For a long time, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did not mean much to me. In my mind, they seemed like quasi-development goals that were a compromise after years of fighting for a development agenda at a global level. The MDGs did not go far enough in terms of making substantive inroads on poverty and inequality, and the South African context seemed to make them irrelevant. After all, we had our Constitution which committed our citizens and leaders to a far better standard of life than the MDGs could offer. I felt the MDGs were somewhat of a ‘tick-box’ or rubber stamping exercise, because South Africa would go so much further than what the MDGs set out to achieve.
Now, with six years to go until D-Day , it seems that I was missing the point. It is significant that, in 2000, 189 countries were able to act in unison after the United Nations (UN) Millennium Summit and agree on definitive goals to address poverty. Not only that, but the Millennium Summit, and the subsequent declaration, made development goals part of a global agenda with timelines (read deadlines) and committed resources by developed countries.
Given the various challenges in the face of true dignity of life in South Africa (including service delivery), the MDGs remain an important political reminder to our leaders of their development commitments. We have not gone nearly far enough to achieve the socio-economic rights defined by our Constitution. It is in this context that the MDGs are absolutely relevant.
The reach of the MDGs goes beyond the goals alone. They provide legitimacy to the development agenda in the countries that have adopted them. They are both time-bound and quantifiable, so countries will be measured on their performance using clear indicators and, theoretically, transparently. The MDGs are also a minimum development programme that it has been argued, can be achieved with the requisite amount of political will.
In line with a minimum development programme, the official UN monitoring site for the MDGs states that South Africa is well on its way to achieving the goals. The MDGs that are “very likely to be achieved and on track” include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, ensuring environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development. The MDGs that South Africa is not doing so well on, but are “possible to achieve if some changes are made” include reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and combating HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
However, despite our seemingly successful efforts towards achieving the goals, that the MDGs are meant to act as guideline and to be adapted to local contexts is often missed. Countries are free to contextualise the goals within their own development needs, and engagement with citizens in this process is recommended. Take Goal One - to halve the proportion of people whose income is less than one dollar a day -for example. Indications are that half of our population continues to live in poverty, despite our high calibre policy. South Africa appears to be lagging behind, as the MDGs have not yet been made context specific and continue to be engaged with only at a national level, mainly in government departments, and in rhetoric.
Critics of South Africa’s achievement of the MDGs point out that the process has been top down and has failed to take poor people into account. Ironically, although the MDGs concern those members of our society that are most affected by poverty, there has been very little real engagement with those experiencing poverty. An important question to ask is whether those living in poverty in South Africa feel that the MDGs are relevant to the daily challenges they experience and their needs. The global Stand Up and Take Action campaign has gone some way to address this top down approach to the MDGs by encouraging citizen’s voices and participation in the MDG process. In South Africa, questions that need to be asked, for instance, include whether individuals and communities would ask for the prioritisation of some goals over others? Or, would they include new goals that are not contained in the eight MDGs, as other countries such as Vietnam has done? Vietnam has included pro-poor infrastructure development, pro-poor governance and reducing vulnerability as additional goals. In fact, in 2005, the People’s Budget Campaign argued that a ninth goal to “ensure equitability and inclusion of people with disabilities within the mainstream society of South Africa” should be added to the MDGs in South Africa. This proposed goal has not been adopted by government.
Civil society engagement with the MDGs has also been limited to the periphery by the MDG process. The South Africa country report on the MDGs has not included civil society concerns about the achievement, or lack thereof, of the MDGs. In 2005, the People’s Budget Campaign argued that “... as civil society we have not been included in the preparation of our government’s country report...” despite the constitutional framework that promotes a participatory and consultative democracy. Such limitations have hindered the possibility of monitoring the progress of the goals by sectors of society that are closely connected to development issues on the ground.
The MDGs continue to be a reminder of deliverables and the development agenda. This is why they are important. Given the kinds of issues that South Africa continues to grapple with, the MDG process retains its relevance, if only for affected people to determine where the goals aren’t relevant and what would be more appropriate for development in their areas. One-hundred-and-sixteen- million people worldwide continue to see the relevance of the MDGs and, for this reason, they Stand Up and Take Action every year from 16 to 18 October.
The question from now on is how do we harness the chance to make the MDGs more meaningful for us in South Africa?
Karen Peters is the programmes team leader at the National Welfare Forum, that is leading the Stand Up Campaign in South Africa.