With 827 days to go until the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals — the United Nations’ flagship agenda for global development — the buzzword at the General Assembly’s annual opening debate in New York this week was “acceleration.” A clear sense of urgency dominated many talks, particularly as the world body prepares to draw a new set of goals even as several points on its action plan remain largely unfulfilled.
“As the United Nations and the world begin discussions on the post-2015 agenda, I cannot think of a better transition than to accomplish these unfinished tasks,” Shamshad Akhtar, assistant secretary-general for Economic and Social Affairs, told reporters on Sept. 19, before the various General Assembly debates began. She named child and maternal health, HIV prevention and basic education as some of the goals needing “bolder action.”
Fulfilling the eight goals, ranging from extreme poverty eradication to universal primary education and established at the 2000 Millennium Summit, are closely dependent on realizing a “global partnership for development,” another agenda goal. But the global economic crisis that began in 2008 and has somewhat recovered since, has hindered such partnership, with aid from rich nations to developing ones falling below target levels two years in a row — a downward trend UN officials are attempting to reverse.
“To accelerate momentum and scale up what has been shown to work, the international community must keep fiscal promises,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report on MDG progress released before this week’s meetings. “This is important not just for achieving the MDGs but for the credibility of a post-2015 sustainable development agenda.”
Official development assistance — aid that developed countries committed to as part of their role in achieving the eight MDGs — fell for the second consecutive year, down 4 percent to $126 billion in 2012, after dropping 2 percent in 2011. The decline in 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, is the most severe since 1997, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). As many developed nations have embraced austerity measures, 16 of the 25 donor countries decreased their contributions to international development. Official development assistance is widely acknowledged as the main route for eliminating extreme poverty, which is concentrated primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and is measured at subsisting on $1.25 a day.
Specifically, most donor countries have fallen below the target assistance rate of 0.7 percent of gross national income — the amount that UN analysis indicates is needed to fulfill all MDGs, and while some donors are surpassing their commitments, several that lagged behind are cutting back further. (The United States, for example, is the largest donor, but its contribution decreased 2.8 percent from 2011 to 2012.) As a whole, core donor countries allocated only 0.29 percent of their gross national income to assistance in 2012.
The latest MDG progress report did not name the countries falling short of their commitments. “Our preference tends to be to focus more on those who are showing the way and try to inspire others to turn it around as opposed to the shaming,” Olav Kjorven, assistant secretary-general and director of development policy at the UN Development Program, told reporters. (The agency monitors the status of the eight goals.)
Some countries have raised their contributions — including Australia, Austria, South Korea and even Britain, which has embraced austerity measures and reduced almost all other elements of its domestic budget. Over all, however, contributions are “slipping away,” Kjorven said.
“Some of the countries that have cut back on ODA are also some of the countries that have been hit the worst by the fiscal crisis, countries like Greece and Spain, and we can understand the pressure they’re under,” he added. “That’s said, it’s also possible to withstand the pressure when times are tough.”
While austerity measures across the developed world are mostly to blame for the drop in assistance, concern about the handling of funds —including corruption and mismanagement — are also culprits.
“It has been generally recognized that MDG 8 on the ‘global partnership for development’ was one of its weakest points,” José Antonio Ocampo, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, wrote in a new report, highlighting lessons to be learned from the MDG experience as the UN moves toward a post-2015 agenda. Ocampo criticized the millennium plan for lacking a framework of accountability and the goals themselves for being “donor-centric.”
UN officials also noted “stagnation” on debt reduction efforts and trade agreements. The OECD report remarked that the assistance that does materialize increasingly goes to middle-income countries and conflict zones as opposed to the poorest nations.
For instance, in 2012, aid to the African continent fell 9.9 percent, to $28.9 billion, the OECD report shows. Afghanistan was the largest recipient of assistance in 2012, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo, another report released ahead of the assembly documents. The World Bank estimates that an additional $40 to $60 billion is needed to meet all MDGs by 2015.
“This is happening at a time when developing countries need to redouble their efforts to achieve the targets within two years,” Akhtar said at the UN press briefing on Sept. 19. She encouraged donor countries not to think of their international commitments as an expendable luxury.
Kjorven of the UN Development Program also appealed for more action: “The timing couldn’t be worse” for this “backsliding,” he said.
“We have two years left to really make the most of the MDGs and achieve historic progress, and we’re in the middle of conversations around the world about the next development agenda,” he said, stressing that such an agenda’s credibility would be questioned by the world’s failure to see through the original set of promises.
“Let’s turn this around. Let’s stop this erosion,” Kjorven said.
But while UN officials work to reinvigorate rich countries’ commitment to support the goals, the effects of cutting aid are already visible, most notably with goals behind schedule — on health, women and children.
“In the last couple of years we’ve lost $8 billion, as it happens, exactly the amount of shortfall that’s required to maintain the treatment and prevention of HIV on an annual basis,” said Stephen Lewis, co-director of international advocacy organization AIDS-Free World, referring to the drop in aid. Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases was the sixth goal on the 2000 agenda, and while eradication of other diseases has somewhat progressed, the fight against HIV/AIDS remains among the MDG’s most significant failures.
Also deeply behind schedule are the fourth and fifth millennium goals: the reduction of child mortality and improvement of maternal health, respectively.
“We are all a bit embarrassed that this goal number five is lagging, it’s such an important goal,” Ray Chambers, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for financing the health-related Millennium Development Goals, said on Sept. 23 at a meeting with health ministers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria.
About 95 percent of maternal deaths happen in developing countries, with 90 percent occurring in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa alone. Ten countries — including Afghanistan, Congo, India, Nigeria, and Sudan — account for 60 percent of all maternal deaths.
Children are not faring better than their mothers. “If current trends continue, MDG 4 will not be met until 2028,” says a recent Unicef release, “and as many as 35 million more children will die between 2015 and 2028.”
Faced with a deadline that will almost certainly not be met, UN officials hit the accelerator at this week’s high-level meetings, calling for a “final push” to the millennium goals. A daylong event convened by Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general, on Sept. 23 generated some $2.5 billion in pledged funds toward increasing MDG achievement.
Britain announced a $1.6 billion pledge for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria over the next three years, and the World Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, announced $700 million in financing through 2015 to meet goals on women’s and children’s health.
Donor countries also discussed alternative financing solutions to protect assistance at a time of austerity, including remittances, private partnerships and additional trade easements.
But while the world quickly creates new objectives, failure to fulfill the original goals risks turning this post-2015 effort into another wish list, inspiring little confidence in its feasibility.
“There’s a lot of skepticism,” Amina Mohammed, a special adviser to the secretary-general on post-2015 development planning, said at a recent meeting about financing options. She referred to the new set of goals as an “ever more demanding agenda.”
Raymond Offenheiser, Oxfam America’s director, said at the meeting, “One of the key challenges to greater progress is and will be funding.”
To some, that challenge has been insurmountable.
At the end of another session tracking MDG successes and failures, Chambers, the UN special envoy, asked state delegations and civil society representatives in attendance to raise their hands if they believed 80 percent of developing countries would meet the goals by 2015. No hands appeared to go up.
“How about if we narrowed it down to every woman, every child?” Chambers continued, focusing on Goals 4, 5 and 6. A couple delegates timidly raised their hands.
“We’ll need more optimism as we go into tomorrow,” Chambers said.
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Alice Speri is a freelance writer based in New York. She has written on international matters for The Christian Science Monitor, Agence France-Presse and other publications. She also wrote about the 2012 Olympics for The Wall Street Journal and New York metro matters for The New York Times and The Star-Ledger in Newark. She has contributed research and editing to The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section and contributed reporting to Al Jazeera English.
In addition, Speri received a Knight Foundation fellowship to participate in the International Center for Journalists, Russia-US Young Media Professionals Exchange. She is a Ph.D. candidate at New York University, from which she earned an M.A. in comparative literature. She has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in government and literature from Harvard University. An Italian, she speaks English and French.