Senegal strives for Millennium goals

Reducing poverty requires will, money and community action
From Africa Renewal: 
page 16

On Senegal's tiny island of Gorée, residents are trying to make several of the objectives in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) a reality. A UN-led initiative adopted by the international community in 2000, the MDGs comprise eight specific development targets to be achieved globally by the year 2015, including halving the number of people living in poverty.

Located about 20 minutes by boat off the coast of mainland Senegal, Gorée has a population of around 1,500. It was one of the busiest ports during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and is one of Senegal's main tourist attractions. Despite this distinction, Gorée is basically a poor island with few services.

Two years ago community residents held a public discussion to develop their vision for the island. Among other things, they projected enrolling in pre-school all children between ages 3 and 5 by 2005 and ensuring that everyone working has "an authorized job," that is, steady employment. They have been making some progress. Thanks to increased parental involvement and some financial donations to help defray school fees, nearly all the island's 200 or so children in the age range are now enrolled. Efforts are under way to create new businesses and help existing ventures, such as restaurants and artistic services that cater to the tourist trade.

Photo: AfricaPhotos.com Over the past decade, Senegal has increased the proportion of children enrolled in primary school.
Photo: AfricaPhotos.com

All these undertakings reflect the objectives and spirit of the MDGs. But if one asked local residents, they would say they know nothing about the MDGs. They are just trying to make a living and improve conditions for their families. Similarly across Senegal, ordinary people are striving daily, in some way, to achieve one or more of the MDGs. Only they call it survival.

Among several other countries in the world, Senegal has been selected by the UN for participation in a coordinated inter-agency pilot project that will seek to help the government develop further poverty reduction strategies and programmes. These efforts will focus on the southeastern Tambacounda region, a large, impoverished area with a total population of around 545,000. Mr. Taib Diallo, the UN Development Programme's representative on Senegal's official MDG Steering Committee, hopes that lessons gleaned from the inter-agency project in Tambacounda will help develop models that can be used in other areas.

Senegal is often considered to have conditions favourable to achievement of the development goals: a history of stable, democratic rule and a government that has long backed various international development and human rights conventions, as well as regional and pan-African initiatives, such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development. And there is high-level commitment to the MDG campaign.

Goals achievable

"We think Senegal is one of the countries where these goals can be achieved," Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Millennium Development Project and a special adviser on the MDGs to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told Africa Recovery during a visit to Dakar in February. But currently, he added, Senegal is not yet on course towards meeting the targets.

"What I think is needed here," Mr. Sachs argued, "is a scaling up of poverty reduction activities. What that requires is more financial and organizational resources and more political involvement."

Ultimately, he said, success hinges on the eighth MDG, "developing a global partnership for development." In particular, he said, more money is required. "The business-as-usual scenario is not sufficient and may do nothing to reduce poverty. Without a breakthrough of more investment, nothing will change."

Just how much is required is still not certain. The MDG Steering Committee estimates the amount at more than $4 bn from 2003 to 2015. Without citing a specific figure, Mr. Sachs emphasized, "Unless the donors give more money, we are not going to meet the MDGs."

Ms. Voré Gana Seck, executive director of Green Senegal, an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) based in the town of Thiès, notes that there is much Senegal itself can do. "I am hopeful we can reach some of the goals, like for water and education," she said in an interview. But aid levels and other external factors are outside Senegal's control. "It all depends on the world partnership. If the rich countries are not involved, if there is no real partnership -- not just aid -- then things won't change."

A major challenge

In Senegal, there is a great need for substantial progress towards the MDG goals. A majority of Senegal's estimated 10 million people, especially those in rural areas, live at or near poverty levels. The UN Development Programme's2003 Human Development Report ranks the country at 156th out of 175 nations in the world in terms of its population's overall well being.

With scarce mineral wealth, about 60 per cent or more of Senegal's economy is based on agricultural activities and fishing. Annual per capita income is estimated at $476, but in reality, few people earn that.

"We need to make the MDGs known among the civil society organizations, government administrators, the national assembly, so that everyone begins to understand the MDGs and their implications."
-- Aboubacry Demba Lom, Planning Minister 

According to estimates released in January by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the number of people living below the poverty line declined from 67.9 per cent in 1994-95 to 57.1 per cent in 2001-02, based on data in household assessment surveys. But even with a 10 per cent fall, poverty remains high. It is highest in rural areas and slightly higher in towns other than Dakar.

Senegal's economy is struggling, the result of a number of problems that began in the 1970s. Extensive drought triggered a massive exodus by much of the able-bodied rural labour force from the rural areas to urban centres -- as well as large-scale emigration abroad.

Meanwhile, the government cut subsidies for seeds, fertilizer and other agricultural inputs, making it harder for farmers to produce. A decline in the global market value of groundnuts, Senegal's main export crop, hit rural people especially hard. Such difficulties worsened rural-to-urban migration, and many villages are now populated mostly by young women, children and old people.

These problems were compounded by the negative impact of structural adjustment policies first introduced in the late 1970s, which contributed to high unemployment and drastic cuts in funding for social services. On top of that, the country's currency, the CFA franc, was sharply devalued in 1994, leading to a steep rise in consumer prices.

"The quality of service and the distribution of services remains an issue, especially in the rural areas," notes Planning Minister Aboubacry Demba Lom, who is presidential adviser on the MDGs and chairs the government's MDG Steering Committee. "It's important that all services like water, health, electricity and telephone be available across the country. This will help limit migration. This is a big challenge for the government."

More also must be done against environmental degradation, Mr. Lom toldAfrica Recovery. He stressed the need for a programme to raise awareness of excessive fishing, which has begun to deplete certain fish stocks. "Over-fishing is a problem," he said, "but most people who are just fishing to eat don't necessarily make this connection. What they know is that they now have to go out further in the water to get fish."

In the cities, unemployment is widespread, especially among the young. In the capital, Dakar, there are more and more beggars on the streets, among them increasing numbers of children, women with children and the physically disabled. The informal sector is burgeoning, by some unofficial estimates accounting for as much as 70 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

During a meeting between Prof. Sachs and about 100 people from NGOs, local government bodies, the private sector, media and academic institutions, participants highlighted the importance of retaining and creating jobs as a way of combatting poverty. As one participant observed, "Every working person in Senegal is supporting 10 to 20 people."

Giving a push

Most of the specific objectives in the Millennium campaign are not new, observes Mr. Lom. "The MDGs are things that in principle Senegal is already committed to addressing. They are goals that have been previously identified in other UN declarations, international accords and so on. What is different is that they provide a timeframe for when these goals should be achieved."

The objectives, he believes, "push governments to engage more forcefully in addressing these issues. They also clearly state that it's necessary for developed countries to help developing countries if these goals are to be achieved."

The MDGs, says Mr. Ian Hopwood, UNICEF's Resident Representative in Senegal, "are relatively clear, easily communicated. They help focus attention on the issues and call for more effective and collective action around these issues."

 Senegal: Key social indicators
 Population below US$2 per day (%)

57.1

Undernourished people, % total

 25

 Primary school enrolment, %

66

 Under-5 mortality, per 1,000 births

138

 Maternal mortality, per 100,000 births

560

Adult HIV prevalence, %

1.4

People with access to safe water, %

 78

Women as % parliamentary deputies

19.2

Source: Senegal Ministry of Economy and Finance; UNDP, Human Development Indicators 2003; UNAIDS; UNICEF.

From Senegal's perspective, says Mr. Lom, "the MDGs plan has arrived at a time when the government is fully conscious and completely engaged in addressing these socio-economic issues." This is reflected in Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade's public support for the initiative, and his decision both to name Mr. Lom a special presidential adviser on MDGs and appoint a national steering committee -- comprised of ministry officials and representatives of national and international NGOs and the private sector -- to monitor the effort.

In May 2003 the steering committee organized a five-day, national consultative meeting in the Senegalese coastal town of Mbour. The approximately 120 participants assessed Senegal's progress towards the development objectives and highlighted the challenges impeding their achievement. Among other recommendations, the meeting called for a review of the government's policy of decentralization, originally adopted in the 1980s, which was accompanied by the national government's reduced provision of basic social services.

According to Mr. Lom, Senegal today "has a programme in just about every area targeted in the MDGs." The country already has produced two reports on the MDGs in Senegal, the first issued in 2001 by UNDP in consultation with the government and the second released in February by the MDG Steering Committee. The second incorporated input from all the ministries, and by communicating directly with each other, the various ministries learned "for the first time" what the others were doing.

However, more needs to be done to raise awareness of the Millennium goals, Mr. Lom adds. "We need to make the MDGs known among the civil society organizations, government administrators, the national assembly, so that everyone begins to understand the MDGs and their implications."

In some areas, such as primary school enrolment, earlier efforts have already achieved some results. According to Mr. Wally Badiane, an assistant programme officer at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), nearly 66 per cent of primary school age children are now enrolled. In 1990, the rate was under 60 per cent. "There's been a great mobilization and awareness effort that has paid off," notes Mr. Badiane, who also is a member of the MDG Steering Committee.

Civil society role

One factor that favours Senegal's MDG effort is the existence of an active and organized civil society, says Ms. Seck of Green Senegal. "Many times civil society organizations in some countries are looked upon as trouble makers. But here in Senegal that is not true. Here we play a role of watchdog, but we're also involved with government and are viewed as working in partnership with the government to achieve common goals."

Photo: UNDP/Française Gerbe MDG campaign seeks to reduce both child and maternal mortality rates.
Photo: UNDP/Française Gerber

Ms. Seck thinks that the MDG campaign is "a worthwhile effort. It's necessary to begin with a vision." The goals can be achieved, she believes, although the deadline of 2015 "is just a bit too rigid."

And, said Mrs. Seck and others, more still needs to be done to better involve civil society groups in the Millennium effort. In Prof. Sachs' meeting with NGOs, participants noted that there were no farmers groups present and urged more direct representation from agricultural associations in future meetings on the MDGs.

Raising women's awareness

Women also are a key constituency. On 8 March 2003, International Women's Day, Ms. Seck's group organized a day-long conference around the theme "Millennium Development Goals and Women" in order to raise awareness. The workshops were conducted in Wolof, the main indigenous language spoken in the country.

"Prior to this workshop," Ms. Seck reported, "most of the participants had no idea about MDGs. We wanted to sensitize women to this topic and also discuss how it's tied to issues they are already familiar with and working on, such as HIV/AIDS and reducing poverty."

According to Ms. Abibatou Ndiaye, national president of the Federation of Senegalese Women's Associations, which represents some 400 women's groups, there should be someone on the MDG Steering Committee "who is directly addressing women's issues."

Her group and others have already had some success in raising awareness about the importance of increasing school enrolment, especially for girls. The gap between girls and boys at the primary school level has been narrowed, Ms. Ndiaye told Africa Recovery, "but as you go higher in the system, the number of girls gets fewer, especially in the rural zones." Therefore, she urges programmes to address the quality of education, reduce drop-out rates, deal with social and traditional practices and attitudes that make it hard for female students to stay in school, inadequate infrastructure (large class sizes, not enough toilets for girls), counseling and "teacher training that is gender-sensitive."

School costs also need to be addressed, Ms. Ndiaye says. The public school enrolment fee is CFA 5,000 per year (about $10), a major sum for a family that typically has several children -- and which does not include the cost of school supplies. "If they are serious," she says, "then it's necessary to provide the means for this MDG effort to succeed. The money must go to the grassroots community, and not just be used for seminars, cars and salaries."