Virtuous Cycles: An Interview with Robert Orr

When they were unveiled a decade ago, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) stirred billions of people to a noble dream: the world’s nations were finally getting serious about reducing poverty. Under United Nations auspices, 189 heads of state pledged commitment to eight achievable goals by 2015, goals that would be monitored and funded in an era of unprecedented prosperity.

From early on, critics declared the MDGs were too modest, or too easily evaded by recalcitrant politicians. After ten years, the MDGs can claim many remarkable successes, but results have been mixed. The UN’s most recent report says: “Though progress has been made, it is uneven. And without a major push forward, many of the MDG targets are likely to be missed in most regions.” (See progress reports at

With five years to go before the deadline, the UN Summit on the MDGs this month in New York City is dedicated to rekindling the vision despite the frayed uncertainties of today’s global political and economic climate. Robert Orr, assistant UN Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Strategic Planning, believes the MDGs are everybody’s business. We can still achieve the targets, he argues, if we muster the heart and imagination. Orr knows the politics of international affairs and governmental dynamics; he has held senior posts in the U.S. government and positions at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. Last month, Orr talked in his New York office with Reflections’ editorial director

John Lindner and editor Ray Waddle. Here is an edited version of the interview.

REFLECTIONS: So many unforeseen crises have unfolded since 2000, when the Millennium Development Goals were unveiled – 9/11, a nine-year war on terror, Darfur, the Asian tsunami, global recession, fears of climate change. Have these jeopardized MDG progress? Are you satisfied with the pace of progress after ten years?

ROBERT ORR: In the grand scheme of things, MDGs are a novel experiment. There were people who doubted that you could do development by goals. But the last ten years has produced outcomes we otherwise would not have had. Structured goal-setting, organized on national and international levels, has proven a very worthy experiment.

But are we not satisfied with the pace? Of course not. There is no such thing as satisfied in this business. One poor person is too many. There has been good progress in some of the goals, and good progress in some countries and regions, but the challenges are especially acute in specific parts of the goals and specific regions and countries. What we are trying to do at the two-third mark, with five years to go, is get an agreed plan for attacking the remaining gaps with the lessons learned and build on some really dramatic successes.

REFLECTIONS: Can the eight goals be met by 2015?

ORR: The answer is yes, but it will take an extraordinary effort. Even where we were on track and doing very well, the recent economic crisis, combined with the food crisis, energy crisis – the waves of crisis – have dealt a real setback to progress made. For example over a billion people now are hungry, whereas in 1992, the number was 842 million. We need to recognize that even where we have made significant progress, the potential of backslide is quite great. That said, by really turning the focus on this in specific countries, focus leads to results. It’s achievable, but it will take intense focus especially in a tough economic climate, which can translate into a tough political climate. We need real leadership at this point and time.

REFLECTIONS: What should the United States do?

ORR: Last year when President Obama came to the UN for his first address to the world community at the UN, he said the MDGs are America’s goals, which was a very dramatic and important statement. The U.S. has to lead on many levels. The U.S. has a presence in institutions and resources no one else has. The U.S. can’t just take a business-as-usual approach. This is not going to be solved just by overseas development assistance. It’s going to take the mobilization of civil society, private sector, as well as government. I think the Obama Administration is in fact in the process of creating a strategy for this for the first time. I have seen an initial draft. The fact is there is commitment and, on specific parts of the MDGs, we’ve seen real U.S. leadership – on food security issues, on global health. Many have hoped for that kind of U.S. leadership for many years.

REFLECTIONS: Is there a groundswell of grassroots support and awareness here? Has it caught fire?

ORR: Has it caught fire? No, but it’s smoldering. The fact is, it has caught fire in various parts of the world. It has excited popular imagination. Various governments have people in the president’s office organizing, following each MDG one by one, indicator by indicator, to see how they are doing. That type of focus does not come without a swell from the bottom. You just don’t do this as a gesture from the top. In the U.S., maybe it’s the saturation of information, maybe it’s looking to problems at home. There are communities in the U.S. that are very aware of the MDGs. Religious communities of various persuasions have been an important base of support. But for the broader populace it has not caught on to the extent it needs to. The key is: people should understand it’s a moral issue, but also a self-interest issue. The fate of all those people “out there” is inextricably linked to the prospects for a stable and prosperous U.S. I think that link has yet to be fully made clear. I hope U.S. strategy and follow-up after the September summit will help make the case more broadly.

REFLECTIONS: We don’t hear that argument so much – that it’s in our own best interest to support the MDGs.

ORR: What crystallizes this point for me was the dramatic food crisis spike in 2008. The level of integration of global markets today means that a poor crop in one corner of the world can affect everyone. That kind of global integration is something that we need to factor into our own thinking. It can happen on food, on health, climate change, and security. When the food price rose, there was public unrest in over forty countries around the world.

REFLECTIONS: We live in a sound-byte world; we look for quick answers to complex questions. People latch onto microcredit as the answer, or making a donation as the answer. How do you communicate the complexities of poverty to people?

People should understand it’s a moral issue, but also a self-interest issue. The fate of all those people “out there” is inextricably linked to the prospects for a stable and prosperous U.S.

ORR: People can understand an issue like women and children’s health. So the fact that the maternal mortality MDG is the slowest-moving goal is a travesty. Safe birthing and those first precious days and months of life are something that we know what to do, and yet we are still losing over 350,000 women a year – entirely preventable. Over eight million children a year – deaths entirely preventable. I don’t mind appealing to people to say: I hope you are as outraged as I am about this, and we have the solutions. This fall one of the key things we hope to achieve is to make specific MDG progress in areas where we’ve been stuck; maternal and child health is one of the areas. Take the slowest-moving MDGs and move them from the caboose of the train to be an engine of the train. If a woman is healthy and her children are healthy, that is a nucleus for a stable and prosperous family.

Now, the progress we are making on malaria has us on track to have a world free of death from malaria by 2015. If we just keep up the efforts that are underway today, we can get there by 2015. That is a revolution. Malaria is still today one of the biggest killers in the world. We need a totally mobilized civil society, north and south. We need totally mobilized private-sector interests coming together with government and international organizations. This is not something that government will do alone. In the U.S., the $10 insecticide-treated bed nets became something most Americans have heard of. They can make a difference. Those kinds of interventions – that’s stuff we can all understand. If we can do this on malaria, get on that kind of trajectory, and do the same for maternal and child health, it can have a huge echo effect for mobilizing the other MDGs.

REFLECTIONS: The “total elimination of poverty” – is that just a cruel exercise in wishful thinking, a false hope, or can it be a reachable goal in this century?

ORR: It is not a cruel exercise. It is quite the opposite, if we can define ourselves in the twenty-first century as a humanity that no longer accepts the conventional wisdom that the poor will always be with us. We can prove that though you may never get to zero, you can get on a trajectory where you actually drive the numbers down so dramatically, you move to a virtual zero. It is not just wishful thinking. It can work. We need to apply the lessons of MDG to the hardest cases – not just go for the easy wins or go just for the countries that are almost there, the ones that are well organized. If you are really going after the tough stuff, it’s amazing the momentum you can generate for the easier things. The clock won’t stop in 2015; we will have development challenges after that. We will have poverty to address after that. But if we can broaden the arc of progress that we have seen in some places, there is no reason to say we have to live with extreme poverty in the twenty-first century.

REFLECTIONS: Assembling this particular Reflections issue, we know the very word poverty can evoke frustration, defeatism, guilt. What would you say to people of good will who want to help despite the despairing persistence of poverty?

ORR: People have to follow their passions. Rather than trying to solve all the world’s problems, try to identify a cause, a place, a person, a family, something that speaks to you, and try to sustain the effort in that area. I know people who started out making contributions of $100 for ten bed nets, then later became deeply involved in the development project of recipient countries, people, and villages. A human connection has to be made. With the internet today, you can see the results of your work. There are some very innovative efforts using modern technology, linking people in Iowa to the remotest forest region of Africa. If you can do that, there’s no reason in today’s world why you have to remain distant from this. I have found if you can feed your own passion, you will go deeper and deeper, and successes will follow from there. There is nothing like momentum.

And I would say our biggest champions are people under thirty, and that is exciting! If you can excite people under thirty about the future of their planet, through a human lens, through a person or community – for instance, my daughter’s school is linked to a community in Uganda. I am not sure that that was really possible before. Also, at the time of the Haiti earthquake, my daughter came home and said her school was organizing a relief effort. I thought they are going to be putting their pennies in a jug. But they organized the whole school and families around it. There is connectiveness now in today’s world. We don’t have to let ourselves be isolated.

REFLECTIONS: You mention momentum–is there an MDG team sketching out a plan of action after 2015?

ORR: We are the first to say: we aren’t going to stop at 2015. But right now we are organized for the big push in the next five years and a retooled MDG effort, then we can adjust as we get into the final period here for what happens after. I think it’s an open question under what auspices and what lessons we draw from this. But one lesson of the first ten years is: national action, organization on a national level, make a big difference, and there is a need for international assistance, and public and private partnerships are growing, and where they grow they make a difference.

REFLECTIONS: What gives you hope that people can be moved to action?

ORR: One of the most encouraging things I have seen in years of working with my fellow Americans, mobilizing support for the MDGs and internationalism generally is this: when people are activated they tend not to go back. Once you’ve reached out and touch the world, it touches you back and you don’t slide back. I think we all have to make a concerted effort to get those initial touches. No one is beyond reach in this country. Poor people in this country can make a difference for poverty here and abroad. Some of the partnerships of people – poor people in this country talking to poor people in other countries – can now be done pretty easily, and they actually change lives. A lot of people find it very powerful to talk with empowered poor people from other places. Those kinds of connections – human-to-human, community-to-community – help create the virtuous cycle that is needed to get us to the finish line.

Trying to address poverty can be so draining. Addressing human rights abuses can suck the life-blood out of you. But all you need to do is meet a real champion, someone who stood up and defeated their circumstances, and you will never forget that. You will be fed by that.