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LAC region faces stiff challenges to achieve the MDGs

By Odeen Ishmael

Guyana Journal, October 2010

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were the center of attention when world leaders gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York on September 20-21 to assess their nation's success in eradicating global poverty.

The summit focused on setting a series of quantified, time-bound targets for addressing extreme poverty, hunger and disease, and for promoting gender equality, education and environmental sustainability. As a result, leaders of the developed world made additional financial pledges to developing countries to help them achieve these targets within the next five years. However, only time will tell if these pledges will fully materialize since many previous pledges of assistance since the ground-breaking Monterrey Summit of 2002 still remain unfulfilled.

The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), for their part, have made significant progress towards meeting the targets set by the MDGs. However, the recent global crisis has cast doubts about the possibility of achieving all of them by 2015, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), which in July 2010, reported on the progress and challenges of achieving the MDGs.

ECLAC indicated that much of the progress made by the region as a whole in advancing towards the MDGs, particularly with regard to reducing extreme poverty, took place between 2002 and 2008, the six-year period before the advent of the global economic crisis. During that time, LAC had relatively high growth rates, with several countries improving income distribution, and raising per capita social public expenditures. A few governments were also able to avoid the economic shocks by applying macro-economic policies that eased the heavier impact of the crisis.

Despite the crisis, some countries have attained several of their annual targets, but many others will experience difficulties in achieving them if they continue at their current rate of economic progress.

According to ECLAC, the LAC region has progressed 85 percent in reaching the goal of halving extreme poverty (MDG 1) and if it continues at this rate it could achieve this objective by 2015. Brazil, Chile and Guyana, for example, already have, while some others are moving quickly in that direction. Even so, poverty still remains greater in rural areas as well as among children, women, indigenous peoples, and Afro-descendants in Ibero-American nations.

In education (MDG 2), the region has progressed significantly in terms of access while some, such as Guyana and other English-speaking Caribbean countries have already attained the objective of providing primary school education. But while most LAC countries have student registration rates close to or over 90 percent, similar to developed countries, they still have much to do to improve the quality of education, particularly at the secondary school level.

In Ibero-American countries, the quality of education remains problematic, and another ECLAC report of September this year emphasized that these countries should increase their annual education budget by 0.1 percent of GDP in order to finance programs to achieve their own education goals set for 2021.

This report states that some of these countries will have insufficient funds to fulfill their education goals if they maintain only their current public spending on education, which stands at an average of 5.1 percent of GDP. In these cases, additional sources of financing may be explored, both domestic and external, for general use or geared at specific goals.

With regard to gender equality (MDG 3), the gaps with regard to women have diminished over the past 15 years, but the rate of progress remains relatively slow.

In relation to achievements in health, (stipulated in MDGs 4, 5 and 6), the health conditions of the population have no doubt improved, but the progress is still insufficient. At the present rate, it is feared that only a third of LAC countries may be able to meet the goal of reducing infant mortality by 50 percent.

On environmental sustainability (MDG 7), the use of ozone-depleting substances has decreased, the surface of protected areas has increased over the past decade and the availability of potable water and sanitation services has improved. However, some Latin American countries still have some of the highest deforestation rates in the world while carbon dioxide emissions continue to grow. Significantly, a few countries, notably Ecuador and Guyana, are developing national policies to protect their rain forests and are appealing to the developed world to partner them financially in implementing these programs.

Regarding MDG 8, which encourages a global partnership for development, the region made significant progress in its international trade between 2005 and 2009, although the international crisis caused its exports to drop drastically.

But LAC exports are expected to grow by 21.4 percent in 2010 as a result of South American sales of primary materials, as estimated by a most recent ECLAC study on “Latin America and the Caribbean in the World Economy 2009-2010”. Purchases will be from Asia, particularly China, while the United States will normalize its demand for these products.

However, this study notes the significant differences within the region. Growth has been much greater in countries that export natural resources (agricultural, livestock and mining products), namely, South American nations, while it has been slower in countries that import basic commodities and depend on tourism and remittances, such as Central American and the Caricom economies. Nevertheless, the Caricom economies should see an upswing, and their exports are expected to increase from negative 43.6 percent in 2009 to 23.7 percent in 2010.

The point must be emphasized that regarding Official Development Assistance (ODA), donor countries have yet to mobilize the necessary financial resources to propel advances towards the achievement of the MDGs. In reality, ODA for LAC actually fell from 9 percent in the 1990s to 7 percent in 2008 while current ODA levels are far below the target established in the Monterrey Summit, i.e., 0.7 percent of gross income of donor countries. If this assistance continues to fall short, it will certainly present difficulties to the LAC region in their efforts to meet all the MDGs set eight years ago.

Caracas, 30 September 2010

The writer is Guyana's Ambassador to Venezuela and is currently the Chairman of the Latin American Council of the Latin American and Caribbean Economic System (SELA). The views expressed are solely his.