The United Nations is a huge organization, consisting of 191 member countries that represent almost every nation on earth. While the U.N. has many international issues to focus on, it has directed an enormous amount of energy toward poverty reduction – first through the creation of organizations such as the World Bank all the way back in 1945, and now through organizations such as the United Nations Development Program and initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals campaign.
The United Nations flag.
The United Nations does a tremendous amount of work to alleviate poverty, but almost as important, it provides many useful tools that can be used by researchers to better understand and classify poverty.
First and foremost is the Human Development Index, or HDI (link), which is one of the most-used indicators for poverty today. HDIs are now included in reports from many leading anti-poverty organizations, and a list of HDIs for all countries is published yearly in the United Nations’ Human Development Report, compiled by the United Nations Development Program.
The United Nations has also created classifications for developing nations that are now in common usage.
- Least Developed Countries (LDCs) – The LDCs are countries classified by the UN as having extremely low human development and economic development. There are currently 50 LDCs, a list that is updated triennially by the UN. The UN determines the LDCs using three economic measures, including the Gross Domestic Product per capita.
- Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) – LLDCs are developing countries that are particularly disadvantaged because they are landlocked – they have no access to the sea.
- Small Island Developing Nations (SIDs) – SIDs are developing nations that are limited in economic development not by lack of access to the sea, but by lack of landmass. All the SIDs are small, island nations with very limited area.
The Millennium Development Goals
The United Nations building in New York City.
The Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, were created by the UN in 2000 as a framework for a massive, global campaign to advance human development, including the alleviation of poverty. They were adopted by all 191 members of the United Nations, a remarkable achievement. They consist of goals, each divided into one or more ‘targets.’ In total, there are eight goals and 18 targets, summarized here:
- Goal #1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
- Target #1: Half the percentage of people who live on less than $1 a day.
- Target#2: Half the percentage of people who suffer from hunger.
- Goal #2: Achieve universal primary education.
- Target #3: Ensure that all boys and girls complete primary schooling.
- Goal #3: Promote gender equality and empower women.
- Target #4: Eliminate gender inequalities in schools.
- Goal #4: Reduce child mortality.
- Target #5: Reduce the under-five mortality rate by 2/3.
- Goal #5: Improve maternal health.
- Target #6: Reduce the maternal mortality ratio by 3/4.
- Goal #6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
- Target #7: Halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS.
- Target #8: Halt and reverse incidences of malaria and other diseases.
- Goal #7: Ensure environmental sustainability.
- Target #9: Reverse the loss of environmental resources by building sustainable development into country policy.
- Target #10: Half the percentage of people without safe water.
- Target #11: Improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers (by 2020).
- Goal #8: Develop a global partnership for development.
- Target #12: Develop a free and open trade and financial system that does not discriminate and is dedicated to good governance and poverty reduction.
- Target #13: Help the LDCs through aid, debt relief, and trade (see above ‘Standards’).
- Target #14: Help the LLDCs and SIDs (see above ‘Standards’).
- Target #15: Help heavily indebted countries achieve sustainable debt.
- The last three targets are not part of a specific goal, and concentrate on the nations where human development is lowest (sub-Saharan Africa and the UN LDCs).
- Target #16: Increase work opportunities for youth.
- Target #17: Increase access to essential drugs in developing countries.
- Target #18: Increase access to communications and information technology in developing nations.
While the goals address on many areas of human development, fighting poverty is the overarching theme of the MDGs. Some goals focus of poverty more directly than others (just compare Goal #1, reducing the number of people living on $1-a-day, with Goal #7, which focuses on environmental sustainability), but all of them have something to contribute to alleviating poverty. While the Millennium Declaration, which officially put the MDGs into effect, leaves working to achieve the goals to individual countries, the MDGs have opened up a new way for anti-poverty programs to be measured. Program reports from the World Bank and UNDP, for example, now list the MDGs that the program addresses.
Most importantly, though, the MDGs have brought a heightened awareness to people across the globe to the problem of poverty. The Millennium Declaration and the MDGs are easily accessible to everyone, no matter where they live or what their social status is. Many time, goals for large organizations like the UN are hidden by long reports, obscure statistics, and strange acronyms. The MDGs are the exact opposite. They are brief, simple, and to the point, and because of this, they have a much higher chance of making a difference.
The United Nations Development Programme
The most active branch of the United Nations, in terms of helping developing countries, is the United Nations Development Program. The UNDP works all over the world – 166 different countries – and is the largest UN organization. It is led by an Administrator, currently Kemal Dervis (who is actually a former World Bank official). His position as head of the UNDP makes him the 3rd-highest ranking UN official in the UN system (the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, is the highest ranking, and his deputy is 2nd).
The UNDP, unlike organizations such as the World Bank, does not usually give out large loans to developing nations. Instead, it provides technical assistance, helping countries learn how to best achieve their poverty reduction goals. Because of this focus, the UNDP has become the largest source of grant (the money does not have to be repaid) technical assistance in the world.
The UNDP also favors working closely with local governments and citizens as opposed to bringing in foreign workers, thereby decreasing costs of operations while also ensuring participation and support from the people they help. While the UNDP tries to work with locals in all of its projects, it also has several programs that work to strengthen the ability of locals to solve problems themselves. The largest of these was ‘Capacity 21,’ created in 1992, and since renamed ‘Capacity 2015’ (a possible reference the to MDG deadline). Capacity 2015 increases access to new ideas and information, letting local leaders and institutions expand in creative ways.
The UNDP focuses on five major areas of human development, that tie in closely to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals:
- Democratic Governance: The UNDP regards good governance as a key element to alleviating poverty and achieving the UN’s MDGs. The UNDP assists countries in administering law, conducting fair elections, and upholding human rights. It also encourages citizens to get involved in the democratic process and participate in their government.
- Poverty Reduction: The UNDP’s poverty reduction program focuses on meeting ‘local needs and priorities,’ which means that many of its activities are tailored differently depending on the location and specific situation. However, at a higher level, the UNDP works closely with UN countries to coordinate Official Development Aid so that it can be used effectively by developing nations. Without this coordination, much the ODA given to a country can be wasted on duplication and inefficiency. Tying into the ‘Democratic Governance’ theme of the UNDP, the UNDP’s poverty reduction program advocates for a greater voice for impoverished individuals, as well as gender equality.
- Crisis Prevention and Recovery: The UNDP works on crisis prevention and recovery through its Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCPR). The BCPR has worked in almost every developing country at one time or another, and works to prevent conflicts from breaking out. It also helps relief efforts and reconstruction in conflict-torn areas, removes mines, and generally tries to ensure a stable environment for peace-building and poverty reduction.
- Energy and Environment: In this sector, the UNDP tries to help impoverished people gain access to reliable, cheap, and clean energy supplies, and also to create environmentally sustainable practices in the countries it works in.
- HIV/AIDS: HIV/AIDS is one of the biggest roadblocks to poverty alleviation. Because of this, the UNDP has dedicated much of its energy toward stopping the epidemic. It works with local governments to incorporate HIV/AIDS reduction into poverty programs, spreads awareness, and works to give HIV/AIDS victims access to affordable medicine.
The UNDP and HIV/AIDS in Zambia
Zambia is a country that has a long experience with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the 1980s, just a few years after HIV/AIDS was first discovered, the disease made its way to Zambia.
Other U.N. Organizations
Many United Nations offices are located in the U.N. complex in Vienna, Austria.
In addition to the UNDP, the United Nations has several other organizations that work to alleviate poverty and develop poor countries. While the UNDP focuses very broadly on human development in the countries it works in, other UN organizations have more specialized missions.
- UNIFEM: UNIFEM works to create gender equality across the world, especially for women. This work is absolutely essential, because women in the developing world are often denied access to education, have an increased risk of HIV/AIDS, and are even more likely to be impoverished or economically insecure.
- UNICEF: UNICEF works to give children around the world a healthy childhood. It conducts immunizations, works for gender equality in schools, combats HIV/AIDS, and creates protective, safe environments for children to live in.
- UNCDF: The UNCDF (United Nations Capital Development Fund), works in developing countries to help impoverished people to gain financial knowledge and be able to better manage and use their money. UNCDF works extensively with microfinance operations, and has seen excellent results. UNCDF tries to create microfinance opportunities in areas where there is a lack of organizations conducting microfinance activities. For example, the UNCDF’s microcredit operations in Bangladesh were very limited, due mainly to the fact that Bangladesh already has hugely successful organization – Grameen Bank – conducting microfinance activities already.
- UNAIDS: UNAIDS is really a collection of various organizations (while most are UN organizations, others, such as the World Bank, are also involved) that work together to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic that is sweeping the globe.
Gilbert, Geoffry. World Poverty. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO 2004
Millennium Development Goals. 2005.
UNAIDS: Uniting the world against AIDS. 2006.
UN Development Programme.
UNDP Zambia: HIV/AIDS. 2005.
UN Capital Development Fund.
UN-OHRLLS: Least Developed Countries. 2005.
Wikipedia: The United Nations. 2006.