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A global report card

Evaluating the Millennium Development Goals

Recently nominated by Denmark for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) turn 15 this year. In 2001, the 189 states of the United Nations agreed to eight MDGs with clear, measurable terms and a timeline lasting until 2015. As the calendar turned this January, the global community finds itself at the end-date for these objectives, (listed in the sidebar below). The good news is that some goals have been achieved – a specific target within the first goal, eradicating extreme poverty, was met ahead of schedule in 2010, as the number of people living on less than $1.25 per day was reduced to half of what it had been in 1990.

Other goals have had more mixed results. The target of improved sanitation, included in the seventh goal of environmental sustainability, has been met with a huge improvement in the number of people with access to clean drinking water – 2012 saw 2.3 billion people gain access to improved drinking water when compared to 1990. But the sanitation target also includes what the UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson believes to be the goal that still requires the most work, which is access to toilet facilities for defecation – an estimated one billion of the world’s people practice open defecation for lack of more hygienic options. He has launched a campaign, as shown at opendefecation.org, to raise awareness of this issue and create change.

Interrelated goals

Progress for each of the goals is assessed on the United Nations website. When looking at any one of the goals, though, it quickly becomes clear that all eight goals interrelate. As stated on the World Renew website, all of the MDGs “work together to overcome the barriers that keep the poor powerless, voiceless and vulnerable.”

Alan Talens, a medical doctor and World Renew Health Advisor based in Michigan, offered the example of universal primary education as a goal with cascading effects. Death in childhood is connected with the social determinant of lack of education: “educating girls has a huge impact on maternal and child health.” Mothers who have a primary education have more of a chance to gain important resources, such as water, nutritious food, shelter and toilet facilities. The way that they care for their children improves health outcomes for those children as well. The 2013 film Girl Rising directed by Richard E. Robbins makes the same point: “educating girls is the highest return investment possible to break cycles of poverty.”

Leanne Talen Geisterfer, World Renew’s Latin America Team Leader, affirms that development work integrates many of these goals: “It’s not an easy fix. You have to work at all of them.” In the work Leanne oversees from her base in Honduras, education relates to many development areas. She is especially interested in participatory teaching methods that lead to behaviour changes. For example, agriculture promoters use demonstration plots on a participant’s farm to show techniques like terracing, and health promoters organize mother-to-mother support groups to help mothers reach the goal of exclusive breastfeeding until a baby is six months old.

Social capital

Development means transformed individuals and communities. Leanne Talen Geisterfer comments, “you need the transformed lives of people with a basis of faith. You need the faith values – honesty, integrity and the willingness to sacrifice for others – that are so integrally related to faith development. We work with churches, churches that are working with the community, being salt and light.” The goal of transformed communities means that the people of the local community can work on their own development and begin to oversee projects themselves.

Alan Talens agrees that building relationships, “increased social capital, the community caring for each other,” is essential to development: “It’s not the health facility, or the medicine, or the doctor that saves life per se, it is the community.” In a community with high social capital, a woman who is in hard labour at 2 a.m. will be helped to a health care facility by neighbours. Strong communities can be life-savers.

Equity in design

The MDGs may be relatively easy to achieve in some places and among some populations, and much more difficult to attain with others, such as tribal groups, ethnic minorities and people in remote areas, who often show a disparity in health outcomes. It is important to seek out the places where achieving the goals is the most difficult.

There has been a drop in the maternal mortality rate since 1990, but much room for improvement remains. As noted on World Renew’s website, “more than 500,000 mothers die around the world of preventable causes. Of all the MDGs, there has been the least progress made in improving maternal health,” only nine percent of the way to the goals related to maternal mortality, with almost no progress overall in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Child mortality numbers are also still staggering: 6.3 million children under five still die every year, an average of 17,260 deaths every day. Alan says this number is the equivalent of 35 jumbo jets full of children crashing every day. To begin to address this problem, Alan noted that seeking out the most vulnerable populations is an important step, as in World Renew’s programs in India and Bangladesh.

Offering services involves capacity-building for the vulnerable group: “Giving material things is okay but not enough. What is really needed is empowerment, giving voice.” The disadvantaged group needs to be part of decision-making. They know what the problems are, and solutions can be found at the grassroots level.

Moving forward: Justice for all

Leanne Talen Geisterfer agreed that maternal health has a long way to go, and commented that perhaps the least-achieved MDG was one that was not named specifically – justice for all. She was glad to see that this goal has been included on the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals, the follow-up to the MDGs, available at sustainabledevelopment.un.org. The justice SDG goal is intended to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

Leanne said that increases to health and well-being through development work are vulnerable if a society and its institutions are corrupt: “Anyone who rises will be knocked down.” She is encouraged that in her own neighbourhood in Honduras, people are beginning to report crime to police rather than accept victimization as a basic part of life.
She commented, “my optimism is based in the power of God. In the area of justice, sometimes the whole corruption issue just takes away any optimism. On the other hand, you say, okay, these systems are made of individuals, and individuals can change. Sometimes it is a matter of getting enough individuals to change, and then the systems can change.”

What were the original MDGs?

1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2. To achieve universal primary education
3. To promote gender equality and empower women
4. To reduce child mortality
5. To improve maternal health
6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7. To ensure environmental sustainability
8. To develop a global partnership for development

Specific targets within these goals can be viewed at un.org/millenniumgoals/.


  • Judith Farris

    Judith Farris lives in Sarnia, Ontario with her family.

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