Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Progress, Reality and Cynicism: Lessons We Learned From Millennium Development Goals

by Nomad

Back in 2000, the UN brought world leaders together to draw up a plan to make the world a better place. This year, fifteen years later, that effort was analyzed and the results might surprise you.

When the Paris Climate Change Summit came to its conclusion recently, it was easy to be a little skeptical about the level of commitment of the nations that pledged to address climate change. 
Preventing global destruction is not going to be a piece of cake.  
In fact, it will require nothing less than a re-tooling of the world's economy and the energy industry. 
Who knows if it is possible given the time constraints? It's easy to be cynical and defeatist when it comes to tackling such a huge problem. 

Critics claim this is all merely window-dressing. Just a bunch of timid self-serving bureaucrats making useless paperwork that's not even legally binding. There's no way, critics say, to confront and punish violators. 

Of course, this view automatically assumes that global progress can only be achieved by force, by a threat of punishment or by intimidation. 
But, to turn the tables on those critics, where is the evidence that that has ever worked? Simply because something is difficult shouldn't mean we ignore our responsibility. 

President John Kennedy, during one of the darkest periods of the Cold War, once warned about allowing hopelessness and defeatist to overwhelm us. (In this case, world peace.)

Thinking something is impossible makes it that much harder to address in a rational manner. In 1963, he told the graduating class at the American University that we must stop thinking war is inevitable. Mankind is not doomed, and we must not yield to the idea that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. 
"We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made — therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.
No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable — and we believe they can do it again."
Even though the dream of world peace has not implemented universally even today, Kennedy's hard-nosed optimism is not wrong. Peace, he once said, is not a warm and fuzzy dream. It is a process. We make things harder by thinking that overnight we can solve all of the problems in the world, just by wishing and praying. 
While that may be a proper point to begin, just wishing for a better world isn't going to be enough.
It calls for a practical approach.

One of the problems is defining what it means when we say "a better world." What does that mean? Much better for a limited few, or slightly better for the majority?
In 2000, the UN General Assembly drafters of the Millennium Declaration had their specific notions and were determined to see progress in fifteen years. In that declaration, the representatives of all of the member nations recognized that:
" addition to our separate responsibilities to our individual societies, we have a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level. As leaders we have a duty therefore to all the world’s people, especially the most vulnerable and, in particular, the children of the world, to whom the future belongs."

The Vision of a New Millennium
In 2000, the 189 member states of the United Nations came together set about setting goals aimed at making the world a bit better.
The Millennium Declaration was a committed partnership between the  rich and developing countries alike to "achieve a set of critical development outcomes."

Sounds fairly humble, but actually it was a bold pledge.

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were not pie-in-the-sky ideas of the "peace, love and understanding" variety. The ideas might have been boldly stated but they were also backed up with concrete targets and timelines.

Each was supported by 18 targets and 60 indicators to chart the success or failure in measuring the progress. The target date  for the MDGs was set at 2015.
After this time, the goals will transition to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a target date of 2030.

In 2005, finance ministers from the G8 took another brave and essential step. They agreed to provide sufficient funding to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the African Development Bank (AfDB) to cancel Third World debt. Forty to 55 billion dollars of debt was canceled, allowing these heavily indebted nations to redirect resources to combat problems such as poverty and poor health and education. 
Without that step, it was clear that any progress would be impossible.

Looking back in the 15 years since that time, development analysts admit that progress has been, at best, uneven. As with any program of this scale, there were plenty of critics, a mix of those that claimed the goals were unattainable, unrealistic, and over-hopeful and others that said that goals didn't go far enough.

The report card suggests however that the goals were actually at about the appropriate level. In the end, some nations were not able to reach their targets while other nations have either met or exceeded their targets. 
In doing the lives of hundreds of millions of people have been improved.  

Tackling Poverty
Let's take a closer look at the individual goals, courtesy of the Atlas of Global Development. When it came to eliminating poverty, there was remarkable and historical progress made.

Poverty was defined as the average daily consumption of $1.25 or less and at this level, life hovers at the edge of subsistence. In 1990, around 1.8 billion people were at this level. Since that time, the poverty rate has fallen from 42 percents to 25 percent in 2005. Much of that progress can be seen in China and India.

Sub-Saharan Africa has lagged behind but even there the poverty rates have started to decline. Projections after this year expect the rate to continue to decline to about 15 percent, with the number falling to about 900 million.

The Economist claims that success can be attributed to the capitalist system. Given the source, that's hardly a surprising boast. According to that source, capitalism has enabled economies to grow and that growth has been the principle force behind this decline. 
This, of course, ignores the possibility that capitalism in its most exploitative forms might have been the principle cause of Third World poverty in the first place. 

Education as the Key of Development
When it comes to primary education- the second of the eight goals, there was less progress.    
Progress was measured for this goal in three main ways: how many children enroll in primary education, how many completed the education and how many young teens and adults were able to read or write. 

As far as the first criteria, more children were being registered but that the speed of that progress has been in decline. Globally, the number of out-of-school children of primary school age has fallen to an estimated 57 million in 2015, down from 100 million in 2000. 
One assessment noted that progress since the turn of the century was made mostly before 2007, with only an additional 2 million children making it to the classroom since then.
About a quarter of children worldwide – half of them living in conflict-affected areas – drop out of primary school before their studies are complete, a statistic that has remained unchanged since the millennium development goals were introduced.
As far as literacy, there's been only a slight increase- from 87% to 89% leaving  126 million young people worldwide still unable to read and write.

Women and Children First
The third goal of promoting gender equality is key to development, since empowering women, besides being a step toward fairness, tends to have positive knock-on effects on a national economy.
The problem is that both cultural traditions (including religious tenets) put road blocks to this progress.

Still there's some good news to report.
Many more girls are now in school compared with 15 years ago. In Southern Asia, only 74 girls were enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys in 1990, but today, there are 103 girls for every 100 boys.  

Speaking about employment for women, today, women make up 41 percent of paid employments outside the agriculture sector, an increase from 35 percent in 1990.

In terms of politics, women have gained ground in parliamentary representation in nearly 90 percent of the 174 countries with data over the past 20 years. The average proportion of women in parliament has nearly doubled during the same period, Nevertheless, that's not anywhere close to equality. Only one in five members is a woman.

A brighter picture emerges when we look at reducing child mortality rates, from the fourth goal.

Deaths of children below the age of 5 have been in decline since 1990. The year 2006 marked a milestone as the number of children that died before that age dropped below 10 million. (A shocking number in itself.) 

Child mortality rates in developing countries dropped by more than 25% between 1990 and 2008. On means of lowering those rates was preventive medicines in the forms of vaccination programs. For example. measles vaccination helped prevent nearly 15.6 million deaths between 2000 and 2013. 
The number of globally reported measles cases declined by 67 per cent. About 84 percent of children worldwide received, at least, one dose of measles-containing vaccine in 2013, up from 73 percent in 2000.

In spite of that good news, the MDG goal of reducing child mortality by two-thirds proved unattainable.

Motherhood and Development
The fifth goal was related to the two previous goals: improving maternal care. Considering that 99% of all maternal deaths occur in the developing world,  any sign of progress is a dividend for nations in development. 

A report noted the worldwide maternal mortality ratio declined by almost half worldwide since 1990 and most of that reduction happened after 2000. Those numbers were actually exceeded in Southern Asia where the ratio declined by 64 percent.
Eleven countries that had high levels of maternal mortality in 1990 (Bhutan, Cambodia, Cabo Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Maldives, Nepal, Romania, Rwanda, Timor-Leste) have already reached the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of a 75% reduction in maternal mortality from the 1990 rate by 2015.
For every maternal death, there are also women who are left disabled as a result of her lack of prenatal care, or poor medical care in general. In developing countries, pregnancy-related complications are, in fact, the leading causes of death and disability for women between the ages of 15 and 49.

Professional medical care in the months leading up to childbirth is imperative to preventing maternal mortality and disability. Last year, around 75% of all births were assisted by skill health personnel. That's an increase from 59% in 1990.

Sadly, based on the overall numbers, many low- and middle-income countries will not achieve this goal. Purely as a model, it doesn't help that a superpower like the US would be engaged in attempting to shut down Planned Parenthood, one of the few outlets for affordable prenatal care for low-income women. 

The Killers
Number six on the chart of MDGs is to combat disease like HIV, malaria and other diseases. 
Again, while progress has been made, it fell short of the targets.   

A factsheet by the UNAIDS organization reports that new HIV infections have fallen by 35% since 2000. And among children of new infections were reduced by 58% from 2000 to 2014. Globally AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 42%.

The world's response to the Ebola crisis- despite some embarrassing overreactions in the US- was pretty awe-inspiring. As devastating as the epidemic was, less than 50 years, an outbreak like that could have spread around the world and wreaked havoc. Today clinical trials of new vaccines are proving 100% effective.
That's impressive and worth at least the pop of one champagne cork. It should provide us with a model to build upon when it comes to combating the next epidemic. 

Over 6.2 million malaria deaths have been averted between 2000 and 2015, Malaria deaths and malaria incidence rate: primarily of children under five years of age in sub-Saharan Africa. 
The global malaria incidence rate has fallen by an estimated 37 percent, and the mortality rate has fallen by more than half. A plan to introduce parasitically-immune mosquitoes promises eradication of the disease altogether. 

Another killer, tuberculosis has been successfully targeted. Between 2000 and 2013, tuberculosis prevention, diagnosis and treatment interventions saved an estimated 37 million lives.  

Environmentally-Sound Policy
When it comes to ensuring environmental sustainability, drafters of the MDG were exceedingly careful to define the targets of the seventh goal. 
The first step is to encourage concrete governmental policies in member nations to reverse the loss of their national resources. Even though imperialism has a rotten reputation, it is still in practice around the world. The pattern is a familiar one and is still repeated again and again around the world: discovery, recovery, exploitation and exhaustion.

Scientists tell us that unregulated exploitation of the natural resources, whether that is oil, or water or forests, can no longer be considered a sustainable approach.

The exploitation continues only because the true costs are not being accounted for in the business model.  It's short-term thinking at its very worst.
For example, if the manufacturers of commonly-found plastic items (bottles and plastic bags) were required to pay a special environmental tax for clean up of both on land and sea, there would be more immediate changes. Currently, governments are charged with cleanup while private industry reap the profits. (And usually governments are neglecting that duty too.)

In the larger view, sustainability makes good economic sense too.
Rich and poor countries alike have a stake in using environmental resources wisely. Good policies and economic growth, which improve people's lives, can improve the environment.
Unfortunately, the news was not all that good. That 2010 target of slowing the decline in biodiversity loss was not achieved. 
Despite increased investment, the main causes of biodiversity loss — high rates of consumption, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and climate change — are not being sufficiently addressed.
While world deforestation might have slowed to some degree, it remains fastest in those areas of the world that would feel the greatest impact. Re-forestation programs have been effective in expanding forests in other regions. 
Deforestation rates have slowed but remain fastest in some of the world’s most biologically diverse regions. Tree-planting programs, combined with the natural expansion of forests in some regions. According to the UN's own assessment,  
As a result, the net loss of forest area over the period 2000-2010 was reduced to 5.2 million hectares per year, down from 8.3 million hectares per year in 1990-2000. South America and Africa continue to show the largest net losses of forests.
*   *    *
Another target of the seventh goal aimed at reducing the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 50%. And that target, surprisingly, was reached five years ahead of schedule. 

Today, more than 90 percent of the global population is using an improved drinking water source, compared to around three-quarters in 1990. About 2.6 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water since 1990. Worldwide 2.1 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation.

The last target in the seventh goal was directed at those who call the slum their home. That specific goal was to achieve a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million of the estimated 863 million slum dwellers.

The very good news is that here too the targets were exceeded and ahead of schedule.
Between 2000 and 2014, more than 320 million people living in slums gained access to improved water sources, improved sanitation facilities, or durable or less crowded housing.
Furthermore, the proportion of urban population living in slums in the developing regions fell from approximately 39.4 percent in 2000 to 29.7 percent in 2014.

Ozone-depleting substances have been virtually eliminated since 1990, and the ozone layer is expected to recover by the middle of this century.  

Haves and Have-Nots
The final goal on the MDG list was perhaps the most ambitious and most challenging: the creation- in real terms- of a partnership between "the haves" and "the have-nots."  
This was the biggest obstacle of all. 

If advanced and developing countries could find common ground and work together to implement policies at increasing growth, without further exploiting those at the poverty line, then the prospects for global development are not so very far-fetched.
It would, however, require significant investment in the infrastructure which does not see an immediate return on that investment.
In short, we are talking about using the formidable forces of global financing as well as funding for programs from organization to make the world less of a victim-bully relationship.
That's asking a lot from a profit-driven economic system.

This eighth goal was broken down into six targets, or sub-goals. The list requires that member nations develop non-discriminatory trade practices and financial systems. 

In that regard, there was some advancement. Official development assistance from developed countries increased by 66 percent in real terms between 2000 and 2014, reaching $135.2 billion.

Also, developed nations were to address the special needs of less developed countries when it came to trade policy.
The results?
In 2014, 79 percent of imports from developing to developed countries were admitted duty-free.
This has made it much easier for developing countries to trade on equal footing with developed nations. In addition, the UN assessment found that the spending that developing nation put to paying off its debts (the external debt service) compared to the amount of revenue made through exports went from 12 percent in 2000 to just 3 percent. 
Not bad, all in all, but there's also a hitch.

Pharma and the Difficulty in a Nutshell
Another target of the eighth goal required governments to work with  pharmaceutical companies in providing access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries.

That's going to be a rough road. There's simply too much money involved.

The World Health Organization offers this perspective:
  • The global pharmaceuticals market is worth US$300 billion a year, a figure expected to rise to US$400 billion within three years.
  • The 10 largest drugs companies control over one-third of this market, several with sales of more than US$10 billion a year and profit margins of about 30%. Six are based in the United States and four in Europe.
  • It is predicted that North and South America, Europe and Japan will continue to account for a full 85% of the global pharmaceuticals market well into the 21st century.
  • Companies currently spend one-third of all sales revenue on marketing their products - roughly twice what they spend on research and development.
In fact, making progress on this goal is fraught with sizeable difficulties. Even the citizens of some wealthy countries are unable to afford over-priced potentially life-saving medicines or treatments. 
In past blog posts, we have investigated the subject of the pharma industry in emerging markets. 

Clearly this issue- the pharma corporate model- will become the biggest ethical challenge of the West, exposing the flawed amoral nature of capitalism.
After all, how can a person making less than a dollar and a half be of any interest to a for-profit corporation? 

What We Have Learned
This particular goal exposes the overall challenge of the eighth goal. (Of all of the goals, actually.)
Any real success will require a revolutionary re-thinking about how our global, regional and national economies are structured and of  the priority we put on profit-making alone. Without that, the chances of success will always fall short. 

The bottom line is that the capitalist system will always be lacking without some kind of social-minded, altruist approach. As one source points out:
As capitalism’s limitations become more and more apparent, economists, professional and otherwise, are attempting to mitigate its inherent flaws by calling for a return to ethical or “conscious” capitalism.
But is there actually such a thing as conscious capitalism? Can the capitalist system like our current one ever be reformed? Is it too monolithic and selfish? And do private interests possess too much influence over the political system to make reform possible?

Consider that almost half of the total wealth of the entire planet is in the hands of just 1% of the population. That wealth amounts to around $110 trillion. On the other side of that equation, the bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world. 

How ethical can a system be that allows so few individuals to hoard so much wealth while the greater part of humanity is left to eat garbage, die needlessly from curable or preventable diseases or watch their environment be destroyed for the further accumulation of capital? Trying to make capitalism ethical seems like trying to make a hippo into a horse.

Some problems are more difficult to solve than others. But then most of us knew that already.
The grim reality is that, until we learn that satisfying short term ambitions of profit-making will ultimately spell doom for millions and very possibly all of the species on the planet, there is little cause for true optimism.

To Skeptics and Cynics
Still, when we look at the eight Millennium Development goals and consider how much or how little progress we, as humanity, have made, there are enough reasons for some degree of hope. 
Not a lot, perhaps, but enough to sustain expectations for a slightly brighter future for the next generation. 
At the very least, it should show us that progress is possible with the right amount of determination and cooperation.
In the summer of 1963, Kennedy stood before the Irish Parliament and spoke of the realities that underpin the advancement of progress. Kennedy told the audience that it took a special kind of vision.
The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not.
Not only must we reject defeatism and self-interest and apathy, we also need be asking from our leaders: why not...and why not now? 

The moment we all ask that question to our leaders is the moment when the world really begins to become a better place for the next millennium.