6.9 million children under five years of age died in 2011 and almost 75 percent of all child deaths are attributable to just six conditions: neonatal causes, pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, measles, and HIV/AIDS. The aim of MDG 4 is to reduce child mortality by two thirds by the end of 2015.
Save the Children is a non for profit organization that has been operating in Ethiopia for a long time, working intensively on reducing child mortality, maternal mortality, health care, education and many other issues. Save the Children’s East Africa Regional Director, Hussein Halane, came to Ethiopia leading his delegation for the AU Summit held last weekend. Capital’s Eskedar Kifle sat down with him to discuss the challenges African countries face to meet the target of MDG 4 of the Millennium Development Goals and what the chances are of attaining it before the 2015 deadline.
Capital: What is the main reason for your trip to Ethiopia at this moment?
Hussein Halane: I am here as the Head of Delegation for the AU Summit and today we held a press briefing about children and where they fit in the concept of Pan-Africanism and also in regards to the AU Summit. In the last 50 years, Africa has achieved a lot and we are celebrating that. However, in saying that, we also know that we still have a lot of challenges to overcome; particularly when you look at the Millennium Development Goals, child mortality is still an area that we need to work hard on since it needs considerable improvement. So, the message is that in the next 50 years, all of us, African leaders, governments, the private sector and international organizations have the opportunity to become the generation that eliminates preventable child death from Africa. Among some of the countries that are on target to meet MDG 4 is Malawi. If they can do it, so can the rest of us. In general, Africa has done a lot in the past 50 years. Take Ethiopia as an example; the country has already halved what was one of the highest child mortality cases in a time frame of just a decade. So there is a lot of progress but still a lot more has to be done.
Capital: What are the main projects Save the Children has been working on with regards to maternal and child mortality?
Halane: We invest heavily; we work with governments and communities. We invest in education, healthcare, improving livelihood and child protection. Ethiopia is our biggest portfolio in this area; our annual budget in Ethiopia is over USD 100 million per year and all that money is focused on children. We put children at the center of it all and work with the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the Ministry of Education (MoE), also concentrating on emergency responses.
We also work with mothers, because you cannot isolate the mother from the child; you need to address the situation of the mother in order to address and become successful in handling the situation of the child.
Capital: What do you think has been the biggest challenge when addressing these situations, particularly in Ethiopia?
Halane: In our report on the state of the world’s mothers in which we rated countries using five indicators – maternity health, child mortality, educational achievement, state of the economy and women’s representation in the power structure – which will all lead to saving the mother and the baby, Africa comes in at the bottom, while Scandinavian countries are placed at the top. In general, I think countries that are doing better are doing so because they are showing a lot of interest and commitment which is translating into progress in those areas. Education for young girls is very important. When young girls are educated, they make better decisions with respect to when to marry and have a baby, and they will have a better economic opportunity than those who are uneducated. When women are well-represented in the government, children’s and mothers’ voices will be heard and government policies and planning will include their wellbeing.
As I stated earlier, there are a lot of positive developments and we don’t have to be negative all the time. Africa has done a lot and we have seen the improvement.
The new policy the Ethiopian government is implementing concerning health is really good and it needs to be maintained. That level of effort is very much needed. I think, when it comes to achieving universal education, Africa has done quite well. It is a continent that has accomplished a lot in some areas but lags behind in others. We definitely need to do much more when it comes to maternity and child mortality.
Capital: Which African countries have shown significant improvement on MDG 4 and which countries are lagging behind, and why do you think that is the case?
Halane: Well, looking at reduction in child mortality, Malawi and Rwanda are set to meet this particular Minimum Development Goal which is Goal 4. Most of the other countries, unless they work extraordinarily hard between now and the deadline, which is 2015, it will be tough for them to even come a little bit closer to achieving it.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia are at the bottom of the list. Aside from the five indicators, conflict also is a big factor. These two countries have seen a lot of conflict and unrest for quite a long time. This I believe has played a huge role in these countries not meeting the five indicators and has dragged them to the bottom when it comes to achieving the Minimum Development Goals.
Capital: What about weak government policies? How much of a role has that played in slowing down progress for those countries and others?
Halane: There are many weaknesses in the healthcare system, in the education system and when it comes to the representation of women. But, like I said, conflict itself aggravates the situation and has a negative impact.
Capital: With the way Ethiopia has been performing, do you think the country will be able to meet Goal 4 before the 2015 deadline?
Halane: Ethiopia is one of the countries that have shown a significant movement forward and some of the new policies, we hope, will push the country closer to the target. The main issue is that we need to be able to get the women who live in remote rural areas trained and skilled birth attendants.
Ethiopia faces some particular challenges. Early marriage is one of the problems that need to be addressed. I was in Wollo, an area located in the Northern part of Ethiopia. I was shocked to see that the average age a young girl enters marriage is around 14 years. It is because of issues like these and other factors that we say the education of young girls is very crucial indeed.
Ethiopia is a beautiful country and has a lot of talented people, but I still think it will be very hard for the country to meet the goal set in the scheduled time frame. We need to work very hard to accomplish this feat.
We also need to understand that, even if we are not able to meet the goal in the set time frame, we certainly have come a long way and we will achieve it in the end. When I was here in 2000, the rate of child and maternal mortality was over 80 percent, but now it is about 43 percent, which is quite a remarkable achievement. Therefore, we do not have to be so hard on ourselves; a lot has been done, but we just need to do some more. That is where we are now