MDG imperative but largely off track, says Declaration as UN DPI/NGO Conference ends

01 Sep 2010

(Melbourne, Australia) – The fourth and final roundtable of the sixty-third annual DPI/NGO Conference wrapped up today with a show of overwhelming support for what the Chair of the Conference has called “the people’s document”.

The wide-ranging Declaration, on behalf of some 350 non-governmental organizations from more than 70 countries, was read out by Conference Chair, Mary Norton, who said “we listened to you yesterday to include all your ideas so the document would be one from the people and by the people”. People were posting “stickies” outside the door where the text was being drafted, indicating what they thought should be included.  That had been “extremely gratifying”. 

With Ms Norton as she introduced the text was Convener of the NGO Focal Group in Australia, Professor Philip Batterham, who urged the organizations to “behave like we have a fire in our belly because we want what happens here to really count”. 

Stressing that the Millennium Development Goals “is a moral imperative”, the Declaration says that the Goals, all of which affect the health of populations, despite some progress, “are significantly off-track for the poorest and least politically powerful people”.  Significant remaining challenges included:  1 billion people without access to food; 2.6 billion who lacked access to improved sanitation; eight out of 10 without access to safe drinking water who lived in rural areas; nearly 9 million children who died before the age of five; and at least 340,000 women who die each year of pregnancy-related causes. 

The non-governmental organizations made an impassioned appeal in their text for all governments, agencies, corporations and individuals to deliver on their human rights obligations to more than a billion people living in poverty, by committing the finances and political will necessary to achieve the Goals. 

Towards improving global health, the text compels all governments and health actors to respect the rights of communities while also maximizing the effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability of their work by leveraging community knowledge and support. It also highlights the central role that individuals, families and communities must play in fostering global health. 

Agreed by acclamation was a Statement of solidarity moved from the floor sponsored by Imamia Medics International, The Fred Hollows Foundation, Oxfam Australia, and World Vision Australia,” entitled “Strengthening humanitarian assistance in response to severe floods in Pakistan”.  The statement which was later handed to Under-Secretary-General Kiyo Akasaka by Tim Costello the Chief Executive Office of World Vision Australia for transmittal to the UN Secretary-General, was also read out and made available to participants. 

Earlier, panellists from Kenya, Palau, Sri Lanka, and Australia, engaged in a lively debate in a roundtable entitled “Achieving the MDGs in Our Changing World” moderated by Lindy Joubert, Director of the inaugural United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Observatory, Multi-Disciplinary Research on the Arts.

The discussion was premised from the perspective that developing countries, in particular, are experiencing swift demographic transitions with sharp rises in the populations of young people and older persons, increased urbanization and globalization.  Closely associated with those issues were migration and other influences, as well as environmental deterioration and climate change.  The Roundtable examined such issues as how to ensure flexibility within the “MDG” agenda so that Governments and the international community are not diverted from responding in a timely way to those changes; and to what extent more attention could be focused on the “other diseases” of Goal 6, [HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases], in particular chronic diseases, which represent a large and increasing proportion of the financial, social and health burden in many poor countries. 

Addressing himself to a question about the flexibility of the “MDG” agenda, Dharmapriya Wesumperuma of Sri Lanka, East Asia/Pacific regional Head of Programmes at HelpAge International said that, with eight goals and some 60-odd indicators, the Millennium Development Goals were “a large enough thing”.  He noted efforts in the past to change some of the indicators, but felt that was not pragmatic.  Real flexibility, in his view, had to be at the level of action, analysis, and reporting. 

Looking at one global change – the world financial crisis and its impacts, particularly on least developed countries – he noted that there were stimulus packages initiated by Governments to promote growth, but said that those investments should be “more pro-MDG”.   Some of the investments, however, were “sort of MDG-neutral”.  But non-governmental organizations had campaigned to make the investments “pro-MDG”, with the result being sizable sums of money going into children’s welfare, old-age pensions, primary health care, and so forth.  In Thailand, for example, all persons over age 60 were now entitled to social pensions from the Government.  Health systems had improved in that country, as well as in India, Bangladesh, China, and elsewhere, owing in part to the efforts of non-governmental organizations. 

On the question of ageing, he noted that in about 47 countries during the past 10 years, after the Millennium Declaration, the number of older persons had doubled, and in most developing countries, the population of older persons had increased by 50 per cent.  Older people were thus important for this meeting, but it appeared that the focus was largely on child and maternal health.  Older persons “cared and they shared”.  Sixty per cent of orphaned children in many countries were cared for by older people, and in at least 55 per cent of sub-Saharan African countries, older persons were heads of households.  That was true, not only in Africa, but also in Asia and elsewhere around the world where inter-generational sharing and caring was commonplace.  In European countries, older people worked right through old age, and a good part of their earnings went back into the households, for infant care, for children and mothers – for food nutrition and health-care access. 

Returning the focus to the health of mothers and children, Jamesa Wagwau of Kenya, Education Editor for New Vision, Uganda’s leading newspaper, said that, for a long time, enormous numbers of children died from treatable illnesses because the children were located in places where there were no hospitals, or because the mother did not know there was a hospital in her area.  Mothers died in childbirth because there were no qualified medical personnel. That situation was changing as the media played a role in bringing it to light.  Media reports had been a wake-up call to policy-makers.  In some places, Governments had “a heavy hand” in controlling the media, but the media still played a critical role in informing and educating.  

Still, he said, the Millennium Development Goals were not understood, not only by Government, but by “local persons” as well.  It was only the media that could bring the Goals to light, lest they “gather dust on the shelves”.  Referring to the discussion yesterday about the importance of data collection, he said if that data was not utilized, it, too, would only gather dust.

If Australians were asked what gave them the most security, the answer was often their Medicare card, said Dr Sue Wareham, Australian Capital Territory Branch Coordinator and member of the Management Committee for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.  The relationship between health workers and the promotion of peace had been talked about as far back as 30 years ago, but that relationship was as important today.  A look at the poorest places on earth showed that eight out of 10 of them were either at war or recently emerging from conflict.  The effects on their populations were devastating; community infrastructure had been destroy, along with water purification and sewage systems, and health-care workers had been targeted.  There had also been sex crimes and other grave human rights violations, enormous numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the lasting effects of weapons of war. 

The issue of nuclear weapons was one of the major overwhelming health, environmental and human rights issues, she said.  There were still 23,000 in existence in the world, and the use of just one would be “utterly catastrophic”.  “If we want peace and health care for all, we have to pay for them.”  That was not hard; it was a matter of priorities.  Current global military spending annually was $1.46 trillion, with about 42 per cent of that spent by one country – the United States – which, in itself, was unconscionable.  Achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – would cost $135 billion, or less than one-tenth of the annual global military spending.  That could be done.  It was just about getting the priorities right.  She added that justice was central to everything being discussed at the Conference, and that included fair treat and increasing overseas aid to redress the balance between the poorest and richest nations. 

Dr Caleb Otto, a national of Palau, is a former hospital Administration Specialist and Health Planner for the Government of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands and former Senator of the Palau National Congress. He acknowledged that achievements of the Millennium Development Goals had been “pretty slow”, although his region, once separated by a vast ocean and now connected by airwaves and computer bytes, was more connected than ever.  Nevertheless, exploitation of the poor had blocked achievement of the Goals.  He lamented a lack of transparency in government, poor governance and corruption.  A consequence of modernization and globalization was the ease of exploitation by the transnational industry; this was another impediment to the attainment of the development Goals. 

Correcting a point made at an earlier roundtable that climate chance concerns were not very important to Pacific islanders because they had not contributed much to the problem, he said that, that was not so.  Chopping down trees or treading on corals irresponsibly caused environmental degradation, and in almost every Pacific island nation, there were many, many cars and other vehicles, which polluted the air.

The Conference met again at 4:30 today, Wednesday, 1 September, for its closing ceremony.