By Amy Brisson
An annual report released today by the United Nations Development Programme takes a critical look at the failure of the international community to make progress toward the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.
The 2005 Human Development Report, "International Cooperation at a Crossroads: Aid, Trade and Security in an Unequal World," was launched this week prior to a UN summit on development this month in New York.
By examining three pillars of international cooperation - aid, trade, and security - the report argues that none of the Millennium Goals will be achieved on time if the international community does not decide to make a serious effort towards overcoming social and income inequalities.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a set of 15 targets adopted in September 2000 to reduce poverty, improve health and education, reduce debt and increase global trade and aid by 2015.
Claes Johansson, a statistician and co-author of the report, told AllAfrica that the focus on inequality turns up some surprising facts about countries that appear to be progressing towards the MDGs.
"The Human Development Report tries to look at not just income, but also inequality and progress in other areas," Johansson said in a telephone interview. For example, the report analyzes data on child mortality rates for the poorest and richest groups within a country. "We see that in countries that are doing relatively well, such as Ghana and Uganda, most of the progress in child mortality is happening in the richest groups of society, while the poorest groups are falling behind," Johansson said. "So the gaps, in terms of health, are widening in these countries."
Child mortality figures show an especially pessimistic picture of health care in the developing world. The report finds that an additional 4.4 million preventable child deaths will occur in 2015, following current trends, which is equivalent to three times the number of children under age five in New York, London and Tokyo. But with immediate action, argues the report, these projections could change.
Although the report has a global outlook, it says that African countries are having a particularly hard time meeting the MDGs, and some are even losing ground.
"A large portion of the countries moving backwards or going slowly are in Africa," Johansson said. "Of those 4.4 million children whose lives could be saved, 3 million of those deaths take place in Africa."
In spite of this grim prediction, the report also makes recommendations of what the international community can do in the areas of aid, trade and security to reduce poverty and meet the MDGs by 2015.
In terms of aid, the report suggests not just more of it, but more effective aid delivered with a greater focus on countries' needs. For example, the report notes that "tied aid," which requires recipients to spend the money in donor countries, is not productive, and estimates that this costs Sub-Saharan Africa $1.6 billion a year. The answer to tied aid is simple:"stop it in 2006," the report says.
Even more troubling than the cost of misallocated aid, the report says, are the substantial trade barriers and agricultural subsidies that prevent developing nations from competing successfully in world markets. Africa in particular has been marginalized, the report says. With a population of 689 million people, sub-Saharan Africa gets a smaller share of world exports than Belgium, which has only 10 million people. Though subsidies in developed countries have been increasing since the 1990s, Johansson said subsidies could be cut without distorting or harming the agricultural industry in those countries.
Conflict reduction in poor countries, funded and supported by the international community, would also pay a dividend for development, the report says. Better regulations on the trade of natural resources that fuel conflicts, such as oil and minerals, could cut off the funds of warring groups. The report recommends that the African Union be supported in creating a standing force for peacekeeping efforts, and argues for a global focus on longer post-conflict reconstruction.
"What we see is that in conflict critical pieces of infrastructure are often destroyed, and this is actually the cause of a large part of the decline of human development in the country," Johansson said. One of the goals of the report is to quantify, through case studies, the impact of conflict on development, and to suggest ways to help mitigate those costs. Aid for reconstruction, says the report, should go to building schools and health clinics, funding teachers and doctors, and helping national ministries function effectively.
Aid, trade and security are not isolated goals; they need to be tackled simultaneously, Johansson said, as failure in any one will undermine the progress of all three.
And certainly, there have been some signs of progress. Barbara Barungi, the poverty reduction strategies and microeconomic policy specialist for the UNDP regional office in South Africa, pointed to the example of health care in Uganda as one instance. In Uganda, where the government has recently removed public health user fees, the report finds an 80 percent increase in the use of the public health system. Half of those new users are among the poorest 20 percent of the population.
Interviewed by telephone from Johannesburg, Barungi said regional cooperation through such groups as the African Union and Nepad have given Africa a stronger position on trade issues. Armed with information about trade inequalities from this UNDP report, African nations may be able to present a united front at the Doha Round meetings in December, she said.
The more immediate concern for UNDP is the report's reception at the UN summit in New York beginning September 14, which the document calls a "critical opportunity to adopt bold action plans." According to Johansson, the report has to compete with "a whole big agenda" when world leaders gather next week, but the authors and supporters of the report's recommendations remain hopeful "that large parts will be implemented."
If not, the report warns, there is little chance that the promises of the Millennium Development Goals will be met in 2015, or that issues of deepening inequalities in developing societies will be rectified.
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