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Extreme poverty the focus at U.N. summit

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"A lot of encouraging progress has been made since these goals were adopted in 2000, particularly in a few specific areas like access to education, access to clean water, combating childhood diseases, and debt relief, and it's important to recognize the advances," says Robert Vos, director of the development policy and analysis division. "But significant gaps persist, even as we enter a period that may not be so favorable to additional progress unless we have renewed commitments all around."

Even before the most recent international financial turmoil, Mr. Ban was warning that development assistance from developed countries was falling – and he called on the wealthiest to recommit to past aid pledges at this week's summit. International development aid stopped rising in 2005, Mr. Vos notes, and fell in both 2006 and 2007.

Beyond that, summit participants will hear that the overall progress on the global development goals masks a widening divide between a fast-growing Asia and a lagging Africa. Progress is also uneven within developing countries, with some experts warning that the improvements registered so far have come largely in the most reachable and amenable sectors of the population.

What that's likely to mean, they add, is that the low-hanging fruit on the poverty reduction tree may have already been picked.

"The big challenge now is that, by and large, the parts of humanity still falling through the cracks, whether it's in Africa or Asia or Latin America, are the hardest to reach: the ethnic and linguistic minorities, the most remote of rural populations, the populations in conflict-affected countries," says Charles MacCormack, president of Save the Children and a longtime specialist in international development.

Some development specialists worry that a focus on overall progress on the millennium goals will obscure a glaring failure to advance on a few key indicators, most notably on maternal health and reducing maternal mortality rates.

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