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The U.N.'s Rundown Of Some Of The World's Biggest Problems

Maternal mortality rates are going down because of better health services. Above: A mother nurses her newborn at a maternity ward in Sierra Leone.
Marco Longari AFP/Getty Images
Maternal mortality rates are going down because of better health services. Above: A mother nurses her newborn at a maternity ward in Sierra Leone.

What are the biggest social and economic problems the world faces today? And how close are we to ending them?

Those are the questions that the U.N. Economic and Social Council aims to answer in its first report on the Sustainable Development Goals, released this past week.

The SDGs, as they're known, are 17 global goals to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change by 2030. The U.N.'s member states approved them last September.


It's too early to measure whether any progress has been made, says Francesca Perucci, chief of the statistics branch at the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs who worked on the report — that will take one or two more years of data.

The report serves as a status update on the work already done to reach these goals in years past — and what remains to be done. It also shares figures on issues like child marriage and gender equality, which have not been measured on a global level before.

Casey Dunning, senior policy analyst for aid effectiveness at the Center for Global Development, a think tank for international issues, thinks the data does an "admirable job of laying out the challenges that face us. "But," she says, "it doesn't tell us how to make progress on those challenges."

Here are a few highlights from the report:

The good news

  • Extreme poverty has been cut in half. The proportion of the world's population living below the extreme poverty line dropped by more than half between 2002 and 2012. Some 800 million people still live under $1.90 a day.
  • Fewer children are going hungry. The proportion of children under age 5 who are stunted — small for their age due to malnutrition — fell from 33 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2014. Still, an estimated 158 million children under age 5 were affected by stunting in 2014.
  • More moms and babies are surviving after childbirth. Between 1990 and 2015, the global maternal mortality ratio declined by 44 percent to an estimated 216 deaths per 100,000 live births — and the mortality rate of children under age 5 fell by more than half. An estimated 5.9 million children under 5 died in 2015, mostly from preventable causes.
  • More people have clean drinking water. In 2015, 6.6 billion people, or 91 percent of the global population, had a cleaner drinking water source compared with 82 percent in 2000.
  • Child marriage has been declining slowly. Globally, the proportion of women aged 20 to 24 who reported that they were married before their 18th birthdays dropped from 32 percent around 1990 to 26 percent around 2015. According to 2012 data from the International Center for Research on Women, 70 million women ages 20 to 24 had been married before the age of 18.
  • Countries are upping their contributions. Foreign aid totaled $131.6 billion in 2015 — 6.9 percent higher in real terms than in 2014.

The bad news

  • Overweight children is an emerging problem. The share of overweight children under age 5 increased by nearly 20 percent between 2000 and 2014. Approximately 41 million children in this age group worldwide were overweight in 2014; almost half of them lived in Asia.
  • Women still do more work at home than men. Between 2000 and 2014, a survey of women in 59 countries said they spend 19 percent of their time each day on unpaid labor — caregiving and household tasks like cooking and cleaning — versus just 8 percent for men. That means women and girls work longer hours than men and boys and have less time for rest, learning and other activities.
  • Half the world breathes in polluted air. In 2014, about half the urban population globally was exposed to air pollution levels at least 2.5 times above the standard of safety set by the World Health Organization. Outdoor air pollution in both cities and rural areas is estimated to have caused 3.7 million premature deaths in 2012.
  • Cases of preventable diseases are going down — but they still persist. The incidence of HIV, malaria and tuberculosis declined between 2000 and 2015. In 2015, however, the U.N. reports that 2.1 million people were newly infected with HIV, and an estimated 214 million people contracted malaria.
  • Poor children aren't getting the education they need to succeed. In 2013, 59 million children of primary school age and 65 million adolescents of lower secondary age were out of school. Most of them were girls. Surveys from 63 low- and middle-income countries between 2008 and 2012 show that children from the poorest 20 percent of households are more than four times as likely to be out of school as their richest peers.
  • Children from poor countries aren't being counted. Registering a child with the authorities is the first step to accessing basic rights and justice — yet the births of more than one in four children under age 5 worldwide go unrecorded. According to data from UNICEF, that's 220 million children. In the least developed countries, one in two children have not been registered by age 5. That means everything from getting into school to getting a job could be a struggle.

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