Millennium Development Goals: time to step up

Some progress in Africa, but more is needed, argues UN Secretary-General
From Africa Renewal: 
page 5
Girl receiving medicationAlthough some countries have improved children’s health, the region still accounts for half of all under-five deaths worldwide.
Photograph: Panos / Giacomo Pirozzi

Some might view the United Nations’ latest update on progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a distressing catalogue of unmet ambitions. Others could find in it reasons to believe in the possibility of reaching the targets. In reality, says a report by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon entitled “Keeping the Promise,” there have been both successes and shortfalls. Therefore Mr. Ban is urging world leaders (expected at a UN General Assembly Summit on the MDGs in September) to keep to their pledges to support economic and social progress for the world’s most vulnerable people.

The MDGs are a set of eight concrete, measurable objectives, adopted by world leaders in 2000 and set to be achieved by 2015.

In reviewing the situation a decade after the goals were adopted, the report notes that Africa is doing a lot right. Across the continent access to primary education has increased massively, gains have been made in fighting the AIDS epidemic and there have been huge improvements in child health.

Sub-Saharan Africa recorded the world’s fastest growth in primary school enrolment in recent years, with enrolment rising from 58 per cent in 2000 to 74 per cent in 2007, although it still lags behind other developing regions. A number of countries, including Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi and Mozambique, abolished school fees and brought millions of new primary students into the classrooms (see Africa Renewal, January 2010).

Years of awareness raising and campaigning have contributed to a decline (by 25 per cent since the mid-1990s) in the annual number of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa. The share of HIV-positive women receiving treatment for prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV increased fivefold to 45 per cent between 2004 and 2008. Some progress was recorded in child health. Since 2005, Rwanda decreased its rate of deaths among children under five by over 30 per cent, although sub-Saharan Africa as a whole still accounts for half of such deaths worldwide. Between 1999 and 2004, the report adds, the region achieved one of the largest reductions in deaths from measles worldwide.

Although there has been limited progress in the fight against hunger and gender inequality, some countries have had more positive results. From 2001 to 2007, Nigeria doubled food production. In Ghana the number of people who suffer from undernourishment fell by 74 per cent between 1991 and 2004. In 2008, Rwanda elected a majority of women (56 per cent) to its lower chamber of parliament.

Yet five years before the 2015 deadline for the MDGs, the report notes little progress by most African countries on other equally important targets. Overall, poverty and hunger are on the rise, unemployment and gender inequality remain daunting challenges and too many women lose their lives while giving birth. From 1990 to 2005, extreme poverty went up in Africa, affecting an additional 36 million people.

The global recession has had a negative impact on labour markets all over the world, and more people are unemployed in Africa as well. While they represent an increasing proportion in the labour force, women often receive lower wages than men. Their access to reproductive health services remains poor. With 123 births per 1,000 teenage girls, the adolescent birth rate in sub-Saharan Africa is the highest in the world.

Looking at the successes and the shortcomings, the Secretary-General cites three main hurdles to achieving the MDGs: unmet commitment, inadequate resources and lack of focus and accountability.

“Large gaps” remain in commitments of official development assistance (ODA), writes the Secretary-General. In July 2005, at its summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, the Group of Eight industrial countries pledged to contribute to Africa’s development efforts by disbursing $63 bn annually by 2010. But to reach the target, the report says, aid to the continent would need to increase by $20 bn this year, a figure that is unlikely to be reached.

Not meeting the internationally agreed goals “would be an unacceptable failure, moral and practical,” argues Mr. Ban. “If we fail, the dangers in the world — instability, violence, epidemics, diseases, environmental degradation, runaway population growth — will all be multiplied.”

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