Elusive UN goals

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BACK in September 2000 the UN held a special millennium summit. At a time of economic boom in the West, the international community pledged itself to do more for the less fortunate by setting eight goals for development to be met by 2015.

The millennium development goals, as they became known, were ambitious and specific. They included targets for halving the number of people living on less than a dollar a day, putting every child in primary school, cutting child mortality by two-thirds and reducing the number of women dying in childbirth by three-quarters. There was a target to halt and then reverse the spread of Aids, to ensure environmental sustainability and to promote gender equality.

More than halfway to the 2015 deadline, a fresh high level UN summit is being held in New York this month to address a stark reality: unless steps are taken immediately, the goals will be missed — many of them by a considerable distance. The drop in maternal mortality, for example, is only one-fifth of what is needed to hit the target. At the current rate of progress, it will be 2108, not 2015, before there is a halving of the number of people without adequate sanitation.

Some world leaders are aware of the problem. The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, calls it a development emergency. Ban Kimoon has said he will use his job as UN secretary general to mobilise action. The World Bank says rich countries need to dig deep into their pockets to ensure that 100 million people do not fall into poverty as a result of rising global food prices.

Even before the twin blows of the year-long credit crunch and surging commodity prices, it was clear there was much to do. Rich countries had promised extra aid at the Gleneagles G8 summit in 2005 but had been slow to deliver it. Developing countries proved better at improving public services for the urban middle class than for the rural poor. The global financial crisis has, however, put extra pressure on governments in both north and south to make sure they meet the eighth and final goal — a global partnership for development.

Andrew Shepherd, of the Overseas Development Institute, Britain’s leading independent thinktank on international development and humanitarian issues, says the challenges remain formidable. “They include rising food and oil prices and accelerating climate change, as well as the continuing threats of chronic poverty, growing inequality, poor governance and the extreme problems facing the most fragile states, where the necessary leadership — and the basics of development — are often lacking.” More progress has been made in achieving some goals than oth ers. The rapid growth in China and India has made the first target — halving the number of people living on less than a dollar a day — achievable by 2015. In Asia, the proportion living in extreme poverty has fallen from 41 per cent to 29 per cent, but in Africa progress has been much slower, with the number living below the poverty line dropping from 47 per cent in 1990 to around 40 per cent today.

“The measure of the summit’s success will be not merely the words but the action,” Douglas Alexander, Britain’s international development secretary, told this reporter. “Success would be children having access to a teacher and a classroom, families vulnerable to hunger getting immediate humanitarian [aid], and people at risk of malaria able to sleep under a bed net.” He says he wants rich donor countries to fund the education fast-track initiative — a global partnership of donor and developing countries designed to ensure that any developing country with a plan to achieve universal primary education receives the requisite funding. “We have made real progress on education but there are still 75 million [children] without a school or a classroom to go to.” The minister adds that funding for the fast-track initiative is one of the practical measures Britain wants out of the New York summit to ensure that it is not dis missed as a talking shop. The others are to provide 125m bed nets for the fight against malaria, specific pledges to ensure there is enough food to tackle hunger, and money to ensure that poor countries could employ an extra four million health workers.

There are those in the development community who privately doubt whether achieving the goals is an adequate measure of development. Alexander says that Britain sees no point in abandoning the 2015 goals now.

“We have six-and-a-half years to meet the goals,” he says. “Of course, there should be discussions about what should happen after 2015 but, for now, it is a better use of our time to re-energise our efforts towards meeting the goals.” Kevin Watkins, of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), says there is both good and bad news. The good news is the strong progress on poverty reduction in east Asia, parts of Latin America (especially Brazil) and, to a far more limited extent, south Asia. The bad news is that overall progress towards the goals has often been accompanied by rising inequalities, notably in areas such as child mortality. “Achieving the 2015 goals while leaving large sections of the poor behind is to comply with the letter of the millennium development goals while violating their spirit,” he says. ¦ — The Guardian, London

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