The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are in many ways the Cinderella of international development. When 160 world leaders met at the United Nations in September 2000, they were inspired to adopt the Millennium Declaration, including bold targets in the fight against poverty, disease and hunger (learn more online at Such declarations are usually photo ops and little more. The MDGs, however, have become the belle of the ball. With an upcoming MDG Summit this September on their 10th anniversary, the MDGs can become the historic fulcrum for eliminating extreme poverty.

Two U.N. secretaries-general, Kofi Annan, who introduced the goals, and Ban Ki-moon, who energetically leads the fight for them today, have ensured that the goals embody the international commitment to banish life-and-death poverty. Global efforts are often weak and disorganized, but the MDGs are so straightforward, bold, practical and compelling—and with the legitimacy of universal endorsement by U.N. member states—that they have become the organizing principles of development programs in poor countries, assistance strategies of donor countries, and operational strategies of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) around the world.

When Kofi Annan asked me in 2002 to direct the U.N. Millennium Project to identify feasible approaches to achieving the MDGs, I found that the world’s scientific and practitioner communities, as well as many leading companies, were prepared to volunteer vast efforts for MDG success. We also learned, through a global network of hundreds of leading thinkers, practitioners and businesses, that the various goals—to reduce hunger, ensure school attendance, prevent childhood deaths, control pandemic diseases, fight gender bias, and more—could be spurred through very realistic investments and strategies.

Ban Ki-moon’s leadership on malaria control, part of the sixth MDG, exemplifies the point. In 2008 Ban called on the U.N. and its member states and on civil society to coalesce around a specific strategy to control malaria. The key is free access to long-lasting insecticide-treated nets to reduce malaria transmission, coupled with community-based drug treatments when episodes of malaria occur. With nearly 200 million bed nets distributed, malaria deaths are plummeting throughout Africa. The private-sector bed net manufacturers have played a crucial role in ensuring a massive scale-up of coverage and access. Ban’s Special Envoy for Malaria, Ray Chambers, reports that comprehensive bed net coverage is within reach by the end of 2010, as targeted.

President Barack Obama boldly pledged at the U.N. last September to come to this year’s summit with “a global plan to make [the MDGs] a reality. And we will set our sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time.” His administration’s signature effort this year was the launch of a new global agriculture fund at the World Bank to finance increased production by smallholder farmers, thereby contributing to the first MDG, to slash hunger. As Malawi and other African countries have shown, targeted help for smallholder farmers can double food production within a year or two.

The model for malaria control, now being extended to smallholder farming, is powerful. Countries prepare national action plans, and if technical experts review and approve those plans, a global fund disburses money for bed nets, malaria medicines, high-yield seeds, fertilizer, and the like. These disbursements, being highly targeted and measurable, are easily monitored to verify efficacy and to avoid corruption. This approach can apply to a range of challenges: universal school attendance, access to community health workers and local health systems, the spread of rural electrification through solar and other renewable power, and the decisive reduction in women’s deaths during childbirth. In this way, the defined targets of the MDGs come within quick reach.

Without question, the MDGs have spurred remarkable progress, but the challenges remain huge. Success will require plans at the September MDG Summit that concretely link governments, businesses, NGOs and individuals to clear national strategies. What might have been a mere get-together a decade ago to ring in the new millennium could yet prove to be the decisive organizing principle for ending extreme poverty in our time.