Amat Al Alim Alsoswa* - At the Millennium Summit in 2000, world leaders made an ambitious, but critical promise. They went beyond imprecise proclamations on the urgent need to fight poverty by signing up to a set of measurable commitments to actually improve the livelihoods of people around the world in a set time-frame. These promises became the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), not only a pledge by the global community but also a roadmap setting quantifiable targets in health, education, poverty, hunger, environment and gender equality.
On September 25th, world leaders will again gather, eight years later, to refocus on the MDGs and to see where the world can do more to reach them by their deadline of 2015. The Goals are achievable, but it will take concerted, creative and decisive action from the global community. That is precisely what Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is asking for at this High Level meeting from world leaders, north and south, to share their concrete plans and next steps to deliver on these commitments.
This is a critical moment as a slowing economy, high food and fuel prices and climate change threaten the progress already made. But we have seen improvement, examples all over the world where real change has already occurred; where countries facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles overcome them and the result is early achievement of the targets in question. More importantly behind the statistics, real people are being lifted from poverty and leading healthier, more productive lives.
In Syria’s northeast, home to 58 per cent of the country’s poor, the Jabal Al-Hoss region is on the frontline of poverty reduction efforts. Decreasing rainfall has meant sporadic access to water and frequent droughts. This has been devastating for the 157 villages and 250,000 people there who largely depend on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods.
Today, with partners, the UN Development Programme has established 32 small funding offices throughout the region, known as Village Development Funds to provide small loans. For the past eight years and with two million dollars, the funding offices have disbursed 12,000 loans, 43 per cent of them to women. This has helped create more than a thousand jobs and on average improved the income of beneficiaries by 20 per cent.
With a focus on local ownership, the beneficiaries are also fully engaged in how the Funds are run. Women have been included in all stages of the decision making process. To combat high levels of illiteracy, kindergartens were set-up and local women were trained as teachers. This integrated approach has literally changed the face of the community. Women are more fully involved in the day-to-day decisions that impact the lives of their families, average income in the region has gone up and is more equitably shared, and the region is benefitting from new health centres, literacy education and schools.
In Sudan, where estimates are that 80 per cent of the population is at risk of malaria, over 33 million dollars was secured from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Since 2005, targeting 11 northern states, free hospital care, treated mosquito nets, along with irrigation and insecticide projects has resulted in incidence rates in that region being down by a remarkable 30 per cent, with 52 per cent fewer people dying from the disease.
The latest demographic and health survey of the Upper and Lower Nile districts of Egypt showed that 96 per cent of women ever married were circumcised. A national programme has since reached 120 villages with a community-level campaign to raise awareness and train village advocates to speak out against female genital mutilation. Media, legal and medical personnel were targeted to lobby for a law criminalizing the act, and to mobilize frontline support for the campaign. Already we can see that incidence of female circumcision is declining in the region among young women and girls; aged 11-12 (51 per cent), aged 13-14 (69 per cent) and amongst 15-17-year-olds it is down to 77 per cent. In June of this year, a new law criminalizing female circumcision was passed providing a vital link between the advocacy work in the field and national legal and enforcement mechanisms.
In Bahrain, great strides forward have been made in ensuring women have equal access to education. In fact overall, more women are attending school than men. In 2005, there were 1.6 more females than males attending university. Kuwait is also doing well in terms of gender parity in education, but challenges still remain in breaking down traditional barriers to women's participation in the workforce and the political process. But in May 2005 there was a breakthrough when the National Assembly approved an historic amendment to the elections law, allowing women, for the first time ever in Kuwait, to vote and run for office.
So the Arab world has much to celebrate, but also much to do. With increasing global pressure that threaten to slow this progress down, now more than ever global dialogue must be converted to our most precious international currency – action.
The MDGs are achievable, but only if world leaders gathering in New York later this month fulfill their commitments and take positive and rapid steps to improve the situation for all people, regardless of where and who they are. And they are not alone. At this critical moment, a turning point in the campaign, the world is listening. Government leaders are being joined by hundreds of private sector CEOs, philanthropists and civil society leaders. All of us have a role to play as responsible citizens to call on governments to deliver on these promises and increase the intensity of our efforts over the next seven years to put an end to poverty – of health, of income, of education, of resources, of equality, of nutrition – in the Arab world and beyond.
* Amat Al Alim Alsoswa is Assistant Secretary-General, Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States - United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)