Govt-NGO Partnership, the Key to Millennium Goals?

Nov 24 2004

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Nov 24 (IPS) – Four years after it was launched, a global programme with a drab title – the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – is becoming a rallying cry for a broad spectrum of activists from across Asia and the Pacific.

The reason: commitments made by governments to achieve the MDGs have given rise to politically explosive issues. And this was admitted by members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) mid-way through a four-day meeting here this week.

The Bangkok gathering, which drew participants from over 100 local, national and international NGOs from 30 countries, brought to the surface the potential battle lines that could pit activists against governments in the pursuit of MDGs

They include areas such as how open governments will be to invite NGOs to become partners in achieving MDG targets. And, furthermore, the pressure the activists could assert on governments to let NGOs be part of the process in compiling the information for national MDG reports that each country has to complete by 2005.

Even the United Nations’ focal-point for MDGs in the Asia-Pacific region concedes that political tussles could emerge, since the task at hand demands more than what governments can deliver.

”Civil society groups and NGOs are the best to help governments get the message out about MDGs and to help them achieve the targets,” Erna Witoelar, U.N. Special Ambassador for the MDGs, told IPS. ”(This is) because NGOs know more about the poor than governments. They work with the poor, while governments only work for the poor.”

The significance of NGOs in the MDG campaign is gaining strength for other reasons, too. Among them is the lack of public awareness about the entire MDG mission across the globe four years after leaders of 189 countries endorsed this global campaign at a U.N. summit in 2000.

”The idea of the MDGs are only fixed in the minds of officials at the countries’ foreign ministries and among U.N. officials,” said Witoelar. ”The people for who it matters (most) are still unaware. But NGOs can help change that.”

Such ignorance about the MDGs was reflected at the Bangkok meeting — the 2nd Asian Civil Society Forum — when some among the 300 participants admitted not knowing the details of the eight-point agenda of this global campaign.

”That does not speak well of the MDG campaign, since the NGO community is often better informed of development issues than other people,” Boonthan Verawongse of the Bangkok-based Peace and Human Rights Resource Centre, said in an interview. ”This is the first time that the Asian Civil Society Forum is talking about the MDGs, and it is the first time that some groups here are learning about them.”

He argues that governments will find it difficult to achieve the targets set unless they work in tandem with NGOs. ”This is because NGOs work more closely with the people, the ones who are to benefit from the MDG campaign.”

In 2000, government leaders pledged to achieve eight ambitious goals by 2015. They included the promise to halve the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty and halve the number of global poor living in hunger.

They also pledged to ensure all girls and boys will have access to and complete a full course of primary education by the deadline, along with promoting gender equality and empowering women, reduce by two-thirds child mortality and improve maternal health.

With regard to the killer diseases HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, governments pledged that by 2015 to halt their spread and start reversing infection rates.

Protecting the environment and aid by the developed North to the developing South were also singled out in the MDG platform.

That Asia will serve as a key testing ground for the success of the MDGs is reflected in its massive population living in abject poverty. Currently close to 768 million of the world’s some 1.2 billion people who live in extreme poverty are in the Asia-Pacific region.

Governments need to accept contributions from NGOs about the actual picture of poverty and the profile of marginalised communities, said Witoelar, the U.N. envoy. ”They often have better information than governments about people who have not been touched by the fruits of development, like indigenous people or minorities.”

The MDG country reports that each government is expected to produce can also prove embarrassing, say activists, since the publications would reveal sections of a country’s population who are worst off than the rest due to poor national policies or discrimination.

”Disaggregated data which the national MDG reports are expected to have will expose the blatant discrimination some communities have suffered,” Sunila Abeysekera, director of INFORM, a Colombo-based human rights documentation centre, told IPS.

”The national report can become a political hot potato, because governments may not want the information NGOs have of an actual situation included or that NGOs can take governments to task for the discrimination revealed in the report,” she said.

If this week’s meeting is any indicator, the Asia-Pacific NGOs have a new mission on their hands: to force their way into the MDG process.

”Civil society has to reclaim the MDG campaign,” John Samuel, international director for the British-based development agency Action Aid, told the meeting. ”This is a chance to go to the people and mobilise” in order to ”challenge and transform (the MDGs) on the ground than in the U.N. corridors of power.” (END/2004)

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