For those living in poverty, the Millennium Development Goals have never been abstract or aspirational targets. They have offered a pathway to a better life —a life with access to adequate food and income; to basic education and health services; to clean water and sanitation; and to empowerment for women.
Put simply, achieving the MDGs is about a better life for billions of people. The Goals can be achieved, and there is a range of tried and tested policies which, adapted to national contexts, can ensure progress on them.
Drawing on studies from fifty countries to find out what has worked and what are common constraints on progress, UNDP completed an international assessment of where to focus to achieve the MDGs. Eight areas are identified.
First, the importance of country-led development is emphasized.
Development strategies need to be locally-owned and based on broad national consensus. It helps immensely when a country’s institutions are responsive and accountable, and have the capacity to implement MDG policies and programmes.
Development partners can help by supporting planning which includes the perspectives of poor and marginalized people; and also by supporting the strengthening of the capacities needed to mobilise resources, make evidence-based policy decisions, and deliver services.
Second, more inclusive economic growth models are needed to drive MDG progress.
The evidence suggests that rapid reductions in poverty and hunger result from economic growth which is job-rich, and which has a specific focus on agriculture and rural development in countries where large numbers of people live on the land. A fair distribution of income, assets, and opportunities also helps.
In the developing world, 2.5 billion people depend on agriculture for their living. Boosting agricultural production can simultaneously reduce poverty and improve food security. To be more productive, farmers need better fertilizers and seeds, extension services, secure land rights, and access to markets.
Ghana offers a good example of what can work in this area. It has managed, through a nation-wide fertilizer subsidy programme, to increase its food production by forty per cent. That contributed to the nine per cent decline in hunger in Ghana between 2003 and 2005.
Boosting farm production also requires improvements in rural infrastructure. As well, the conclusion of the WTO Doha round in a way which works for poor people and countries would help.
Recent decades saw a sharp decline in the share of official development assistance going to the agricultural sector. The G8 agreement at L’Aquila last year to invest in Global Food Security, however, was a positive step away from that trend.
Third, opportunities for women and girls must be improved.
That would be a powerful driver of MDG progress across all the goals. The evidence shows that children born to women with some formal education are more likely to survive to their fifth birthday, receive adequate nutrition, and be immunized and enrolled in school.
In Viet Nam, the children of mothers with primary education have a mortality rate of 27 deaths per thousand live births, while for those whose mothers had no education, the rate is 66 per thousand.
Overall, the empowerment of women and girls must be a top priority. That should include measures which reduce the burden of domestic activities and offer broader economic and political empowerment.
Some countries are tackling the latter issue through the introduction of quotas for women’s representation. One remarkable example is Rwanda, which has the highest proportion of women parliamentarians in the world. More than fifty per cent of the members of the Chamber of Deputies, 35 per cent of the Senate, and 36 per cent of the Cabinet are women.
Fourth, targeted investments in health and education, in clean water and sanitation, and in the professionals who run these services are essential.
Rapid improvements in both education and health care have occurred where adequate public investment has accompanied the elimination of user fees. Countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, Nepal, and Tanzania, for example, all experienced surges in primary school enrolment after the elimination of user fees.
New global partnerships have increased mass immunization, the distribution of bed nets, the availability of antiretroviral drugs for people living with HIV/AIDS, and skilled attendance at birth.
Vaccination against measles, for example, reached 700 million children globally between 2000 and 2008, reducing deaths by 68 per cent over the same period.
We know that such interventions work. Now we need a concerted effort to bring them to scale and ensure that the gains can be sustained, even in times of economic downturn.
Fifth, social protection and job creation need to be scaled up.
Brazil’s Bolsa Família and Mexico’s Oportunidades cash transfer programmes increased both school enrolment and attendance rates, as well as reducing child labour. The successes in education were achieved with the help of cash incentives for the enrolment of children in school.
Rather than being seen as a drain on a nation’s budget, social protection needs to be seen as a critical investment in building resilience to cope with present and future shocks and in maintaining hard won development gains.
Sixth, access to energy needs to be expanded, as does the potential for low carbon development.
Expanding energy access has a multiplier effect on MDG attainment. It increases productivity; reduces smoke-related deaths; brings lighting to homes, schools and hospitals; and frees women and girls from time-consuming domestic chores like grinding grain.
Expanding access to energy in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, and Senegal has created income-generating opportunities for women, while also reducing the time they spend on collecting firewood and water and on other domestic chores.
In a carbon-constrained age, growth based on reduced carbon footprints is also vital for all countries. To achieve that, a climate deal which generates significant funding for low-carbon energy and development solutions is essential —and must not be allowed to fall off the international list of priorities.
Seventh, improving domestic resource mobilisation is critical for accelerating MDG progress —including by improving tax collection and broadening tax bases.
Resources also need to be spent well. Countries should routinely evaluate and adjust their budgets to maximize the return on their investment of public monies.
Eighth, the international community does need to deliver on its commitments to provide development assistance, and improve the predictability and effectiveness of its aid.
Well-targeted aid can be a catalyst for meeting the MDGs, and for helping countries build the capacities and programmes they need to attract private investment and climate finance.
The shortfall between the development assistance projected for 2010 and what was promised at the G8 meeting in Gleneagles in 2005 amounts to around 0.05 per cent of the combined 2010 Gross National Income of developed countries. This gap can and should be filled, even in these challenging times. Some countries are living up to their commitments, but others are not.
It is important to celebrate MDG progress to date. Tanzania, for example, has been able to increase its primary school enrolment rate by well over ninety per cent since 1991; South Africa has cut in half the proportion of people without access to drinking water; and poverty rates in Egypt have fallen by half since 1999.
This is not the time to reduce our ambition and throw up our hands in despair at the obstacles to achieving the MDGs. The global recession, the food and fuel crises of recent years, and the challenges of climate change and of natural disasters generally have complicated the road to 2015. But they do not make the MDGs unobtainable, if we collectively determine that we want to achieve them.
Meeting the MDGs does mean a better life for poor and vulnerable people around the globe. The decisions our countries, communities, and organizations make now are critical to realizing the Goals.
Helen Clark is Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and the former Prime Minister of New Zealand
This piece first appeared in This is Africa, a publication of the Financial Times Ltd.
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