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Since the inception of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, they have revolutionized the global aid business, using specific targets to help mobilize and guide
development efforts. They have encouraged world leaders to tackle multiple dimensions of poverty simultaneously and provided a standard for judging performance. As their 2015 expiration looms, the time has come to bank those successes and focus on what comes next.
For more than a decade, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of time-bound targets agreed on by Heads of State in 2000, have unified, galvanized and expanded efforts to help the world’s poorest people. The overarching vision of cutting the amount of extreme poverty worldwide in half by 2015, anchored in a series of specific goals, has drawn attention and resources to otherwise forgotten issues.
The goals have promoted cooperation among public, private, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), providing a common language and bringing together disparate actors. In his 2008 address to the UN General Assembly, the philanthropist Bill Gates called the goals “the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that I have ever seen.”
The goals will expire on December 31, 2015, and the debate over what should come next is now in full swing. This year a high-level UN panel will put forward its recommendations for a new agenda. But prior to deciding on a new framework, the world community must evaluate exactly what the MDG effort has achieved so far.
The MDGs are the first global framework anchored in an explicit partnership between developed and developing countries. The MDGs are not a monolithic policy following a single trajectory. The MDGs were not born with a plan, a budget, or a specific mapping out of responsibilities. Many think of the MDGs as the UN’s goals, since the agreements were established at UN summits and UN officials have generally led the follow-up efforts for coordination and reporting. But the reality is much more complicated.
No single individual or organization is responsible for achieving the MDGs. Instead, countless public, private, and nonprofit actors, working together and independently, in developed and developing countries have furthered the goals. Amid this complexity, the achievements toward reaching the MDGs are all the more impressive. The goals have brought the diffuse international development community closer together.
Before the MDGs were crafted, there was no common framework for promoting global development. After the Cold War ended, many rich countries cut their foreign aid budgets and turned their focus inward, on domestic priorities. Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s, institutions such as the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) encouraged developed and developing countries to scale back spending on public programs in the name of government efficiency as a condition for receiving support.
The results were troubling. Africa suffered a generation of stagnation, with rising poverty and child deaths and drops in life expectancy. Economic crises and the threat of growing inequality plagued Asia and Latin America. The suspicions on the part of civil society carried over into policy debates. In the late 1990s, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) proposed “international development goal” benchmarks for donor efforts. The OECD’s proposal was later co-signed by leaders of the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN.
That proposal never got off the ground, but the international community made other progress in the lead-up to 2000 that helped set the groundwork for the MDGs. Most notably, G-8 leaders took a major step forward when they crafted a debt-cancellation policy at their 1999 summit in Cologne, Germany. Under this new policy, countries could receive debt relief on the condition that they allocated savings to education or health. This helped reorient governments toward spending in social sectors after many years of cutbacks.
At the 2000 UN Millennium Summit, which was the largest gathering of world leaders to date, heads of state accepted that they needed to work together to assist the world’s poorest people. Looking at the challenges of the new century, all UN member states agreed on a set of measurable, time-bound targets in the Millennium Declaration. In 2001, these targets were organized into eight MDGs: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and forge global partnerships among different countries and actors to achieve development goals.
In practical terms, the MDGs were actually launched in March 2002, at the UN International Conference on Financing for Development, in Mexico. The Mexico conference established the MDGs as the first global framework anchored in an explicit, mutually agreed-upon partnership between developed and developing countries.
These historic intergovernmental agreements have inspired much debate. Some NGO leaders distrusted any agreement that involved international financial institutions and was negotiated behind closed doors. Human rights activists were dismayed that the MDGs excluded targets for good governance, which they considered a contributor to development and a key outcome unto itself. Some environmental activists were bothered by the narrow formulation of the targets, which ignored major issues, such as climate change, land degradation, ocean management and air pollution.
To be sure, the MDG framework is imperfect. Several issues, such as gender equality and environmental sustainability, are defined too narrowly. The education goal is limited to the completion of primary school, overlooking concerns about the quality of learning and secondary school enrolment levels. In addition, some academics, such as the economist William Easterly, argue that the remarkable ambition of the goals is unfair to the poorest countries, which have the furthest to go to meet the targets, and minimizes what progress those countries do achieve.
Sure enough, if the child survival goal were to cut mortality by half, instead of by two-thirds, 72 developing countries would already have met the target by 2011. Instead, the two-thirds goal has been achieved by only 20 developing countries so far. In addition, the MDGs’ emphasis on human development issues, such as education and health, sometimes downplays the importance of investments in energy and infrastructure that support economic growth and job creation.
The goals have kick-started progress where it was lacking, especially in Africa, where unprecedented economic growth and poverty reduction are now taking place. Here, Ethiopia can be sited as a case in point. From starvation to industrialization in just two decades, Ethiopia is clearly booming. It boasts of its transformative economic success. Its figures chart double-digit economic growth over the last nine years. It is one of the fastest growing non-oil producing countries in the world and Africa’s fourth-largest economy rated in 2011 at $95 billion by the IMF. Ernest & Young Ethiopia forecasted that “the Ethiopian economy will reach $472 billion in 15 years”. The achievement Ethiopia registered, particularly in the education and health sectors, is quite an applaudable success story. With such remarkable success, Ethiopia became one of the few African countries which can meet the MDGs targets of achieving universal primary education and improving maternal health.
As of late 2010, five years before the deadline, the world had already met the overarching MDG of cutting extreme poverty by half. The estimated share of the developing-world population living on less than $1.25 per day (the technical MDG measurement of extreme poverty) had dropped from 43 percent in 1990 to roughly 21 percent in 2010. This statistic is somewhat skewed by progress that was under way in China and other Asian countries long before the MDGs were adopted.
The framework is not solely responsible for all of the advancements of the past 12 years. Many other forces, such as the expansion of global markets and the creation of groundbreaking health and communications technologies, have helped the developing world. Moreover, the goals relating to hunger, sanitation, and the environment have not been met. Here again, Ethiopia can share its success stories. In the last nine years, Ethiopia remarkably reduced hunger by making tens of millions of its people self-sufficient. Its flagship Health Extension programme unprecedentedly improved its sanitation conditions. In the fight against global warming, Ethiopia has designed its “Green-Economy Strategy” in an exemplary fashion.
Poverty reduction, however, has progressed in every region since 2000. Even excluding China from the global calculation, the world’s share of impoverished people fell from 37 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2008, and forthcoming data should show an even greater drop.