Along with other targets for educating children, particularly girls, in the developing world, those goals, established by the United Nations and endorsed by the Group of Eight developed countries, called for the share of people living on less than $1.25 a day to be cut by half from 1990 to 2015.
The U.N. Development Program has announced that the goal has been reached ahead of time. With living standards rising in much of the developing world, the proportion of our fellow human beings living in extreme income poverty worldwide has almost halved. It fell from 43 percent in 1990 (almost 3 billion people) to 22 percent in 2008 (about 1.6 billion people).
One-third of these, more than 500 million people, were lifted out of abject poverty in China alone. But the Chinese weren't the only beneficiaries of this wave of widening prosperity in what the UNDP likes to call "the South," to stress contrast with the broadly more developed North.
More than 40 developing countries have made dramatic gains, including some of the very poorest and those most hit by wars. The UNDP scores this progress with a Human Development Index, which measures different areas like education, health, nutrition, life expectancy and infant mortality as well as incomes.
Fourteen countries have made the most progress, scoring annual average gains higher than 2 percent in their HDI. Leading the pack is Afghanistan, which suggests that the role of the United States, Britain and the NATO allies in that country is cause for at least some pride. It is followed by Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Angola, Timor-Leste, Myanmar, Tanzania, Liberia, Burundi, Mali, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Niger.
"The rise of the South is radically reshaping the world of the 21st century, with developing nations driving economic growth. ... and propelling billions more into a new global middle class," says the UNDP's 2013 Human Development Report.
"The rise of the South is unprecedented in its speed and scale. Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast."
The United Nations credits the countries themselves and various aid agencies for sustained investment in education, healthcare and social programs and stresses the importance of trade and "open engagement with an increasingly interconnected world."
What they mean by that is the much-maligned concept of globalization, the spread of trade and investment that can now claim to be one of the greatest achievements of the human race. Never before in history have so many people enjoyed decent living standards and the chance to earn and save and seize the opportunity to improve the opportunities for themselves and their children.
This historic progress is creating opportunities for the South and the North to collaborate in new ways to advance human development and confront shared challenges such as climate change, the report argues. Countries across the South are extending trade, technology and policy ties throughout the North, while the North is looking South for new partnerships that can promote global growth and development.
"The South as a whole is driving global economic growth and societal change for the first time in centuries," says the report, which gives some stunning snapshots of the pace of change.
China and India doubled per capita economic output in less than 20 years -- a rate twice as fast as that during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America.
"The Industrial Revolution was a story of perhaps a hundred million people, but this is a story about billions of people," says the UNDP's Khalid Malik, the 2013 report's lead author.
Developing countries nearly doubled their share of world merchandise trade from 25 percent to 47 percent from 1980-2010, the report notes. Trade within the South was the biggest factor in that expansion, climbing from less than 10 percent to more than 25 percent of all world trade in the past 30 years.
The UNDP calls this "an epochal global rebalancing," with the South on course to catch up with Europe and North America in a megatrend which should continue and could even accelerate as the 21st century unfolds.
Maybe, but the report also warns that environmental problems could halt or even reverse human development progress in the world's poorest countries and communities.
The number of people in extreme poverty could increase by 3 billion by 2050 unless environmental disasters are averted by coordinated global action, it says.
This isn't a zero-sum game in which the South gains at the North's expense, but an interdependent world in which trade, development and cooperation have proved their worth.
"The South needs the North and increasingly the North needs the South," the report concludes.
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