Foreign Policy Blogs

The Countdown Has Begun (if it ever stopped)

magic eye, courtesy SnaPsi  Сталкер/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In around 350 days’ time, the year 2015 will begin. But, erm, shouldn’t we rather still be remarking that we’ve just celebrated the start of 2014? The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have a target achievement date of 2015. Which is next year. Once you consider it’s been over 4,800 days since world leaders adopted the United Nations Millennium Declaration in September 2000, these 350 days which remain seem few indeed.

While all eight MDGs impact on women, goal number three, “Promote gender equality and promote women” (MDG3), and goal number five, “Improve maternal health” (MDG5), focus specifically on women. Yet as the Canadian government noted, MDG3 “is the only MDG that is both a goal in itself and recognized as essential to the achievement of all the other Millennium Development Goals.” MDGs 3 and 5 are broken down into further target areas, such as eliminating gender disparity in primary education, increasing women’s political participation levels and achieving universal access to reproductive health.

In a 2008 briefing paper, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), wrote, “The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) represent the most determined effort in history to galvanise international action around a common set of development targets…Their success or failure will have immense consequences, not only for the world’s poor, but also for the credibility of collective action by the international community.” So how far has determination brought us?

There have been small successes and great leaps and bounds forwards in some areas. There’s also been a stuttering lack of progress in others. While the past 13 years have seen the disparity between girls’ and boys’ education at the primary level narrow significantly almost to the extent of gender parity, maternal mortality has not dropped as much as expected. Here’s your little-known unfortunate fact of the day: “Maternal mortality is the number one cause of death for adolescents 15–19 years old.” (Source: WHO)

Taking a look at scorecards measuring progress highlights the differences between the world regions: the WHO’s scorecard for health-related MDGs, for example, notes that a rate of 63 women dying per 100,000 live births in Europe means that goal is “off track” in terms of being achieved. With 200 deaths per 100,000 live births, Southeast Asia, however, rates as being “on track”. (If you want something to really get worked up about, I suggest looking at the row titled, “Malaria mortality.” Almost unbelievable.)

The U.N.’s own MDG Report 2013 acknowledges that while maternal mortality rates have fallen by nearly 50 percent since 1990, progress “falls far short.” Furthermore, just 11 countries comprised 65 percent of all maternal deaths in 2008, which to me seems like a big neon flashing sign going “FOCUS ON THESE ONES!” While it is indeed easy to rattle on about slow progress etc, we should also remember that “incremental improvements here and there” have led to thousands and thousands of mothers surviving childbirth when they otherwise would have died. Yes, targets aren’t being met as fast as the international community (and I’m going to hazard a guess: pregnant women and their partners too) would like; it’s actually somewhat disappointing. However, for the lives saved so far we should be grateful.

I make this point with reference to Matthew Lockwood’s post for Oxfam in which he questions what the MDGs have actually achieved. He argues that an analysis of the goals should assess whether any positive results are indeed a consequence of the MDGs themselves, or whether a similar outcome would have been reached in their absence. Furthermore, he notes, “The comparison with predicted rates of progress based on historical analysis implies slightly better than expected outcomes post-MDGs on primary education and gender equality in education, but worse on maternal mortality.”

It is this interrogation of outcomes which is necessary to help future goals and targets be better met, which ultimately translates as millions of people surviving instead of dying, living instead of starving and achieving instead of despairing. A key component of such an undertaking must be a rigorous and critical questioning of “why some goals were easier to meet than others (gender equity on education as opposed to access to clean water or reductions in maternal mortality) and in some countries than in others.” The answers may be embarrassing, politically unpalatable or unforeseeable. But they may also be enlightening, simple and point to improvements.

MDG5 is unlikely to be met by 2015 according to the U.N.’s own 2013 Progress Report. But that doesn’t mean the international community should slow up their efforts because an item on a list will not be able to be ticked off; policies and programs used so far aren’t working as well as they should — but they are working. NGOs’ and governments’ determination should be applied to evaluating where the gaps, blockages and wasted efforts are and eliminating them so that death is no longer part of the pregnancy equation.



Cate Mackenzie

Cate works as an editor in Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich, and a BA (Hons) in International Studies with Political Science from the University of Birmingham (UK).

She has previously lived and worked in Fiji and the US.