Africa: Giving the Millennium Development Goals a Human Face

12 September 2010

New York — Ahead of the United Nations Millennium Development Summit to be held in New York later this month, the UN Foundation and its partners have ramped up efforts to educate the media about progress that has been made on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) thus far and what still needs to be done before the 2015 target date for achieving them.

The MDGs, adopted in 2001, are the most broadly supported, comprehensive and specific development goals the world has ever agreed upon. At a press fellowship hosted by the UN Foundation, sponsored in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, journalists from various global media organizations, including, were brought together on September 7-9 to talk about the MDGs with a wide range of policymakers and presenters.

Speakers such as professor Jeffery Sachs, special advisor to the Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals and director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, and Sir Mark Lyall Grant, permanent representative of the United Kingdom to the United Nations, described the eight interconnected, time-bound goals. The presenters discussed ways the MDGs have helped to attract, gain and sustain attention around a coherent global development agenda.

The goals set targets for addressing extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, HIV/Aids, environmental sustainability, and the global partnerships for development. The eight areas encompass a range of development agendas that have preoccupied those in the humanitarian community for years.

The MDG framework is aimed at avoiding "false" choices between often competing development programs. In other words, all eight goals are seen holistically and treated in unison, while their interconnections and dependencies receive new emphasis.

At a more macro level Ambassador Frederick D. Barton, representative to the Economic and Social Council from the United States Mission to the United Nations, characterized the MDGs as "a bridge between the global north and south" and therefore "a reaffirmation of our common humanity." Without the MDG framework, argued John McArthur, chief executive officer of Millennium Promise, "it would be difficult to focus and sustain funding, discussion, commitment and all the efforts that have gone into various areas of development in the last 10 years."

Branding the Millennium Development Goals

Conversations during the three-day session suggest that a recurring problem for journalists faced with the MDGs was a branding one. Journalists voiced concerns about the difficulty in capturing and passing the essence of the goals along to the public. There was a widespread sense that their potential as a tool to focus attention on human development over the last decade has not been realized. Several UN spokespersons agreed that in many countries—the United States especially—the general public, outside the development community, is largely unaware of the MDGs and progress that has been made towards achieving them.

Going forward, the United Nations confronts a communications challenge:  how to put a "human face" on the MDGs. UN officials are convinced that stories exist to vividly convey the ways that this unprecedented international initiative has helped development work become more focused and effective. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants to focus more attention on MDG 4  - reducing by two thirds the mortality rate among children under five - and MDG 5 - reducing by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio and achieving universal access to reproductive health. Progress towards meeting these key targets by 2015 is behind schedule.

The Secretary-General's introduction to the "Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health" says: "Each year, millions of women and children die from preventable causes. These are not mere statistics. They are people with names and faces...their suffering is unacceptable in the 21st century."

Robert Orr, UN assistant secretary-general for Strategic Planning and Policy Coordination, compared the lagging MDGs 4 and 5 to rear-end carriages on the eight-carriage MDG train. The United Nations has realized, he said, that the MDGs for child mortality and maternal health need to be the engines powering the train and re-energizing all the other goals.

UN officials argue that investing in the health of women and children is cost-effective, reduces poverty, stimulates economic productivity and growth, and helps women and children realize their fundamental human rights. In this view, investing in women and children "will build stable, peaceful and productive societies."

Along these lines, a new report by the UN children's agency (UNICEF) and Save the Children, co-presented in New York last Wednesday, further supports telling human stories of maternal health and child mortality. Titled "Progress for Children: Achieving the MDGs with Equity," the report cites indicators that show wide disparities across wealth quintiles and documents similar gaps between urban and rural areas.

Access to maternity services, including antenatal care and skilled attendance, have improved since the 1990s, along with increased national averages in child survival. But in sub-Saharan Africa, women and children in the poorest quintile are much less likely than those in the richest households to have access to life-saving interventions. An equity-focused strategy questions the seemingly cost-effective and high-gain approach of going after the easiest-to-reach mothers and children, who also happen to be members of wealthy households.

An equity-focused approach will, instead, seek to increase the number of skilled attendants available to the poorest households in sub-Saharan African countries. It will also extend interventions to prevent and treat communicable diseases in the hardest-to-reach children, because this "has a considerably greater potential impact on the poorest quintile, where the burdens of disease and mortality are highest."

The UN's renewed focus on women's and children's health in relation to the MDGs as a whole is an emphasis with added benefits, development experts said. Reported successes in reducing child mortality and improving women's health can help rally a global public that has become fatigued by constant crises. The cost-effectiveness of investing in women and children has a multiplier effect in realizing all the MDGs. And development workers hope that showing a global public that progress has been made in the last 10 years can help mobilize support for what still needs to be accomplished in the next five.

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