Impact of Population Trends on the Millennium Development Goals

18 Jun, 2008 - By

Stella Thomas Speaker & Rapporteur at Millennium Development Goals Summit in the United Kingdom

MDGs Performance
Our discussion did not go into great depth on MDGs performance so far.  The UN and other bodies have done this in detail;  and the United Nations will be focussing on the issue in New York in September, at roughly the half-way point between 2000 and 2015.  We agreed that the MDGs had succeeded in establishing much greater international cohesion on the strategic objectives for development than had previously existed, drawing attention particularly to the suffering of the worst-off communities in the developing world.  But progress, particularly in Africa, was slow;  many of the targets were unlikely to be achieved unless new resources and fresh energy were injected;  and the partnership which the eighth MDG called for, and which was the essential component for MDGs achievement across the board, was not really in evidence.
Nevertheless it was useful to be reminded – and we had in former Secretary-General Kofi Annan the principal architect of the initiative at the table – that the UN had shifted the debate on development towards objectives and indicators which were universally intelligible.   With an agreed common framework, it was now everyone’s business.   It was inevitable that different reactions would emerge in different countries, with both donors and recipients responding in a variety of ways.  But the world’s overall capacity to address the worst development problems had been expanded and a number of useful lessons had been learnt.  Participants also agreed that the MDGs could not be regarded as a development panacea.  It was quite clear that they had their limitations.  Apart from anything else, trustworthy information on performance and accurate reporting by governments were hard to find.  It was not even possible to be clear why certain developing communities were doing better than others.  There seemed to be no common factors linking developing countries that had made progress, except perhaps a more determined approach to achieving the MDGs and the setting of clear national goals related to them.  This in itself was a strong indication that we should keep going.
Room for improvement?
Participants were reluctant to get into a debate on where the responsibility lay for a less than impressive performance so far.  Overseas development assistance funding was not growing fast enough in donor countries:  we were in no doubt about that.  The European Union was making a considerable effort to move towards 0.7% of GDP, but still moving too slowly.  The United States was way behind.  Yet neither had developing world governments consistently taken advantage of the opportunity which the MDGs offered.  The UN had made it clear at the beginning that all member states had to take a share of the responsibility for making the targets work.  In the event some had responded well and others had not.  The UN itself was not in a position to take on accountability for implementation, even if it could remain a pressing advocate.  The fact was that, beneath the simplicity of the overall message of the MDGs, meeting the eight categories of objectives was an immensely complex matter, needing resources, determination and international cooperation in equally large amounts.  For all the activity and commitment demonstrated, there was still a long way to go.
The population factor
We realised that bringing population growth trends into this examination of the MDGs was a further complicating factor.  But the conference was clear that they could not and should not be hidden.  Even if the population growth timescale made it difficult to correlate the projections with MDG performance, action on sensible population targets could still have an early effect on maternal and infant health and on primary education targets.
Yet we went deeper into the population issue than that;  and this was where the real value of the conference began to emerge.  There was a hard debate about whether economic growth on its own formed the most sensible general target, because it not  only raised living standards but also encouraged, as the history of economic development appeared to show, gradually lower population growth rates.  As people began to generate more confidence in health and other social systems, they began to perceive that there was less need to insure with high numbers of children.  The other side of the argument, however, was put with equal force.  Even with successful economic growth, there were bound to be losers;  and, in the developing world, their numbers could be quite high.  Economic growth did not dispense distributional justice.  It was also clear that economic growth took time and could never be universal.  Countries afflicted by conflict, poor governance or lack of resources would still lag far behind.  These were the most likely areas for population growth rates to remain high.  The projection of population trends in a country like Ethiopia, for instance, were a remarkable demonstration of this.  Current projections indicated that the population of Sub-Saharan Africa would increase by 225% by 2050, whereas in poor countries in other regions the growth rate was more likely to be around 30%.  There was little prospect of adequate economic growth surprising us by proving these expectations wrong.
Policy choices
We were left with the conclusion, therefore, that there were ways of making progress, both on the MDGs and on population trends, which had not yet been fully tried in determined and cooperative policy-making.  On the MDGs, there were three areas in particular which deserved emphasis:
  • Data availability and reporting accuracy could both be improved.  The UN’s Population Division was trying hard, but national governments could be encouraged to make a much greater effort to return accurate statistics, for instance on maternal mortality and other health trends.  Assistance could be given to governments to increase their data collecting capacity;  figures should be scrutinised more carefully at the international level;  and remaining areas of data uncertainty should be taken into account.
  • The effectiveness of overseas development assistance policies needed to be reviewed.  Specific new ideas (such as bednets in malaria areas) could be highly useful.  But the direction of larger funding programmes might need to be re-thought, as too high a proportion of aid was going into currency reserves and debt relief.  Health and education should be particular areas of focus.
  • Implementation and delivery mechanisms needed to be overhauled.  There was still insufficient coherence within the UN system and between donor sources.  Lessons should be learned from those developing countries which had learnt how to respond effectively to donor approaches.  A much greater effort was needed to encourage developing world capitals to set the right targets and to coordinate the aid on offer to meet them.
Action on population
On the population, our principal message was that advocacy of the advantages of having national governments set population targets should be much more widely pursued.  In addition:
  • Much more care was needed in distinguishing family planning instruments from programmes to control HIV/AIDS.  While valuable in its own right, the latter had probably taken momentum away from family planning initiatives.  Condoms had been left as the main answer in both areas, which was not a sufficient response for family planning.
  • Developing countries should be offered projects to illustrate the benefits of population stabilisation.  The achievability of targets needed to be illustrated.  With family planning at present being largely donor-driven, a more determined pull was needed at the recipient end.
  • The complex factors involved in urban growth could be brought into this equation.  The rapidly increasing size of many developing world cities could be used to draw attention to the options available.
  • Above all, women in local communities should be made much more widely aware of the choices they had, with family planning advice and instruments themselves being made more broadly available.

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