Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Women, Children Top U.N.'s Anti-Poverty Agenda

By Matthew O. Berger 

Sept 2010 (IPS) - All eight of the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are critical to development, but numbers four and five on child and maternal health are the real priority areas for this year. That was the main takeaway from a series of briefings with U.N., NGO and country officials in which IPS participated this week.

When the MDGs were agreed in September 2000, they laid out a clear pathway to the often vague goal of "development". Taken together, the accomplishment of these eight individual milestones would mean a more prosperous, equitable world.

But two-thirds of the way to the goals' 2015 deadline, the progress that has been made is only partial and sporadic.

While some of the developing world has seen significant advances, the poorest countries have been left behind. Likewise, while some of the goals are on track, others have not yet gotten the attention and investment they require.

Goals four and five fall into the latter category.

MDG four seeks to reduce deaths of children under five by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015. Five aims to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters and achieve universal access to reproductive health care.

It is in these goals that there is the widest gap between the countries somewhat on track for the MDGs and those that are not, the experts agreed.

"MDGs four and five are the most off-track of the MDGs 10 years in," said Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the British ambassador to the United Nations.

These goals, therefore, will receive the bulk of the attention at the MDG summit to be held at United Nations headquarters in New York on Sep. 20 to 22.

Maternal health and children's health are two of the most lagging of the MDGs, and the lagging on maternal health in particular is having an echo effect, said Robert Orr, the U.N.'s assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and strategic planning.

"We need to move these lagging MDGs from the back of the train to leading it, and we're going to do just that," he said. Orr sees the lagging MDGs as "dead weight at the back of the train, dragging the whole set of MDGs down."

Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute and a special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, agreed, but pointed out that no matter how important maternal and child health are they cannot pull the train along by themselves.

The focus cannot be solely on two or three MDGs, he said. "We need to do several things at once because you can't just have health, or just education, or just poverty reduction."

That sentiment was echoed by other officials. "These eight are the priority areas – that's why there's eight of them and not 28," said Sigrid Kaag, assistant secretary-general and assistant administrator and director of the Partnerships Bureau of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), after being asked to name the most important MDGs.

But this year does appear to be the year for women and children as far as the MDGs are concerned.

"For the first time, we can say that all the key sectors are cooperating to address these lagging MDGs," says Orr.

Those sectors will work to drum up attention and support for the neglected issues.

"Spending on women is too often seen as an expenditure, but it is an investment," noted Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund.

The bottom line, said Sachs, is "it costs money to make sure a mother doesn't die in childbirth – not much money."

The U.S. spends 7,000 dollars per person per year on health care and other industrial countries spend 300 to 400 dollars, said Sachs, but the developing world mostly only needs 50 to 60 dollars. "That's about as cost-effective as something can be," he said.

And where has that money been? There are numerous factors, but in part it comes down to communication. The MDGs, the experts said, are both a boon and bane to communications.

The MDGs are particularly useful as tools for gaining attention for development issues, said John McArthur, CEO of the NGO Millennium Promise. "They have shown us what development success would look like." Without the MDG framework, he explained, people would not be able to point to lagging MDGs and focus on gaps in aspects like maternal health.

On the other hand, the fact that the goals are laid out as individual targets belies how connected they are.

"The MDGs are a great communications tool but they're also a cage" in that the individual goals are connected more than they appear to be, noted Dujarric.

In the 10 years leading up to this month's summit, progress has been mixed, the officials reported.

Sachs said they have not seen achievement at the pace laid out in 2000 and are not on track to achieve most of the goals. But it would be wrong to think cynically of the MDGs because "all over the low-income world countries have stepped up in a way they haven't before," he adds.

"My summary is that a remarkable number of governments are taking the goals seriously," he says. In his opinion, the limiting factor so far has been the U.S., where the MDGs are not really on the public's radar, and when they are they are only thought of in a cynical way.

In part, the summit, which many world leaders are expected to attend, should help to raise the goals' profile. "In a way, the summit is about raising awareness…shaking the world up a little bit and saying you're doing a great job but you need to do a lot more," explained Sharon Kinsley of the U.K.'s permanent mission.

"In our view, it is the event and the side events that will be the mark of success for the event rather than the document, which will be read mainly by experts rather than the general public," said Lyall Grant.

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Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.