Heads of state and global leaders gathered at the U.N. this week to bemoan a lack of progress on meeting many of the targets for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) originally outlined in 2000. With the notable exception of President Obama, those speaking at the summit generally ignored the evidence about what consistently works to alleviate poverty and improve the lives of individuals and families across the world: greater economic freedom and rule of law.

Instead, the discussions have focused on increasing foreign aid to countries and regions furthest from reaching the development targets. Donor nations and development entities have used this forum to announce new contributions aimed at reaching their pet goals: French president Sarkozy promised an additional $1.4 billion to the Global Fund to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, while the U.S. teamed up with Australia and the U.K. to announce a partnership with the Gates Foundation to increase funding for family planning programs.

This announcement is right in lockstep with the U.N. officials and NGO advocates who have especially focused on women during this summit, extensively highlighting MDG 3 (promoting gender equality and empower women) and MDG 5 (improving maternal health). Unfortunately, in U.N. lingo “women’s empowerment” and “gender equality” too often mean quotas and enhanced “reproductive rights.” Contrary to the much-publicized evidence of recent improvements in maternal and newborn health, the draft outcome document expressed “grave concern over the slow progress being made on reducing maternal mortality and improving maternal and reproductive health.”

Just prior to the summit, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, to head UN Women, the U.N.’s new gender entity that is expected to be operational next year with an annual operating budget of $500 million. The U.N. Development Fund for Women released part of a forthcoming report Progress of the World’s Women, asserting that “discrimination and inequality are holding back progress on all of the [Millennium Development] Goals.”

In his opening address the Secretary-General appealed to member states to make “the smart investments … in women and girls.” Reinforcing his call, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of the U.N. Population Fund and recent recipient of an MDG Lifetime Achievement Award, called upon world leaders to increase funding for reproductive health and family planning. On the concluding day of the summit, Ban launched a new “Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health” with a promise of $40 billion in health services, to the cheer of the Women Deliver feminists and their allies in promoting “safe” sex, free contraception, and abortion services under the guise of family planning.

The U.S. should make every effort to shift the development agenda at the U.N. away from official development assistance (foreign aid) and toward policies that are more conducive to economic growth in developing countries. When it comes to improving the lives of women, and mothers in particular, real improvement lies in investing in basic health and obstetric care, not condom distribution and abortion liberalization.