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UN Poverty Goals Face New Threats

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - The U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), aimed primarily at reducing poverty, hunger, disease and illiteracy, are being undermined by a rash of new problems threatening to cripple the ongoing efforts by developing nations to reach their targets by 2015.

With less than seven years to meet the deadline, the failures seem to far outweigh the limited successes achieved so far.

And the positive results, says the United Nations, are in danger of being wiped out by critical new threats, including skyrocketing food and fuel prices, increasing transportation costs, a decline in development aid and a shortage of health workers.

"More than halfway to 2015, the MDG track record is mixed," admits Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

He cites the "undeniable progress" in the field of health care worldwide: three million more children now survive each year; an additional two million people receive treatment for HIV/AIDS; and millions more children are in school.

Since 2000, says Ban, macroeconomic fundamentals and policy implementation have improved markedly, with growth averaging over 5.0 percent across Africa alone.

"The challenge is now to replicate these successes in more countries," says the secretary-general, even as the 192-member General Assembly concluded a two-day debate Wednesday on identifying the roadblocks towards progress.

But with the threat of an economic recession in the United States and its negative impact on the rest of the world, along with the dramatic rise in oil prices and foodstuffs worldwide, there is a relatively gloomy outlook for MDGs.

Srgjan Kerim, president of the General Assembly, points out that poverty, education and health goals are the areas where progress is most urgently required, and where experience suggests that positive results have a catalytic effect on the other MDGs.

According to U.N. statistics, he says the absolute number of poor in sub-Saharan Africa is still rising and projected to stand at 360 million in 2015.

Globally, he points out, about 72 million primary age children are not enrolled in schools, and every year, more than half a million women lost their lives to causes related to child birth while about 10 million children die before reaching their fifth birthday.

Additionally, about 1.7 million people in Africa become infected with HIV, the cause of the deadly AIDS disease.

Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), warns there are already signs that "we are entering a new era of hunger" while, at the same time, the absolute number of hungry people remains high at 854 million.

Many nations -- particularly in Africa -- are not on track to meet the very first MDG: reducing the proportion of hungry in half by 2015.

The Rome-based WFP, which last month appealed for at least 500 million dollars more to meet the needs of the hungry in 2008, has already expressed "concern" over the rising food and fuel prices.

Since January 2008, international rice prices have registered a steep increase of about 20 percent in world markets.

The rise in the price of foodstuffs, including bread and rice, has triggered demonstrations and riots in several countries, including Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt and Cameroon.

According to Amnesty International, most developing nations have also failed to improve MDG Goal 5, relating to maternal mortality.

"States must commit to eliminating the underlying human rights violations that drive maternal mortality," AI said in a statement released Wednesday.

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), told the General Assembly Tuesday that the "sad and shocking truth" is that maternal mortality is the largest health inequity in the world.

And this health gap, between rich and poor countries and within countries, only deepens the widespread poverty that exists in our world. Poverty is a key causes of all of that, she added.

She told delegates that a study in Egypt found that every dollar invested in family planning saved the government 31 dollars in spending on education, food, health, housing and water and sewage services.

At the same time, studies in Mexico, Vietnam and Thailand show similar far-reaching savings.

"The cost-benefit analysis is clear. And the consequences of non-investment are dramatic. It is estimated that the global economic impact of maternal and newborn deaths amounts to 15 billion dollars per year in lost productivity," she added.

Obaid also said that one of the major challenges to progress in achieving MDG 5 is the shortage of health workers as well as unattractive working conditions.

More than four million health workers are needed in Africa and Asia. And there is an immediate need for 334,000 midwives, she added.

"Together, we can get these midwives in the communities where they are needed and give them incentives to continue to work, often under difficult conditions, to save women's lives," she added.

According to Obaid, at least an estimated 6.0 billion dollars in additional funding is needed each year to reduce maternal and newborn mortality. This is equivalent to about one and a half days of global military spending.

"Isn't it incredible that just a day and a half of military spending directed at maternal health could save the lives of half a million women and 8 million newborns each year?" she asked.

© 2008 Inter Press Service

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