Monday, November 2, 2009

Things to do

Even the terms are daunting by themselves. When you mouth the words “millennium development goals” to the people they are specifically meant to help, all you will likely get are blank stares. And why not? These are big words.

They are still too big even for those who do understand multi-syllabic terms. The MDGs are associated with the United Nations, which brings to mind lofty aspirations—to some, only that —on a global scale.

In 2000, leaders representing members of the community of nations signed a pact to meet across-the-board minimum developmental requirements by the year 2015. There are eight of these goals. One, eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Two, achieve universal primary education. Three, promote gender equality and empower women. Four, reduce child mortality. Five, improve maternal health. Six, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Seven, ensure environmental sustainability. Eight, develop global partnership for environment. Measurable targets were set for each of these goals.

Nine years into the campaign—or six years away from reckoning, whichever way we prefer to look at it—are we even nearer to the goals?

We can’t, of course, speak for other countries but Dulce Marie Saret, advocacy specialist of the United Nations’ Millennium Campaign in the Philippines, can say much about what’s been going on hereabouts.

The first thing Saret will tell you is that we are NOT likely to achieve the most crucial of the goals,specifically the first (on poverty), the second (on primary education), the fifth (on maternal health) and the sixth (on HIV/AIDS and other diseases).

The numbers are depressing. Thirty-three percent of Filipinos live on less that $1 a day. About five-point-two million children are not in school. Eleven mothers die every day due to pregnancy-related causes. HIV cases among the youth nearly tripled from 41 in 2007 to 110 in 2008. And just last year, there were 1.8 million unplanned pregnancies, about one-third of which ended up in abortion.

A series of activities last month sought demand that the nation’s leaders deliver on the commitment to a better life for all. Through Stand United and Take Action Against Poverty, Filipinos scored the Guinness record anew for having the most number of participants taking part in a single event. In 2006, there were 2.1 million participants; in 2007, 7.2 million. In 2008, there were 35.2 million, roughly about the same number as this year. What’s the point of standing up? Maybe it’s because its the opposite of sitting down—what we are trying to tell our leaders is that we are not taking these dire situations sitting down.

Filipinos have always hankered for inclusion in the book of records, even for the most trivial and inconsequential of reasons. This is one exception. The question is, will the message get through, even after all the participants have taken their seats at the end of the day?

Saret admits that the activity has been criticized for this. Is it just an all-out campaign for a single day of activity, before and after which both people go back to their silent tolerance of their leaders’ lack of action? “This is why the agency is now making the MDGs an election issue,” she says. “We have just launched the I Vote for the MDGs campaign.”

There was a forum last Oct. 20 among presidential aspirants who shared their thoughts and answered questions on the development issues raised by the MDGs. The event was organized by the United Nations Development Program and the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines. Alas, only five presidential wannabes bothered showing up. Those who were absent may have reasons, of course, but it would have been good if they can get past the waving and the smiling and the unchallenged remarks and actually share the details of how they intend to make the lives of Filipinos better.

That’s really something we’d like to hear.

***

There will be another forum this month; this time, the focus will be on the environment.

Ondoy, Pepeng, Ramil and very recently, Santi reminded us that disasters set back development efforts big and small. Resources that should otherwise go into creating new opportunities go instead to rehabilitation of people, communities and infrastructure. Hence the already daunting task of improving the lives of millions is made more difficult. “If there is such a thing as ‘disaster-proofing’ the MDGs, we’d like to do that,” Saret says.

The event will coincide with final preparations for the start of the Copenhagen talks where world leaders would negotiate the successor treaty to the Kyoto protocol, which will expire in 2012. The Kyoto pact embodies countries’ commitment to capping their carbon emissions. But it has been deemed inadequate, especially since the United States, the second-largest emitter of carbon, has not ratified it yet.

Then again, one does not have to think on a global scale when talking about the environment. There are pressing issues here where we can actually do something not above our heads. We can discuss forest cover, garbage disposal, slum dwelling and access to potable water. These are the small but tangible ways people can be mobilized for the environment. These issues have become more urgent. Saret believes that because of first-hand experience, people will be more interested and more likely to exert pressure on their leaders to act.

***

The Millennium Campaign, Saret explains, is an agency of the United Nations but is quite unlike the other units that work with government. Instead, the campaign identifies more with civil society which demands that government leaders make good on their commitments to achieve the goals. The targets should be included in the planning of policies and programs, and the effects on people should be sustainable instead of instantaneous and short-term. The campaign is also working on bringing the MDGs to the local level. This way, programs will be easier to jump-start and the results easier to observe, document, and replicate.

But won’t the MDGs fall prey to the designs of politicians? Saret acknowledges that it cannot be avoided. In the end, all that matters is that a family is able to have decent meals,a child goes to school, a mother is able to deliver her baby safely. Let politicians promise a better life for their constituents. But let us badger them into making good on these promises.

Saret says her group has tried to think of other ways to communicate the essence of MDGs to the common man. “Mga Dapat Gawin (Things To Do)” is a pretty accurate shot. Coming right down to it, that’s really what the goals are—simply a list of things to do so more people will enjoy a better quality of life. Easy enough to comprehend? Then again, many things are, as they say, easier said than done.

adellechua@gmail.com

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