31 May 2013

Africa: Bold Goals, Measurement Needed for Progress Against Poverty

With the expiration of the initiative still more than a year away, there is planning underway to move beyond the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed at dramatically reducing world poverty by 2015.

The post-MDG development agenda has even more ambitious goals: prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, bring the number of people living on less than U.S.$1.25 a day to zero, and end hunger.

Advocates say bold action can yield results.

The call six years ago by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate malaria seemed impossible to some and generated heated debate.

But gains against fighting the deadly disease have been significant in recent years - the most sustained progress in sub-Saharan Africa since efforts began half a century ago, largely due to the mass distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets, the use of rapid diagnostic tests and other interventions.

"You don't want to make goals so unrealistic that people lose faith and say, 'That will never happen,' but you want them to be challenging enough that they will require real effort and energy to achieve them," said Mark Suzman, managing director for international policy and programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He also oversees the foundation's regional offices and strategic presence in Africa, China and India.

The 12 post-2015 development targets were conceived by the UN secretary-general's high-level panel of eminent persons that was created a year ago to consider the agenda following the MDG time frame. The panel released its recommendations on Thursday.

Suzman said the foundation considers the eight current MDGs as a set of one of the most powerful tools for fighting poverty and improving health in the developing world over the last 13 years.

"And for that reason we've been very keen to make sure that the discussion over the next set of successive goals that will come into play after 2015 retains many of those core elements," he said.

He said one of the most important factors in seeing that through was assuring thorough measurement of needs and progress. In his annual letter, released last January, Bill Gates highlighted that sort of tracking, saying it was possible to achieve "amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal."

In fact, there has been significant progress already on many of the MDGs, including reducing extreme poverty by half, which has been achieved ahead of the 2015 deadline. Gates acknowledged that some goals, such as reducing the number of maternal deaths by 75 percent, were too ambitious and will not be achieved by 2015, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the number so far has been reduced by half globally.

Going forward, up to the next deadline of 2030, Suzman said accurate measurement of progress will be key, and that need is highlighted in the high-level panel's report. He said a "data revolution" was needed.

"Several related challenges with the current goals is the data is incomplete," he said. "It's tough to track progress or focus your efforts on where are the highest concentrations of child or maternal mortality or undernutrition, for example, if you have inadequate data that identify where those pockets are at a national or global level."

He said data sets in some countries were five and up to 10 years old.

"That really is ineffective, even if you have policymakers wanting to do the right thing. If you're using outdated or inaccurate data you risk inefficiently spending a lot of your resources and energy," Suzman said.

"That is something at the foundation that we care about a great deal, because we think it's an essential tool to good development. But clearly it's not something we feel we can or should do or drive. These are classic public goods, global public goods, national public goods that countries in the world need to get better at."

He said he hoped that the report, in highlighting that need, will help ensure that data will be available in real time to help determine whether the world is succeeding or failing and where more attention is needed.

He said the foundation was "cautiously optimistic" that the panel's recommendations were a step in the right direction.

"We don't want to lose sight of just how challenging this is and how easy it is for people to add on goals and issues and topics so it becomes big and unwieldy and unfocused and loses sight of core focus on the world's poorest and most vulnerable people, which we think still needs to be the central focus," he said. "I hope that's what we'll see as this moves into the next phase of the process."

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