Transcript

Designing the Millennium Development Goals

Jan VandemoorteleJan Vandemoortele

Audio

You can also listen to the interview (MP3 11.8MB).

iTunes

Visit this channel at La Trobe on iTunesU.

Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host, Matt Smith, and I'm here with Dr. Jan Vandemoortele, who is in Melbourne to do a guest lecture at La Trobe University on the Millennium Development Goals of the UN. Thank you for joining me, Jan.

Jan Vandemoortele:

You're welcome.

Matt Smith:

I would like to ask you first, can you give me a bit of an explanation as to what the Millennium Development Goals are and what they hope to achieve?

Jan Vandemoortele:

They are simply a set of targets that all governments around the world have agreed to achieve in about five years from now, in 2015, and they relate to getting all children to school, making sure that no mother dies in childbirth, and that children survive their fifth birthday.

Matt Smith:

Now, are they worldwide goals that every country needs to achieve themselves or that they need to assist the entire world in achieving?

Jan Vandemoortele:

Yes. It's global goals. They need to be achieved collectively by all countries together. So of course Australia doesn't have to reduce much its health and education deficits, but Australia, like my own country, Belgium, is there to help the poorer countries with trade and with development assistance and debt relief so that they can achieve their health and education goals.

Those goals were agreed at the UN in New York in 2000, and they included 192 countries. So all the countries in the world subscribe to them, both rich and poor countries. So they apply to all countries.

The targets came out in 2000, but they were based on a series of world summits and international conferences that took place in the 1990s on various issues. We had the social summit in Copenhagen in 1995, we had the population summit in Cairo in '94, we had the children summit in '90, and each of them set specific goals for their sector.

But then in the year 2000, they kind of combined everything together into a master set. What are the key goals? And that is called today the Millennium Development Goals.

Matt Smith:

How is the progress, seeing they have 15 years to reach this target? Essentially, if you reach this target, you have in some ways solved the problems of the world, and isn't that kind of a lofty aim to get it done by 2015?

Jan Vandemoortele:

Not quite. Not quite. We are realistic here. We are not saying eradicating poverty by 2015, we are saying reducing it by half. So we still have a lot to do after 2015. The same with access to water. We are not aiming to have everybody having access to water by 2015. We want to reduce the number of people without access, again by half.

And it's a steady approach. We want all girls to be in primary school by 2015, but after that, there is secondary education. Very important as well. Then we want to improve the quality of education. So it's not that we will claim 'mission accomplished' in 2015. There is a lot of work to be beyond that.

Matt Smith:

What have you seen personally as far as countries moving towards meeting these goals? Is there any change that you have seen personally?

Jan Vandemoortele:

Yes. I have seen many concrete examples. I lived many years in Africa, about 20 years, in different countries in Africa, and my last posting was in Pakistan, where I was the UN top man. And they help mostly local communities, local politicians to crystallize what development is all about.

Because sometimes, development can be very abstract and even academic, but here we have a simple set of goals of making sure that all girls are in school. It's simple. Or reducing hunger by half. They are concrete, they are specific, they are intuitive to understand, and they help mobilize the partners around the table, both governments and donors but also the local actors on the ground.

In Uganda, the post office decided to issue a series of stamps on the Millennium Development Goals and they decided to get a competition going for the design and art competition in secondary schools, which was great.

So all the secondary schools in the country got mobilized to start illustrating and painting and drawing gender equality, because that's also one of the goals. Make sure that there is a balance between boys and girls in schools, that we have more female parliamentarians, etcetera. And so you had a whole movement for several months at the school level do 'How do I paint gender equality?'

And I'm sure that these boys and girls, when they went home at night and sat at the kitchen table, they must have discussed that with their parents and said, "Mom, how do I paint gender equality?" And there you have something that is bubbling in society.

I'm now back in Belgium. It's amazing how the Millennium Development Goals is being used by churches, by NGOs, by local politicians to mobilize interest in something called human development and world solidarity.

Matt Smith:

Has the global financial crisis affected the effectiveness of the Millennium Development Goals?

Jan Vandemoortele:

Yes and no. Probably because economic growth will be less in many of the countries, it is likely that the rich countries will start to cut on their development assistance. Global trade has been affected. So all this will have impact on the MDGs ultimately. How exactly this will be transmitted is very complex and it's not very clear, not even to the best economists in the world.

But we shouldn't be overly pessimistic. We do not need lots of money and a booming economy for every girl to go to school. This is not rocket science. This is not a very costly objective we are setting. So if there is political determination to get there, I don't think the financial crisis should offer any excuse for anybody in the world to say to any girl, "Sorry, you can't get into school this year because Wall Street messed up." This would be a very cheap excuse.

Matt Smith:

Most projects would benefit from somebody very motivated and very much a leader to lead the way. Have you had any unexpected leader stepping forward in different projects?

Jan Vandemoortele:

Yes. I think the private sector has been doing more than what we expected. I'm thinking also about the big private foundations and charities. The standard example, of course, is the Gates Foundation. These actors have really come forward and have played their role.

I don't know whether here in Australia you have the dairy brand Danone. It's a French brand. They make yogurts and things like that. They have come forward and they have established their own network of communities, mostly in Africa because the point there is of historic colonial link to many of the African countries. And they have played their part, and they are playing their part. So it's amazing.

The pharmaceutical industry against HIV and AIDS have come up to the plank and are offering, and today we see that a number of people who are treated with antiretrovirals is 10 times higher than five years ago. Is it enough? No. But at least we have a ten-folding case, and this is mostly by the private sector. So I would point towards the private sector actors and the big charities who have come up and supported this.

Matt Smith:

How did you first get involved in the MDGs? How did it fall in your lap?

Jan Vandemoortele:

It didn't fall in my lap, but it was one of those ideas that come to mind and you can't explain where they come from. But I'm going back to early 2001. I was then working for UN in New York. They had just completed the millennium summit where the governments had agreed on all sorts of things. It's all contained in a document, the Millennium Declaration.

And when summit like that takes place, everybody is talking about that document, and everybody mentions the document and the quotes from the document and the agreed text. But after six months, the shelf life of it tends to go away.

And I was having a coffee with close collaborators of Kofi Annan, the then-Secretary-General of the UN, and I said, "How can we make sure that this document, the core commitments that are in there, stay in the limelight? That they don't fade away and then we forget about them?"

And then came to us the idea of putting a group of people together, and we worked hard for six months. And what we did is extract from that Millennium Declaration, which is a very long document, those key commitments which we call today the MDGs.

And way beyond our wildest dreams has this thing caught on and stayed in the limelight. I'm surprised by it. Looking back, why is it that it has caught on so well? I believe two reasons.

They are intuitively easy to be understood by a general public. They passed the proverbial grandmother test. "Would my grandmother understand what I'm saying?" It's an important question to ask ourselves in everything we do.

And the second thing, they are quantitative. We actually can report on them. Every five years, we can go back and say, "Look, are we on track? Are we not on track?" And I think it's important to have that quantitative aspect of it.

Matt Smith:

In hindsight, it's been nearly 10 years since then. Is there anything that you would have decided different?

Jan Vandemoortele:

One issue that I would look at more carefully is the equity dimension. Because when we talk about those targets, they are averages. It's like, we take a country like Vietnam and we say, "Well, that percentage of girls is going to school. So many children under five are dying before their fifth birthday." These are valid indicators, but we have to dig deeper. And what we are seeing, that most countries are making progress and we are making good progress, so we should celebrate that.

But too much of the progress that is being made in the majority of countries is bypassing the very people who are most in need of it. So, the poorest. It's the bottom 20, 30, 40%, the most vulnerable, the most disadvantaged in all societies are not seeing much progress.

And somehow, we should have expressed those targets not for everybody, not for the middle class and the upper class, but we should have really focused those targets more on the equity because we are not performing so well.

Matt Smith:

Can you amend it?

Jan Vandemoortele:

Not for the time being. We should stay focused. Eyes on the ball. 2015. And we still can achieve a lot. Many things can change quickly.

But as we get closer to 2015, we will have to do a rethink and we have to issue the Version 2.0 of the MDGs, because we should keep targets. Targets are useful. And then we will have an opportunity to adjust and to simplify them, if possible, and to build in that equity dimension that I was just mentioning.

Matt Smith:

Do you think the goals will be met by 2015?

Jan Vandemoortele:

As we speak today, we are not meeting it. We are behind. We are making progress, but we are globally behind schedule.

It doesn't mean that we cannot meet it. For me, I am convinced it's not mission impossible. They are doable. They are affordable. But it will require one big thing: that in everything we do, we focus on the poor.

If we do that, the next five years can see miracles. And I'm saying that because there is one country in the world that is showing us, and it's Brazil. Brazil is probably not well-known to the Australian public, but Brazil over the past 10 years has been able to focus most of its progress on the people that were most vulnerable and most disadvantaged.

And it's amazing to see. And if Brazil can do it--Brazil, known to be a very unequal society--if Brazil can address its equity issue, then there's no excuse for China and for Vietnam and for the Philippines and PNG not to do it either.

Matt Smith:

Dr. Jan Vandemoortele, thank you for taking your time to be interviewed by me in this nice café...

Jan Vandemoortele:

Thank you.