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