South Asia Can it meet Millennium Development Goals?

Increased regional cooperation can help achieve progress in meeting a number of important

regional targets.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has become an ambitious agenda for reducing poverty. The MDGs include: halving extreme poverty and hunger (Goal 1); achieving universal primary education (Goal 2); promoting gender equality and empowering women (Goal 3); reducing child mortality (Goal 4); improving maternal health (Goal 5); combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases (Goal 6); ensuring environmental sustainability (Goal 7). A quick glance at the progress in fulfilling the MDGs in Asia and Pacific region reveals that the progress is mixed. The progress is very good, modest, slow and poor for different goals in different countries. Achieving the goals fully is not possible because of insufficient public spending, increasing debt burdens of low-income countries, inadequate market access provided by the developed countries and declining trend of official development assistance.

The progress in goal 1, the target of halving the proportion of people whose income is less than one dollar a day, is very good. Target 2, to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger, is modest. The progress is slow in goal 2. The target to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education under goal 3 is good. The progress in goal 5, reducing by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio, is poor. These indicate that none of MDGs are likely to be fully achieved at the current rate of progress.

The progress of meeting the income poverty target is quite striking in the region. For instance,

poverty incidence based on national poverty line has declined from 38 to 28 per cent over the last 12-year period. South Asia as a whole appears to be on track to meet the MDG target of halving income poverty by 2015. However, hunger indicators have been mixed in the sense that the proportion of low-weight children in South Asia fell from 64.1 to 48.4 per cent but proportion of population below minimum level of dietary energy consumption, a nutritional indicator, fell more modestly from 26.6 to 22.8 per cent, necessitating greater efforts. The progress in the second goal to achieve universal primary education is moderate. Net primary enrolment for the region as a whole has increased from 73 to 82 per cent. Exact assessment is difficult due to lack of adequate enrolment data.

Regarding the third goal, a steady reduction of gender disparities in primary, secondary and tertiary education has been observed in all SAARC countries. On the empowerment indicators,

women’s participation in non-agricultural employment is around 20 per cent and in terms of gender equality, the women occupy less than 10 per cent seats in the legislative arena, which is not very encouraging. The fourth MDG is to reduce child mortality. There has been steep percentage decline in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal compared to relatively higher 1990 levels. Sri Lanka has the lowest child mortality rate in the region. For SAARC countries as a whole, the rate of reduction has been about 27 per cent during last 12 years. Therefore, the region as a whole needs greater effort to meet the target of reducing, by two-thirds, the under-five mortality rate.

Improving maternal health is the fifth goal. No reliable data exists to assess this area. There is greater degree of divergence from a mortality rate of less than 100 per 100,000 women giving birth in Sri Lanka to a mortality rate of more than 700 in Nepal. It has been found that in South Asia still more than 60 per cent of women give birth without the assistance of skilled attendants. This is a great challenge that South Asia will be facing in future. For the sixth MDG goal, to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, the region lacks sufficient statistical information, especially on the spread of HIV/AIDS. Malaria and tuberculosis have already been posing health challenges. This area also needs a regional perspective to develop a scientific system of maintaining inter-country data.

Ensuring environmental sustainability is the seventh MDG. This area also does not have sufficient reliable data. Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been losing their forest cover while Bangladesh, Bhutan and India are doing good to reverse forest loss. Under this seventh MDG, access to safe drinking water for the region as a whole increased from 72 to 84 per cent in the 1990s. Bangladesh and the Maldives have achieved near universal access. The region, however, suffers badly from arsenic contamination and the progress on sanitation remains inadequate with nearly two-thirds of the region’s population not having access to improved sanitation services. Looking at the current trend in South Asia, meeting MDG target in education and health does not seem possible. Encouraging progress means to halve income poverty and child mortality. Greater efforts and increased regional cooperation can help achieve significant progress in meeting a significant number of targets in the region.

Professor Pyakuryal is president, Nepal Economic Association