December 12, 2013

The UN Millennium Development Goals and Estonia

The new Millennium Development Goals will likely be universal in character and, as such, will also influence more affluent countries and societies

Picture the climate-controlled hall at the United Nations Headquarters, where well-dressed men and women of various ages and races are sitting at a table full of microphones. They talk of reducing poverty, equal opportunities, climate change, desertification, job creation and inclusive economic growth, human rights, empowering women, and combating corruption and violence. They agree on high-level and expert level working groups and panels; they develop reports, comment and debate formulations for hours on end. All of these people have their own background, political agenda and experiences – some want to move forward, others exert a braking influence. But all in their own way want to come out  winners in September 2015 when it is  time to agree on common universal development goals. This is the UN process in its full splendor.
Although work and discussions are under way in UN working groups and the more difficult discussions are still two years away, there appears to be broader consensus that the rather specific Millennium Development Goals agreed in 2000 – in quite a patronizing and non-inclusive way – must continue beyond 2015 as well. Reducing poverty will remain the main goal, but there is a desire and need to approach this objective in a much more broad-based way.
Now imagine a scene from newly independent South Sudan, where the government faces the task of rebuilding a country after a decades-long military conflict. The population is traumatized by the conflict; the government lacks a budget and administrative control and can’t offer basic services such as security, medical care and education. Corruption is widespread. The country’s oil fields should be the key to the country’s fortunes, and it would ensure good life for the rulers as well. But for various reasons, the affluence doesn’t “work” yet. People live in desertified areas with a lack of irrigation systems, women with children on their backs eke out a hardscrabble harvest from the thin stony soil; after all it’s the women who are primarily responsible for putting food on the table, but they have no land of their own. Or people live in slums in the capital city, where sewerage and drinking water is lacking and people try to earn a living selling anything they can get their hands on. There is only a few kilometers of paved roads on the entire country, and most settlements lack electricity. There is a UN special envoy in country, and what little happens here is thanks to assistance and efforts of donors and the UN’s constituent organizations – or Chinese investments. The conflict with Sudan escalated anew. If there is no peace, there is no development; and on the contrary: if there is no development, then there is fertile ground for conflict.
If health can be described in terms of the disease, South Sudan is a good example of how all of the symptoms of the illness that so many other countries are struggling with and which the UN is looking for a cure – are especially visible. One solution is common goals that help to focus activities and mobilize resources.

Millennium Development Goals 2000-2015

Let’s go back to the very beginning. As it was clear that uncoordinated development assistance and development cooperation in the absence of common goals would not lead to results, the UN Millennium Development Goals agreed upon in 2000 represented a breakthrough. For the first time, eight simply-worded Millennium Development Goals were agreed upon, the first and most central of which was to reduce the number of people living in extreme poverty and hunger; the other goals pertained to side effects directly related to dire poverty, such as the health of children under 5, maternal mortality, children’s right to education – especially that of girls – access to clean drinking water, HIV/AIDS, reducing mortality from malaria and tuberculosis, etc. Criteria were agreed on for each goal, and they will start to be measured in 2015. The results will also be measured annually by major geographic region. It is important to note that the Millennium Development Goals are goals for poorer countries, which richer countries pledged to support through development cooperation (0.7 % of GNP in development aid was considered sufficient), trade liberalization, and availability of technologies.
In spite of some shortcomings, the Millennium Development Goals have proved to be the right approach, as besides clearly highlighting the problem areas, it has allowed needed resources to be marshaled to alleviate them.
Although only 800 days from now, final conclusions will be drawn and the situation varies from one region to the next, annual statistical measurements show that today the primary goal – halving extreme poverty and hunger – has already been fulfilled even in conditions of  population growth. Efforts to reduce malaria and tuberculosis mortality have been successful, and the countries whose development is lagging have gained the most from trade liberalization. The target is also within sight for reducing the number of people suffering from hunger – yet after it is met, one in eight people in the world will continue to be chronically underfed, even as that the rest of the world is coming to grips with the problems of being overfed. Considering the current developments in the field of pharmaceuticals, it appears possible to achieve the target of providing  access to retroviral drugs for all people with HIV/AIDS. The problem with combating the spread of viruses is also unresolved, however. It should certainly be stressed that these are general statistics – it is not necessarily all that visible in reality for all the populations  even of countries at a medium development level.
There are also goals which have proven more elusive, such as reducing mortality among children under five and maternal mortality in childbirth, ensuring access of girls and boys to basic education, or improving sanitary conditions (existence of toilets) There is a gap in availability of vital services in urban and rural places;  compared to the men, the predominant majority of women do not have even a remotely equal opportunity to pursue their own well-being.
Development goals have certainly done a great service in the last 13 years in terms of raising awareness about gender-equal opportunities and in emphasizing the importance of empowering women in society’s development, as women make up over half of the world’s population and they are largely responsible for putting food on the table, to say nothing about their role in children’s health and education. They have responsibilities yet not as many rights. It is a topic that will certainly receive much attention in the future as well.
The Millennium Development Goals included only one environmental topic: availability of clean drinking water and responsible use of natural resources – progress continues to be made on the topic of drinking water, but less on natural resources. The eighth goal – development partnership – is proving the toughest issue to fulfill; along with various targets, it also includes the obligation of affluent countries to provide development funding.
It’s clear that funding development is a very complex topic. In some sense it is easiest to single out the failure of donors to channel 0.7 % of GDP toward development aid – this is the easy to measure – and take the position that  poorer countries have been abandoned. And it is true, since donor countries had to endure a difficult economic crisis for a period, and the percentage of bilateral official development assistance (ODA) is consistently declining with respect to total development funding. Poor countries are keeping the topic of fulfilling ODA obligations firmly and insistently on the agenda at the UN, which could seem unfair given that ODA makes up just a small part of the entire system for financing the country’s development, but a promise is a promise and efforts to keep them should be demonstrated. Estonia is classified as a developed country and ODA has remained at 0.1 and 0.12 % of gross national product. The government must do what it can to raise this percentage.
Developed countries say that responsibility for a country’s development primarily lies with each respective country itself; and, in addition to traditional non-sustainable development aid, much more emphasis should be placed on other governmental ways of supporting development, such as: tax collection, hindering tax flight, combating corruption, creating a favorable environment for private investments, giving loans at favorable rates, responsible finance policy, and a transparent budget. In short, the question is not about the amount of money but in how it can be better used for the good of development. This is the background for future negotiations.

Sustainable development goals – after 2015

In summing up the Millennium Development Goals, the UN has also begun a “what next” discussion on new, post-2015 goals. It’s clear that much has changed in the world over the last decade and that new countries have risen to the forefront in terms of influence. The new development goals will be a much broader and more inclusive process, one that developing countries have great power to influence. One blueprint for new goals is the 2012 Rio +20 declaration called The Future We Want, in which human well-being and economic development is tied to environmental and climate change. The discussion over new development goals is more clearly leading to an agreement that will affect globally connected areas such as economy, environment, climate, and the social sphere – and as these topics are of equal interest to all countries, the goals should be aimed universally at all countries, including Estonia. Sustainability means that if the situation improves in one field and gets worse in another, development is not sustainable.
The first step has been taken. A High-Level Panel of eminent persons selected by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released its report this May including proposals for 12 new possible sustainable development goals. The Millennium Development Goals were continued in a slightly more ambitious form and among other goals, (renewable) energy, stopping global warming, ensuring job creation and balanced economic growth, good governance practices and effective institutions, promotingpeace and peace-minded societies – were added. These proposals can also be considered by Estonia to be a very good start to the difficult negotiations that lie ahead in the near future.
Nor can we overlook the fear of developing countries that there is a risk of the new development goals agreement failing, as it contains both the topic of climate change, which the world has been negotiating on for years with scant results, and that of  trade,, which is characterized by the bogged-down WTO talks. Therefore,  it isn’t out of the question that the sustainable development goals could wind up being held hostage by the WTO talks. Thus, a great deal depends on the way the process is managed as well as on political will.
Even though the goals may be universal, it is highly likely that affluent countries will retain the pledge of 0.7 % of GDP to be allocated as development assistance to developing countries.
At the UN, a separate intergovernmental working group is currently dealing with the politically complex topic of financing the sustainable development goals. One year from now, the group must issue a report containing recommendations on how to ensure the best possible architecture for financing global development. The main emphasis will certainly not lie on wealthier countries’ contributions to development assistance, but rather on a sustainable financing system that would encompass also the responsible private sector and banking and financing of the much-debated measures against climate changes. Estonia has its own representative on this working group. Difficult negotiations are certain to lie ahead.
If the process of agreeing on these sustainable development goals does not bog down due to political special interests and is completed in 2015, the governments of every country, including Estonia, will need to integrate these goals with their own national sustainable development strategies and implementation plans. Estonia has had a Sustainable Development Act since 1995 along with a national Sustainable Estonia 21 strategy from 2005; these may have to be reviewed, with  input needed from all ministries.
In conclusion, although we don’t yet know how the development goals discussions in the UN will end up, the whole world stands to gain from sustainable development in the long term – that includes children in both Southern Sudan and in Estonia. Common goals help keep the focus where it should be.
Translation from Estonian to English by Kristopher Rikken.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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