This guest piece was originally published on ABC The Drum on the 22nd September at http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s3018100.htm
Kevin Rudd delivered his first address as Foreign Minister last week. He talked of his plans to attend the United Nations MDG Summit.
"The MD wha...?" came the response from the press gallery. Rudd was referring to this week's United Nations Summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The deafening sound of bewilderment should come as no surprise considering only six per cent of Australians have actually heard of the MDGs, according to a poll conducted by anti-poverty agency ActionAid. This research left the development sector crying OMG. It is with this in mind that it is necessary to illuminate WTF the MDGs are.
The MDGs are a set of eight goals agreed upon by world leaders at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, committing nations to a global partnership and a framework for action for states, NGOs, corporations and civil society to reduce extreme poverty.
Extreme poverty is defined by the World Bank as living off less than US$1.25 per day. The Global Poverty Project, a group who conduct community education presentations on extreme poverty, say that this is enough to buy two basic meals with ten cents left over for everything else: health care, transport, education, shelter and clothes. This is what life looks like for around one billion people on the planet right now. Extreme poverty is poverty that kills and kills for unnecessary reasons such as preventable and treatable disease as well as access to affordable food and healthcare. The bottom line is that extreme poverty ought not to be the reality for anyone anywhere in 2010, but is found in countries such as Malawi in Sub-Saharan Africa, and closer to home, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
The main objective of the MDGs is to see extreme poverty halved by 2015. This week's summit will see 140 heads of state and governments in New York to reflect on how the world is tracking, ten years on. There are eight goals and 21 targets to measure progress. Here are the goals along with some key targets:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
• Halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger
2. Achieve universal primary education
• All children to complete a full course of primary schooling
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
• Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education
4. Reduce child mortality
• Reduce by two thirds the under-five mortality rate
5. Improve maternal health
• Reduce the maternal mortality ratio by two thirds and achieve universal access to reproductive health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
• Halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
• Halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015, and achieve a significant improvement for 100 million slum dwellers by 2020
8. Develop a global partnership for development
• Develop a non-discriminatory trading and financial system, deal with countries' debt and work with the private sector to make available new technologies for poor nations
The MDGs provide quite a grand and welcome vision. Yet, the project is also quite the coordination effort. Economic, political and cultural shifts must occur within and between both recipient and donor nations. Cooperation is absolutely necessary between a range of actors.
Ten years after the goals were agreed upon, how are we faring? There have been many positive changes. 400 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2005. Examples of positive progress include Vietnam, where extreme poverty has fallen from 63 per cent in 1993 to 21 per cent in 2006. Bangladesh has halved maternal mortality rates since the 1980s and reduced the total fertility rate from seven children per woman in 1978 to two in 2008. In Malawi, the under-five mortality rate fell from 209 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 111 in 2007. Ghana, South Korea, Egypt and Nepal offer even more encouraging examples of improvement.
Despite the many successes, there are three major challenges that must be overcome in order to fully realise the MDGs.
1. Gender equality
When the goals were formulated, it was with the understanding that gender equality is paramount to achieve real change. More and more NGOs and governments are realising the importance of women to alleviate poverty. Yet the disparity between men and women in developing countries impedes progress. Access to healthcare and education for women is proving to be difficult, but is central to eradicating extreme poverty. However, gender equality must not simply be seen as an instrument to achieving the MDGs, but rather ought to be understood as intrinsic to eliminating extreme poverty and therefore be prevalent in each of the goals and targets. The New York Times journalist Nick Kristof and his best-selling book, Half the Sky, as well as The Girl Effect movement, further illuminate the central importance of women. There are signs of improvement, for instance in Sierra Leone, which historically has the worst maternal health records, yet has just introduced free health care for pregnant women.
2. Achieving the Growth/Governance Balance
Economic growth remains central to achieving the MDGs. This has been the case for India and China where growth has been the key to lifting millions out of poverty. Similarly, Vietnam has seen average growth rates of 7.4% per year between 1990 and 2008. However, it is problematic to simply assume that economic growth is all that is required to alleviating poverty. A paper put out by the Overseas Development Institute in the UK states that while economic growth is important, the distribution of services such as education and healthcare is vital to ensure that a nation's poorest benefit from the provision of these public services and goods. Good governance and political processes are essential to guarantee service delivery for those in extreme poverty. It has been argued that there has been too much emphasis on economic growth and that more concentrated efforts on governance is required. Anti-corruption group Transparency International issued a report that demonstrates how anti-corruption mechanisms directly amount to progress on the MDGs. The introduction of community notice boards to increase transparency in Kenya provides a terrific example of where progress has been made in this area, and many more opportunities exist for similar models in other locations.
3. Ongoing challenges: Conflict, mass people movement, and the GFC
42 million people are currently uprooted and in 2009, developing nations hosted four fifths of the world's displaced people. Conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan are a major challenge to ending poverty. The Enough Project is an arm of the Centre for American Progress working towards ending genocide and crimes against humanity and implores the international community to ramp up law enforcement and step up diplomacy in order to reduce conflicts. Again, there have been positive steps taken such as the Obama Administration choosing to adopt some of Enough's recommendations in places like Sudan. Secondly, the GFC resulted in an estimated 64 million people who fell back into extreme poverty and saw rising food costs. In the years prior to the GFC, low-income countries enjoyed the longest economic expansion in modern times including record growth rates. To recover from the economic crisis, John Lipsky from the International Monetary Fund says there must be a speedy return to rapid, pro-poor and inclusive growth.
Australia is playing an important role in achieving the MDGs. This year's federal budget allocated $4.3billion to our foreign aid program. This large amount of funding places foreign aid in the top ten government expenditure items. However, this is still short of the 0.7 per cent pledged in 2000. Australia gives just 0.34 per cent of our gross national income (GNI) and has pledged to make this 0.5 per cent by 2015.
Further to increasing aid, we need to ensure that our aid is spent more efficiently. Mechanisms such as an independent AusAID as well as a Minister for International Development Assistance would ensure better use of our aid money. However, the former Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, Bob McMullen, retired a few weeks ago and the role has not been re-created. This means that Kevin Rudd will have full management of our aid portfolio and will work alongside Robert Marles, the new Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Duncan Kerr, the Parliamentary Secretary for the Pacific.
It cannot be denied that the formulation of the MDGs and the improvement in human development has been an example of the fact that international cooperation is possible between various actors and provides us with hope of other challenges that can be achieved when the world comes together with a common goal. ActionAid found that even though only six per cent of Australians had heard of the MDGs, 70 per cent would strongly support a framework to catalyse the eradication of extreme poverty.
The political will is overwhelmingly there and the MDGs provide the action plan. Progress is being made and this week's summit will provide the opportunity for the world to re-focus our efforts. It is heartening to know that eradication of extreme poverty is entirely possibly within our lifetime. FTW*.
*FTW: For the win
**Correction: Richard Marles is the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs. Duncan Kerr has retired.