, a giant warehouse was almost bursting with tons of surplus grain. By using high-yield seeds, better soil management, and proper row planting, the community has more than tripled its crop production, and villagers who previously were hungry grain buyers are now food-secure grain sellers.
That surplus, in turn, has contributed directly to improved education, as families donate a portion of their surplus to the school’s mid-day meal program. Now the students get a nutritious bowl of porridge and fruits, giving them the energy to pursue their studies throughout the school day. As so many schools have discovered, mid-day meals lead to an end-of–year jump in performance on national exams.
This month, the Millennium Villages Project launches its second five-year stage on the way to the MDGs target date of 2015. Around Africa, and now around the world, governments are scaling up the lessons from this particular project and others like it: empower communities, help them to invest in their futures using cutting-edge technologies, and thereby end extreme poverty. The MDGs might once have seemed to be merely a set of hopes and aspirations. Now we know that they are actually a practical roadmap out of poverty.
The world leaders who met at the UN in September for the annual General Debate all agreed on a central point: the importance of fighting poverty, hunger, and disease is crucial for our collective survival. They know that extreme poverty threatens the lives of hundreds of millions of people who lack reliable access to adequate nutrition, potable water, health care, and education.
They also know that the dangers don’t stop at the edge of the village or slum; today’s hunger hotspots all too frequently become tomorrow’s violent hotspots. Regardless of whether we are rich, poor, or in between, we share an overwhelming interest in the MDGs’ success, so that every region trapped in extreme poverty can break free, grow, and prosper.
Ban Ki-moon is Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.