From MDGs to SDGs: Well done, Sri Lanka, but mind the gaps!

This op-ed appeared in Daily Mirror broadsheet newspaper in Sri Lanka on 1 October 2015.

From MDGs to SDGs:

Well done, Sri Lanka — but mind the gaps!

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Over the weekend of September 25 – 27, the United Nations headquarters in New York hosted the Sustainable Development Summit 2015. It was a high-level segment of the 70th UN General Assembly that was attended by many world leaders including Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena.

Sustainable Development Summit 2015 Logo

Sustainable Development Summit 2015 Logo

The UN, which turns 70 this year, is once again rallying its member governments to a lofty vision and ambitious goal: to embark on new paths to improve the lives of people everywhere.

For this, the Summit adopted a new and improved global task-list called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Prepared after two years of worldwide consultations, the SDGs offer a blueprint for development until 2030.

There are 17 SDGs tackling long-standing problems like ending poverty and reducing inequality to relatively newer challenges like creating more liveable cities and tackling climate change. These are broken down into 169 specific targets. Their implementation will formally begin on 1 January 2016.

SDGs in a nutshell - courtesy UN

SDGs in a nutshell – courtesy UN

The SDGs are to take over from the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, that have guided the development sector for 15 years. Sri Lanka was among the 189 countries that adopted the MDGs at the Millennium Summit the UN hosted in New York in September 2000. On that occasion, the country was represented by Lakshman Kadirgamar as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The eight MDGs covered a broad spectrum of goals, from eradicating absolute poverty and hunger to combating HIV, and from ensuring all children attend primary school to saving mothers from dying during pregnancy and childbirth.

Much has happened in the nearly 5,500 days separating the adoption of the original MDGs and now, the successor SDGs. This month, as the world commits to ‘leaving no one behind’ (as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said), it is useful to look back, briefly.

Good ‘Report Card’

How has Sri Lanka pursued the MDGs while the country coped with a long drawn civil war, political change, and the fall-out of a global economic recession?

In fact, it has done reasonably well. In its human development efforts, Sri Lanka has quietly achieved a great deal. However, there are gaps that need attention, and some goals not yet met.

That is also the overall message in a recent report that took stock of Sri Lanka’s pursuit of Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.

Sri Lanka MDG Country Report 2014

Sri Lanka MDG Country Report 2014

We might sum it up with a phrase that teachers are fond of using, even on good students: “You’re doing well – but can do better! Try harder!”

For the past 15 years, the MDGs have provided a framework for Sri Lanka’s national development programmes. Progress has been assessed every few years: the most recent ‘report card’ came out in March 2015.

The MDG Country Report 2014, prepared by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), is a joint publication by the Government of Sri Lanka and the United Nations in Sri Lanka. Data from the 2012 census and Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2012/13 have generated plenty of data to assess MDG situation across the country, including the war affected areas.

“Sri Lanka has already achieved the targets of 13 important MDG indicators out of 44 indicators relevant to Sri Lanka. Most of the other indicators are either ‘On Track’ or progressing well,” says IPS Executive Director Dr Saman Kelegama in his foreword to the report.

Highlights

 The report offers insights into how Sri Lanka’s ‘soft infrastructure’ — all the systems and institutions required to maintain the economic, health, cultural and social standards of a country – are faring.

Consider these highlights:

  • Sri Lanka’s overall income poverty rates, when measured using accepted statistical benchmarks, have come down from 2% in 2006/7 to 6.7% in 2012.
  • Unemployment rate has declined from 8% in 1993 to 3.9% in 2012. However, unemployment rate among women is twice as high as among men.
  • While food production keeps up with population growth, malnutrition is a concern. A fifth of all children under five are underweight. And half of all people still consume less than the minimum requirement of daily dietary energy.
  • Nearly all (99%) school going children enter primary school. At that stage, the numbers of boys and girls are equal. In secondary school and beyond (university), in fact, there now are more girls than boys.
  • More babies now survive their first year of life than ever before: infant mortality rate has come down to 9.4 among 1,000 live births (from 17.7 in 1991). Deaths among children under five have also been nearly halved (down from 2 in 1991 to 11.3 in 2009).
  • Fewer women die needlessly of complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth. The maternal mortality rate, which stood at 92 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990, plummeted to 33 by 2010. Doctors or skilled health workers are now present during almost all births.
  • Sri Lanka’s HIV infection levels have remained now, even though the number of cases is slowly increasing. Meanwhile, in a major public health triumph, the country has all but eradicated malaria: there have been no indigenous malaria cases since November 2012, and no malaria-related deaths since 2007.
  • More Lankans now have access to safe drinking water (up from 68% in 1990 to almost 90% in 2012-2013.)

These and other social development outcomes are the result of progressive policies that have been sustained for decades.

“Sri Lanka’s long history of investment in health, education and poverty alleviation programmes has translated into robust performance against the MDGs, and Sri Lanka has many lessons to share,” said Sri Lanka’s UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Subinay Nandy, at the report’s launch in March 2015.

Proportion of Lankans living below the poverty line - total head count and breakdown by district

Proportion of Lankans living below the poverty line – total head count and breakdown by district

Mind the Gaps!

Despite these results, many gaps and challenges remain that need closer attention and action in the coming years.

One key concern is how some impressive national level statistics can eclipse disparities at provincial and district levels. The MDG data analysis clearly shows that all parts of Sri Lanka have not progressed equally well.

For example, while most districts have already cut income poverty rates in half, there are some exceptions. These include eight districts in the Northern and Eastern provinces, for which reliable data are not available to compare with earlier years, and the Monaragala District in Uva Province – where poverty has, in fact, increased in the past few years.

Likewise, many human development indicators are lower in the plantation estate sector, where 4.4% of the population lives. An example: while at least 90% of people in urban and rural areas can access safe drinking water, the rate in the estate sector is 46.3%.

Another major concern: the gap between rich and poor remains despite economic growth. “Income inequality has not changed, although many poor people managed to move out of poverty and improve their living conditions,” the MDG Progress report says.

In Gender Equality, Sri Lanka’s performance is mixed. There is no male-female disparity in education, and in fact, there are more literate women in the 15 to 24 age than men. But “these achievements have not helped in increasing the share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector,” notes the report.

Disappointingly, women’s political participation is also very low. The last Parliament had 13 women members out of 225. That was 5.8% compared to the South Asian rate of 17.8% and global rate of 21.1%. The report has urged for “measures to encourage a substantial increase in the number of women in political offices”.

Of course, MDGs and human development are not just a numbers game. While measurable progress is important, quality matters too.

The MDG report highlights the urgent need to improve the quality and relevance of our public education. Among the policy measures needed are increasing opportunities for tertiary education, bridging the gap between education and employment, and reducing the skills mismatch in the labour market.

On the health front, too, there is unfinished – and never ending — business. Surveillance for infectious diseases cannot be relaxed. Even as malaria fades away, dengue has been spreading. Old diseases like tuberculosis (8,000 cases per year) stubbornly persist. A rise in non-communicable diseases – like heart attacks, stroke, cancers and asthma – poses a whole new set of public health challenges.

Sri Lanka offers the safest motherhood in South Asia

Sri Lanka offers the safest motherhood in South Asia

Open Development

So the ‘well-performing’ nation of Sri Lanka still has plenty to do. It is just as important to sustain progress already achieved.

The new and broader SDGs will provide guidance in this process, but each country must set its own priorities and have its own monitoring systems. The spread of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has created new sources of real-time data that can help keep track of progress, or lack of it, more easily and faster.

Whereas MDGs covered mostly “safe” themes like poverty, primary education and child deaths, the SDGs take on topics such as governance, institutions, human rights, inequality, ageing and peace. This reflects how much international debates have changed since the late 1990s when the MDGs were developed mostly by diplomats and technocrats.

This time around, not only governments and academics but advocacy groups and activists have also been involved in hundreds of physical and virtual consultations to agree on SDGs. In total, more than seven million people have contributed their views.

As the government of Sri Lanka pursues the SDGs that it has just committed to in New York, we the people expect a similar consultative process.

Goodbye, closed development. Welcome, Open Development!

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene wrote an earlier version of this for UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Sri Lanka’s new blog Kiyanna.lk. The views are his own, based on 25 years of development communication experience.

Equal numbers of girls and boys go to school in Sri Lanka today, But women struggle harder to find employment.

Equal numbers of girls and boys go to school in Sri Lanka today, But women struggle harder to find employment.

All infographics courtesy: Millennium Development Goals: Sri Lanka’s Progress and Key Achivements, http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/srilanka/?reports=10872

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Crossing the ‘Dev-Code’ Divide: Easier said than done?

Cartoon by Popa Matumula - Courtesy Cartoon Movement

Cartoon by Popa Matumula – Courtesy Cartoon Movement

“To garner public support for their causes, the development community must connect with rest of society using everyday phrases, metaphors and images. That is a far better strategy than expecting everyone to understand their gobbledygook.”

This is the central argument in my latest op-ed essay, just published on the Communication Initiative blog.

Titled Crossing the ‘Dev-Code’ Divide, I revisit a theme familiar to my regular readers: getting development pr0fessionals to communicate better.

Another excerpt:

“After working with technological ‘geeks’ and development workers for many years, I know they have at least one thing in common: their own peculiar languages that don’t make much sense to the rest of us.

“Talking in code is fine for peer-to-peer conversations. But it’s a nonstarter for engaging policy makers and the public.”

An example of coded language is the oft-bandied Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – lofty ideals, badly packaged.

This essay is a tribute to my mentor and former colleague Robert Lamb (1952 – 2012), who was a grandmaster in communicating development to public and policy audiences using simple language and powerful imagery.

Working with Robert for 15 years, I saw how he brought seemingly dreary development issues alive on TV and video – dominant media of his time — through simple and sincere story telling. He mixed inter-governmental processes with stark ground level realities. In three decades he produced or commissioned hundreds of international TV documentaries exploring what sustainable development meant in the real world.

Read the full essay: Crossing the ‘Dev-Code’ Divide

Republished in The Nation newspaper, Sri Lanka, 16 Feb 2014

Cartoon by Patrick Chapette

Cartoon by Patrick Chappatte, IHT

See also related blog posts:

November 2009: Satinder Bindra: It’s the message, stupid (and never mind the UN branding)!

July 2009: Asia’s Other Eclipse: The one that doesn’t make TV news!

March 2009: Mixing oil and water: Media’s challenges in covering human security

March 2009: Missing Mothers: How acronyms and jargon can kill innocent women

April 2007: MDG: A message from our spin doctors?

April 2007: Say MDG and smile, will ya?

Mano Wikramanayake (1951 – 2011): A Voice of Reason in Turbulent Times

Mano Wikramanayake (1951 - 2011): Image courtesy Commonwealth Broadcasting Association


We could always rely on Mano Wikramanayake to provide an incisive analysis of any given situation with a boyish grin on his face.

The senior Lankan broadcast manager, who died suddenly on 3 December 2011, was well informed and articulate without any intellectual or artistic pretensions so common in his industry. The one time cricketer turned avid golfer, he knew when to strike – with just enough force – and when to safeguard his wicket.

For over a decade, Mano was Senior Group Director of the Capital Maharaja Organisation and a Founder Director of the company’s electronic media operations, comprising three TV channels, four radio stations and three TV production houses in Sri Lanka. It is the closest the island nation has to an electronic media giant that is now extending also to the web.

Trained as a management accountant, Mano helped the Maharaja group to consolidate its pioneering ventures in privately owned radio and TV broadcasting. Media researchers and activists have faulted this liberalisation, which started in the early 1990s, as being imperfect, for example lacking a due process in the licensing. But one benefit is undeniable: it liberated us audiences from the tiresome state monopoly of the airwaves that had lasted for decades.

From the beginning, it was evident that the Maharaja group had a long time vision for their broadcasting ventures. In the early stages, they brought in Singaporean and Australian professionals but within a few years the company was run entirely by Lankans. Mano, in particular, groomed many young journalists, producers, technicians and business managers who shared his belief that a private broadcaster could do well while also doing good.

I cheered him every time he spoke out at national and international gatherings to broaden the traditionally narrow definition of public service broadcasting. In his book – and mine – PSB was not confined to state owned or public funded stations. Every channel transmitting on the public airwaves could serve the public interest, albeit in different ways.

Our paths crossed more often outside of Sri Lanka, at various regional and global media gatherings in Asia and Europe. He spoke at such events with authority, clarity and honesty. He chose his words carefully, but didn’t gloss over the thorny issues. While I tend to be cheeky and provocative – for example, calling former state monopoly broadcasters ‘Old Aunties Without Eyeballs’ – he was more circumspect. Yet he never berated Sri Lanka even at the worst of times, most notably when his main station came under a daring arson attack in early 2009.

If Mano was measured, sharp and articulate in his public remarks, he could still be jovial and easy-going in private conversation. We were regular (and vocal) participants at the annual Asia Media Summits organised by the Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD). Another regular Asian broadcaster once called him the ‘Lankan pragmatist’ while labelling me the ‘Lankan idealist’. To him, at least, Mano and I appeared to bat on from the opposite ends, but working to a common goal.

During Asia Media Summit 2006, Mano spoke at a plenary session on ‘Local Content for Global Audience: An uphill battle?’ that my organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, put together on behalf of the UN’s regional body, ESCAP. It explored the role of broadcasters in promoting the Millennium Development Goals that all countries have committed to achieving by 2015.

Mano Wikramanayake (second from left) at MDG and Local Content Plenary Session at Asia Media Summit 2006

Soon after he’d spoken, my colleague Manori Wijesekera good-naturedly challenged him to “put his money where his mouth was”. He readily agreed — and kept his word. Two years later, we co-produced with his station a TV debate series called Sri Lanka 2048 that explored pathways for creating a more sustainable island nation.

“This could be a forerunner to programmes which encourage public debate on issues that concern all of us,” he said when the series premiered in May 2008.

Mano was always ready to partner with development or charitable organisations on well-conceived projects, but he had no time for random do-gooders with vague ideas. He ensured that the Maharaja group’s considerable presence in the airwaves was put to good use in support of carefully selected educational, cultural and sporting endeavours.

Mano was equally sharp with numbers as he was with words. As a senior manager, he minded the financial bottomline of the companies under his charge. He also realised that the media business was very different from, say, marketing soft drinks or manufacturing PVC. His team bore witness to how ably he balanced the regulatory, political, journalistic and commercial interests while raising the bar for quality news, information and entertainment for his audiences.

In later years, he shared this vast experience with other developing country broadcasters, for example through training programmes and manuals for the AIBD, and the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) in which he was a leading light. From Afghanistan to Fiji, and from Barbados to South Africa, the voice of practical and pragmatic Mano Wikramanayake will be missed.

But he has energised a generation of broadcasters, and not just in Sri Lanka. In the evolutionary perspective, all of us are transmitters — we constantly pass on ideas, experience and values to our children, students, colleagues and others in our spheres of influence. Such transmission happens 24/7, in all directions and across generations. Some among us are better transmitters than others: they amplify and value-add before passing on.

Mano was one of the finest ‘transmitters’ in the broadcast business, and that is how I shall remember him. His “transmissions” will continue in the teams and establishments he leaves behind.