Rapid appraisal

Where we are

There is progress on several of the Millennium Development Goals, but it is at risk of erosion. Gender issues, for instance, deserve more attention.

[ By Agnes Abuom ]

When the UN General Assembly adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in September 2000, the UN put the fight against poverty high on its agenda. This was a historic moment. The UN had, in the past, pronounced various goals and development decades, but such pledges were soon forgotten. The MDGs are different. Lively international debate on them continues, and has probably even gained momentum in the past 10 years.

The UN’s recent MDG summit in New York revealed that progress remains uneven. There are serious challenges, and doubt is warranted about the MDGs all being achieved within the originally stated time span of 1990 to 2015.
– Asia and North Africa seem to be on track to meet MDG 1 of cutting poverty by half by 2015. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, progress remains slow. The global financial crisis means that economic growth has been thwarted in many world regions. The growing risk of food crises is even more frustrating.
– Concerning MDG 2, universal primary education, various assessments show that tremendous strides have been made. Many developing countries are on track. In sub-Saharan Africa, primary school enrollment has risen to about 71 %.
– Regarding MDG 3, gender equality, UNDP reports show that South Asia has made progress, while North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa are on the way but still lagging behind. While school enrollment seems to depend less and less on gender, however, in formal employment, men outnumber women, whereas women are over-represented in the informal sector. Men also outnumber women in legislative bodies and government bureaucracies.
– MDG 4 is about reducing child mortality. Once more, progress remains slow in sub-Saharan Africa.
– Matters are even worse in regard to MDG 5, the reduction of maternal mortality. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have hardly made any progress at all. Women continue to die of preventable as well as of treatable diseases and complications. Many women still do not use contraceptives due to various reasons ranging from culture to lack of information. There can be absolutely no doubt that the world needs to do more to promote family planning.
– MDG 6 is to halt and reverse spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Inroads have been made. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has been stabilised, and the rates of new infections are going down even in sub-Saharan Africa, the region most affected. Infected people, moreover, tend to live longer thanks to better care and treatment. However, there is once again a gender issue: due to sexualised violence, women in conflict regions are particulary affected by HIV/AIDS. Moreover, WHO statistics prove that too many young people lack information on prevention. Trends are worrisome in Eastern Europe and Central Asia where prevalence rates are rising. While there is some progress on tuberculosis, the fight against malaria is not going well. Obviously, mosquito nets are still too expensive for many poor people.
– Targets for MDG 7, environmental sustainability, include reversing the loss of natural resources, halving the share of people with access to clean water. Woodlands continue to be destroyed in forest-rich nations like Brazil, Indonesia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In most of sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation is something that happened a long time ago. Climate change – a phenomenon the rich world is to blame for – is leading to people becoming newly vulnerable in developing countries. Their scope for adaptation is limited. As for safe water and sanitation, urbanisation is happening too fast in Africa for all people affected to be provided with adequate facilities. No doubt, humanity needs to fully embrace the Rio Declaration.
– MDG 8 is about international cooperation to create a world conducive to development. From the African perspective, this is the most frustrating field. Yes, it is true that official development assistance (ODA) has doubled to around $ 100 billion in the past decade, but according to the Centre for Global Development, a lot of the increase was debt relief and humanitarian assistance. The least developed countries only get around one third of ODA. Only a handful of small countries live up to the rich nations’ decades-old pledge to spending 0.7 % of their gross national income on ODA. In real terms, ODA has gone down, and the MDGs are seriously underfunded. The UN states it needs $ 120 billion, and a mere 1,3 billion have been pledged.

All summed up, the successes registered in the early years of the MDGs are now at risk of erosion. The impact of the global financial crisis and – even more important – of food shortages have yet become fully evident. Disasters are increasingly eating up ODA funds, exacerbating the lack of long-term investments. Unmitigated climate change will only make matters worse.

First and foremost, the UN Millennium Declaration was a recognition that we only have one earth. It is imperative that poverty be eradicated for the human family to co-exist peacefully. The industrialised nations and the rich in general are obliged to narrow the gap between rich and poor. The world has adequate resources to ensure that MDGs are realised, but that requires serious commitment and equitable re-distribution. Political commitment is best measured in funding, of course.

In past decades, development policies have been guided by the paradigm of free markets. This paradigm needs to be revisited. The global financial crisis has shown that markets do not always know best. Moreover, Asian countries that have made fast progress – most of all China, of course – are known for only gradual liberalisation and massive state intervention in economic activities.

At the same time, civil-society organisations need to engage more than before in the MDG debate. They need to take part in policy making to ensure social fairness, and their role in fighting corruption is essential. The MDG agenda is fine – but its targets will not be achieved unless policymakers all over the world gear their action towards them.

Related Articles


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.