How the Commonwealth Secretariat’s work addresses the Millennium Development Goals
In December 2006, Jeffrey Sachs, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), said that the year could end “on a note of optimism” because “we are a world that is rich in knowledge, science and technology and proven approaches to fighting poverty, hunger and disease and I think the world is going to get the job done.”
Professor Sachs noted that despite slow progress, there is now increased understanding on what it will take to accomplish the Goals, which were agreed by world leaders at the UN’s Millennium Summit in 2000. All of the Goals, which include providing universal primary education and promoting gender equality, were given a target date of 2015.
Since this target date was set, the Commonwealth Secretariat has been committed to achieving the MDGs.
At the 2003 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Abuja, Nigeria, the Aso Rock Declaration - which outlines a commitment to strengthen development and democracy - was introduced. It recognised that the MDGs “have mobilised governments, international institutions and civil society to reduce poverty with renewed vigour and commitment.”
The declaration, which includes a vision of the Commonwealth attaining the MDGs, is included in the Commonwealth’s Strategic Plan 2004/05 – 2007/8, which sets out two long term objectives for the Secretariat: to support member countries to prevent or resolve conflicts, strengthen democracy and the rule of law and achieve greater respect for human rights; and to support pro-poor policies for economic growth and sustainable development in member countries.
At an address to the UN assembly in September 2005, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon highlighted reasons why the Secretariat works towards the MDGs.
“One third of the Commonwealth’s 1.8 billion people live on less than one dollar a day. Almost two thirds of the world’s HIV/AIDS cases and maternal deaths take place in Commonwealth countries. More than half of the world’s 115 million children without education are to be found in the Commonwealth. That is why the Commonwealth not only has an interest in achieving the MDGs but also a responsibility to do so.”
Mr McKinnon argued that efforts must go beyond the “target of halving income poverty and reach the Goal - that is, the total eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.”
At the CHOGM in Valletta, Malta, two months after speaking to the UN assembly, Mr McKinnon re-emphasised the need for continued action to ensure the MDGs are met.
“If we are to meet these goals, eradicate poverty, bridge the digital divide, bring equality of opportunity and economic freedom to our 1.8 billion citizens, there is no time to rest.”
Efforts by the Secretariat include providing policy advice, consensus building and advocacy in Commonwealth countries, all of whom have committed themselves to achieving the Goals by 2015.
A Plan of Action for Youth Empowerment, drafted by the Secretariat’s Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP), focuses on a commitment to youth development as a part of the MDG effort. They introduced the Youth Credit Initiative, which provides business support, training and small loans to young men and women. Since the initiative was piloted in Zambia, India, Guyana and Solomon Islands it has been replicated in a further 12 countries.
In India over a thousand enterprises have now been set up; nearly one thousand people gained functional literacy and close to nine thousand attended health awareness camps and exhibitions. Gender equality, reading skills and improved knowledge of certain diseases are all targeted by this initiative.
The Secretariat also pioneered a programme which provides a method of funding gender equality, the fourth MDG. Gender Responsive Budgeting was launched in 1996 and has since been launched by 30 Commonwealth as well as 30 non-Commonwealth countries.
The initial purpose of introducing budgets is to qualify and quantify the impact of different elements of national expenditure for both men and women. The next stage ensures that resources are relocated where necessary to benefit both sexes. In India there are gender budget cells - focal points which co-ordinate gender budgeting initiatives within respective departments - in more than 50 Government Ministries and in Tanzania, the programme has prompted a number of gender-discriminatory laws to be reviewed.
Commonwealth countries collectively increased their total primary enrolment from 213 to 253 million between 1999 and 2004. However, 27 million primary school children in the Commonwealth’s 53 member states were out of school in 2004, which represents 35 per cent of the world’s total.
The Secretariat, in collaboration with the Association for the Development of Education in Africa and the World Bank, developed teacher training modules which aim to improve the quality of teaching mixed classes and help countries overcome shortages of teachers, especially in rural areas. To combat gender disparity in classrooms, the Secretariat has also developed a scorecard for tracking girls’ education.
These and other Secretariat projects aspire towards realising the MDGs and adhere to Nelson Mandela’s advice which Mr McKinnon quoted at the 8th Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting; “When the water starts boiling, it’s foolish to turn off the heat."