- The Washington Times - Monday, June 11, 2007

Millennium scorecard

There are locusts devouring their way through Yemen, conflicts raging through pockets of eastern Congo, food shortages afflicting one-third of Zimbabweans, refugees unable to return to their homes from Somalia to Sudan to Guinea Bissau, and plenty more bad news where that came from.

These are localized examples of what the United Nations and concerned governments and aid groups are battling in their effort to bring basic human dignity and development to the people of sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1999, the U.N. General Assembly agreed to an ambitious set of goals to demonstrably cut extreme poverty in 15 years. These Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set benchmarks for reducing or eradicating illiteracy, hunger, new HIV infections and child mortality.

The MDGs also would improve environmental sustainability, maternal health care and access to clean water.

Despite isolated successes, the overall plan is not going well. “Challenges remain daunting,” U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said last week, noting that real development assistance to the region has increased by only about 2 percent.

One African woman in 16 is at risk of dying from complications in pregnancy or childbirth, compared with one in 3,800 in the developed world. HIV rates are still increasing faster than available treatments.

There are a few bright spots in the 2007 MDG update — a kind of scorecard for the region: Extreme poverty has leveled off since 1999, it says, with some 41 percent of sub-Saharan Africans living on $1 a day or less.

That still leaves 298 million people living in unspeakable conditions.

Access to primary-school education had generally increased but about 30 percent of African children are still unable to enroll. A few countries have abolished school fees, while Ghana is using local crops to offer student lunches.

Malawi is one of the success stories: A voucher program to distribute fertilizer and high-quality seeds to farmers has nearly doubled crop yields in just a year.

Widespread disease, primitive infrastructure that leaves villages isolated, limited access to health care and schools, and reluctant investors are all part of the problem, said Guido Schmidt-Traub, who coordinates MDG group in the U.N. Development Program.

In Heiligendamm, Germany, last week, the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations pledged $60 billion to boost health care in Africa and to double development assistance.

But the announcement included no timetable, and aid specialists note that previous aid promises didn’t yield much of an increase.

Promises and even cash aren’t likely to do much in the short term, U.N. officials lament. “The number of countries on track to achieving the MDGs is zero today,” Mr. Schmidt-Traub concluded.

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