UN millennium development goals in jeopardy

Some 140 heads of state are in New York to mark five years until the target date of the UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), but observers say that governments around the world are failing billions of people.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon appealed to the summit to “send a strong message of hope. Let us keep the promise”, hinting at concerns that the eight goals will not be met. US President Barack Obama furthermore called for a “new” approach to delivering aid, suggesting a results-based approach instead of simply throwing money at development issues – a possible indicator of Washington’s own economic woes.

Amnesty International pointed to the Burmese junta as not only failing on a number of MDG targets but also breaking treaty obligations that they had signed.

“It’s clear that the government of Myanmar [Burma] has not taken positive steps for the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights, and of course the Millennium Development Goals speak to economic rights in particular,” Amnesty’s Burma researcher, Benjamin Zawacki, told DVB.

Zawacki believes that such issues do not receive enough attention in regards to Burma, with observers focusing more on political and civil rights – what is known as negative liberty or impediments to do as one pleases – as opposed to positive liberties: the freedom from hunger, for example.

This sentiment is echoed by Burmese political analyst Aung Naing Oo, who told DVB that “rights aren’t just about being able to do stuff; for many it’s also about being able to get two square meals a day”. Burma remains one of the world’s least developed countries, with annual income averaging at little over US$200 a year.

“What they [the junta] are obligated to do is to protect those rights that are enshrined in the human rights conventions it has signed,” Zawacki continued. “It is a state party on the rights of the child and, for example, Article 4 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child makes it very explicit that if the government is unable or unwilling to ensure the economic rights of the child, the rights to food, to healthcare or shelter…then it has to allow the international community, the outside world, to provide for those rights.

“You can’t hold children hostage because of your own inability or unwillingness to protect those rights.”

He points to May 2008’s cyclone Nargis as an example, one he hastens to add was exceptional but nonetheless demonstrative of the government’s attitude to protecting or promoting economic rights.

Burma is said to be “off track” on ‘improving maternal health’, one of the eight MDGs. The MDG Monitor website also states that for two of the targets – ‘eradication of extreme poverty and hunger’ and ‘develop a global partnership for development’ – there existed “insufficient data”.

The two targets that Burma is said to be “very likely to [achieve], on track” were providing universal primary education and promoting gender equality and empowering women.

The remaining categories – combating child mortality, reducing major diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS and ensuring environmental sustainability – were considered “possible to achieve if some changes are made”.

The pessimism surrounding maternal health will come as no surprise given the severe lack of funding that healthcare receives in Burma, with the junta spending roughly US$0.50 per person annually on healthcare. This fact will also not bode well for those areas considered “possible to achieve if some changes are made”.

This target received special attention on Wednesday when Ban Ki-moon launched a new initiative aimed at combating maternal deaths. Amnesty International have noted that in the three days that the summit took place, some 3,700 women will have died during childbirth, more often that not as a result of lack of healthcare.

The initiative will include increases in funding for women and children’s health to the tune of roughly $US40 billion, while the UN had lined up prominent speakers for the launch, including Chinese Premiere Wen Jiabao. Who told the audience that “assistance should be selfless and have no strings attached”.

Burma receives some of the lowest levels of development aid in the world, partly a result of the isolationist tendencies of the junta, but also the international community’s tendency to avoid working with a ‘pariah’ state.

This fact, coupled with the admittance that two categories, including the key ‘eradication of extreme poverty and hunger’, did not have enough data asks serious questions about the Burmese junta’s ability to work with development NGOs and their desire to assess such areas of concern.

Indian economist Amartya Sen famously attributed famine not to a lack of food but rather improper distribution. His work focused on the famines in his native Bengal that occurred under the authoritarian rule of colonialism, and the experience of mass famine has not been repeated since India became a democracy.

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