The Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015: What next?

The Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015: What next?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), by which the world community set out to achieve by 2015 certain targets aimed at reducing social deprivation, were adopted in 2000 at the United Nations Millennium Summit at Copenhagen.
The eight goals were: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality rates, improving maternal health, combating HIV Aids, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.

The Secretary General of the UN submitted a report to the Millennium Summit entitled ‘We the People: The Role of the United Nations in the Twenty First Century’. Additional input was given by the Millennium Forum, which brought together over 1,000 nongovernmental and civil society organisations from more than 100 nations.

The MDGs originated from the Millennium Declaration produced by the UN and adopted by the members. The declaration asserts that every individual has the right to dignity, freedom, equality, a basic standard of living that includes freedom from hunger and violence, and encourages tolerance and solidarity.

There was some criticism surrounding the adoption of the MDGs, focusing on the lack of analysis and justification behind the chosen objectives, the difficulty or lack of measurements for some of the goals, etc. In September 2010, a UN Conference reviewed progress in achieving the MDGs. Progress was uneven, with some countries achieving many of the goals, while others were not on track to realise any.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka seems to be among the countries which will be able to achieve several of the MDGs, due to the heavy emphasis on social development investments from the 1930s. Eradicating hunger and extreme poverty, universal primary education, etc. were achieved well before the target dates. Although the civil war saw some setbacks in war-affected areas, the end of the conflict has resulted in recovery being on track. Expenditure on education and health however has been curtailed and there are serious quality and delivery efficiency issues which have to be dealt with and addressed.
On the health-related MDG, Sri Lanka has achieved several; however, the nutrition MDG remains a challenge. A survey has shown that 21.6% of children fewer than five years are underweight. The nutrition MDG has two indicators: the prevalence of underweight for age among children under five and the proportion of the population below a minimum level of dietary energy consumption. The problem is caused by lifestyle and behavioural issues.
Supplementary feeding programs and preventive health care programs cannot provide remedies. The status of pregnant and lactating mothers, the lack of care facilities for infants of working mothers, both in the formal and informal sectors, crèche facilities and professional care givers, etc. are critical factors.

The 24 months from conception to the infant reaching one year and three months of age is critical in the cognitive development of the child. If this timeframe is missed, the repercussions are lifetime of below par achievement. A malnourished mother will give birth to underweight girl child, who in turn due to lack of nourishment, due to social stigmas and discriminatory cultural practices, will give birth to malnourished, low birth weight children.

The primacy given to males in traditional Asian societies, for example, results in, supplementary foods supplied to the family for the pregnant, lactating mother or the infant, being consumed by the whole family, especially the males who eat first!
The Nutrition Fund of the Janasaviya Trust Fund, a GOSL project supported by the World Bank and the UNDP, according to the Implementation Completion Report, made some impressive gains in these areas due to innovative interventions focusing on behavioural factors and reliance on participatory approaches by 68 Partner NGOs in 1,600 Grama Niladhari Divisions. Stunting for example fell from 54% to 37% in operational areas. The Nutrition Fund reached 700,000 mothers and 2.7 million children when it was in operation.

Worldwide progress

Worldwide there has been some progress in most sectors but also some strategic failures. For example, countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh have managed great improvement in sectors such as education and health but while also making great improvements in infant and maternal mortality, only modest progress has been made on improving the incomes of the poor and marginalised.
Sri Lanka, with our virtual first world social indicators due to the focus on welfare measures such as free healthcare and education in the mid 1930s, started off at an advantage in the challenge to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, but is expected to fail in achieving the target for nutrition for children and pregnant and lactating mothers.
Nepal, by simply doubling expenditure on the health budget and concentrating on the poorer parts of the country, has cut maternal mortality by half between 1998 and 2006 and reduced deprivation and misery by more than the income gains by the poor alone would suggest. On a newly-developed poverty measure, called the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), since 2006 Nepal has seen the highest falls in poverty. The MPI was developed by Sabina Alkire of the Oxford University’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative.

Sustainable Development Goals

While there are contrasting views on how the MDGs have affected the poverty alleviation process overall, worldwide, but the correlation has been strong enough for the world community to anticipate and expect a new set of global development aims when the MDGs expire in 2015.

On 25 September 2015, the members of the UN will met in New York to work on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute has declared that the new SDGs ‘have the potential to open up a new era of technological and organisational breakthroughs’ in the battle for the alleviation of poverty. This is a complex process; it is getting at the hearts and minds of people.

Among the MDGs’ possible claimed achievements is that between 1990 and 2010, the proportion of the population living on less than US$ 1.25 a day in developing countries halved to 21% or 1.2 billion people. This means that the 189 governments which signed onto the MDGs agreed to halve the share of the poorest by 2015 to claim that the MDGs had been achieved well in advance.
Sachs explains: “Standard economic policies aim for growth, on the other hand sustainable growth aims for economic growth that is broadly shared across the different economic strata of society and is also ‘green,’ that is environmentally sound.”
Economists have to face up to the long term challenges brought by economic growth – climate change, food scarcity, demographic shifts in population profile; they must resist the temptation to only remedy the immediate problems at hand and not worry about the future. The latter approach is naturally preferred by politicians, who wish to align the policy cycle with their electoral cycle. But this priority given to solving the problems at hand and ignoring long and medium term consequences is not a recipe for robust sustainable, inclusive growth.

Sachs calls for the UN to set itself and member countries Sustainable Development Goals starting from 2015, as the successor to the MDGs. Sachs hails the achievements of the MDG, examples like the reduction of malaria deaths in Africa and the introduction of new vaccines to prevent communicable diseases. He calls for the SDGs to take up the challenge of the need for a transition to low carbon energy by 2050, the protection and conservation of critically endangered biodiversity, the improvement of agricultural yields with reduced environmental damage and redesigning city life to be much more energy efficient and meeting the challenges of rising temperatures and rising sea levels due to climate change.

Alleviating poverty

As Nepal has shown, alleviating poverty is not just a matter of increasing incomes. The economic shocks that cause people to remain poor are caused by factors like lack of schools; clean water, medicines and access to facilities to better self manage the fertility of females. Sometimes the analysis results in confusing results.
For example, using the Multidimensional Poverty Index to classify and analyse the poor in Vietnam, Sabina Alkire of Oxford University has found that about 1/6th of Vietnam’s population is poor by income and another 1/6th is multi-dimensionally poor. But they are not the same identical people, only about 1/3rd overlap. This gives credibility to the argument that the US$ 1.25 a day poverty line, the concept on which the anticipation of a poverty free world is triggered, may not be the best of measuring poverty in reality.
Based on this, international NGOs and charities are pushing the UN and governments to adopt more exacting targets for measuring the non income indicators of deprivation, when they meet in New York in September 2015. If there is substantial improvement, then the targets such as an end to preventable deaths in childbirth by 2030, ensuring universal access to safe water, reduce child mortality from 50 per 1,000 live births to 20 and halving the rate of stunting – that is below average growth in children which is a measure of malnutrition – can be reached.

The challenge is that it has been proved far more difficult to improve the social aspects of poverty, than merely increasing incomes of the poor. For example, the MDG for the income target was met by some countries five years ago, but the world is nowhere near meeting the other, more challenging, MDGs of reducing child mortality by 2/3rds and maternal mortality by 2/3rds by 2015. Both have been reduced to date by less than half of the target. MDGs on sanitation and education, worldwide, are estimated to be missed. The argument is made that if the challenge of income inequality is effectively taken on and narrowed, and each country was to achieve the lowest level of income inequality it has had since 1980, 90% of the poor will have access to proper sanitation.


Good governance

The other area for improvement, which will have an effect on achieving the MDG and alleviating poverty effectively, is in the area of governance. Good governance at its simplest is “doing what is right, the right way, at the right time”. If the World Bank’s Governance Indicators are taken as a measure of government effectiveness, the percentage of people having access to proper sanitation is estimated by analysts to reach 90%.
But setting universally acceptable standards to measure good governance, improvements in accountability and effectiveness of government is a challenge. Things like the Rule of Law, a free media, an independent judiciary, a separation of powers, an autonomous administrative mechanism and term limits for politicians, are not things which the world community will universally accept, as standards of good governance, unfortunately. This is unfortunate as most poverty is concentrated in failing states, in which standards of governance are pitiful – like Afghanistan and the Congo.
Even in countries like India, surveys show that the public perception is that the most corrupt elements of society are politicians, the police and the bureaucracy, in that order. A recent survey by the Hindustan Times showed that 50% of a national sample of youth claimed that they had been asked for bribes in order to access government services. More than 70% said they had suffered delays and harassment from public officials and politicians as a consequence of refusing to pay bribes. The Prime Minister of India Sri Manmohan Singh, addressing the members of the Indian Administrative Service, which he described as “one of the world’s most formidable bureaucracies,” asked them to show ‘moral courage’ and not succumb to the pressures and to the temptations of India’s fast growing economy.


The problem lies in the fact that, it’s very difficult to change the underlying factors which are the cause of inequality. The rich, powerful vested interests have an incentive to entrench themselves and their power by not changing inequality too much. One method will be by targeted redistribution. But the benefit of doing so may be of marginal use, not considering that ineffective targeting causes huge leakages and corruption in the system. The neediest are often not covered.
A recent study by the World Bank has concluded that 4/5ths of the improvement incomes of the poorest 40% segment of the population in 118 countries is a result of overall growth in the economy, and not by schemes of redistribution. However, according to the study, here remains a 1/5th whose incomes would be enhanced by properly targeted redistributive programs and such intervention would be required to actually to get poverty levels to zero.
But there has to be a trade off; which is more important – growth or equality? There would be nothing to redistribute unless there is economic growth. This issue of shared prosperity and how to achieve it is one which Professors Amartya Sen of Harvard and Dreze of Allahabad have been having an ongoing debate with Professors Bhagwati and Panagariya of Columbia University in the context of growth in the Indian economy and redistributive programs implemented there.

Challenge ahead

The United Nations at its September 2013 meeting will face quite a challenge to design and agree on a series of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). A huge and comprehensive overhaul of technology systems in all sectors transport, food supplies, health and safer cities, to name a few, will be required.
The evolutionary path followed hitherto in technological change the world has seen is very different to the target driven changes that are needed. Incremental changes we have witnessed thus far simply will not do. Jeffrey Sachs outlines three key possible elements of success towards achieving the SDGs.

The first is to fix definitely the target to be achieved. Then a series of possible optional pathways should be determined. Sachs calls this ‘back casting’. Secondly, Sachs calls for a clear and categorical series of road maps leading to the target. This necessary entails a clear commitment word wide to take the route indicated in the selected road map, however arduous and challenging it may be. This will call for a global leadership of a high order. The third step indicated by Sachs is global cooperation. This has been done before, in areas like safety standards for air travel, development of hybrid seed material for agricultural crops, new drugs to combat tropical diseases and the support for the development of electrical cars for example.

The commitment for SDGs will have to be comprehensive, covering all nations. The challenges and the crises faced are global; they need global responses. Global warming for example cannot be responded to adequately if all nations do not accept the problem and commit themselves to a solution. Consensus on the next-generation MDGs, the SDGs, will not be an easy task.

Measuring poverty is not easy. Recently the Census Bureau of the USA released figures stating that the poverty rate in the US was around 15%. Rightist politicians complained that in 1973 it was 12%, and that all the funds spent thereafter on poverty alleviation had come to naught. But this is not an accurate criticism. The official measure of the US Census Bureau is misleading – it measures only cash income and not the benefits which below the poverty line families in the US receive, like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the Food Stamps program. If this was also included as income in the computation, the poverty rate comes to 11%. SNAP not only reduces food insecurity and poverty in the short term; it also affects future poverty alleviation. Research has shown access to Food Stamps improves children’s nutrition and health and they become more productive adults.
It is clear that measuring the actual success of SDGs will also create difficulty. But this is no excuse; nations must set the targets for SDGs and make a determined, global, comprehensive effort to achieve them.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years of experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

Source -Daily FT


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