New Delhi: United Nations’ special ambassador for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for Asia and the Pacific, Erna Witoelar, is an Indonesian citizen. A former minister of human settlements and regional development in Indonesia, she is co-chair of the Earth Charter International Council and chairperson of an ADB review panel on its water-for-all policy.
Witoelar, who was in New Delhi recently, spoke to Mint on the experience of Asian countries in targeting MDGs and the urgent need to rework growth strategies to make them more inclusive. Edited excerpts:
At the mid-point of the deadline, what is your assessment of how various countries have performed in terms of achieving their MDGs?
It’s a mixed feeling. Some countries are really going seriously about what they call MDG-plus; countries such as Malaysia and Thailand are achieving their MDGs by 2010. But some countries such as India or Indonesia are behind in some goals. None of the countries have achieved all the goals. Goal 7 especially, which is environmental sustainability, is so hard to achieve. In water and sanitation, too, many countries are behind. Many are on track on reducing poverty, but not on hunger or malnutrition of children.
In Indonesia, malnutrition has increased because of wrong feeding patterns. These countries have to push harder. We have to constantly remind governments and everybody involved about achieving the goals. Malaysia, Thailand will achieve the MDGs in general. Vietnam has caught up very fast. Then there is the rest of us who will have to work hard, including China.
China’s progress in terms of the MDGs is supposed to have been spectacular. Do you think so?
China’s growth is fastest in the region, but the disparity is getting starker between (its) eastern and western parts. Their environmental cost is also very high. They didn’t do it the right way in the beginning.
United Nations’ special ambassador, Erna Witoelar
That is the case with almost all countries. The aggregate value is good, but if you compare the lowest and the highest on the list, the difference in incomes is great.
We would like governments to focus on pockets of poverty that have still not been reached, the people who are not yet included, the areas destroyed by overuse; concentrate on goals that have been left behind— sanitation, malnutrition, maternal mortality, polluted areas.
The rest of the country can grow on its own, but these pockets of deprivation need government resources.
The international poverty line (at $1.08 or Rs42.55), which is already too high for many countries, is being redrawn. Won’t it make the poverty goal more difficult to achieve?
No. The international line is just for comparison. The MDGs are not a United Nations (UN) goal, each country can make its own (goal). Some countries use nine years, instead of six years of schooling for the primary education goal. Some others use the $2 poverty line. So, more important is the country development goals.
In fact, we have nicknamed MDGs the minimum development goals. Even within the country, each state, province and district can have its own goals, its own deadlines, perhaps matching with the election time, for instance.
You mean instead of targeting, say 10% growth, a country should adopt the MDGs as its own development goals?
Yes. In Buddhist religion, for instance, they don’t have the term millennium. So Thailand has Thai development goals, Vietnam calls it Vietnam development goals. I am always asked what happens if a country does not achieve the MDGs even in 2015. I tell them there is no UN sanction if the countries don’t do it. The sanctions will come from their own people. They (the governments) will finish their term in disgrace and they will not be re-elected.
What do you think of India’s performance so far?
India is a mixture of good things and bad things, like most countries. India is doing well in education, in enrolment even if there are dropouts, in alternative energy, and so on. So, it deserves some praise. Then, like my country Indonesia, India is also having a lot of problem with malnutrition, child deaths, poverty, maternal mortality, sanitation. But the figures differ from state to state. It is very valid for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to expose the half-full glass, because that’s true. But I like to appreciate the half-full part and tell the country that it is possible to fill the glass if only they do things a bit differently.
Do you think there is something specific India needs to do to catch up?
I’d like the government to concentrate on the goals that are not reached yet and about which other people cannot do much. Allocate resources to say slums, border areas, coastal areas, etc. and create a conducive atmosphere for others—corporate sector, civil society, religious groups—to pitch in for the rest. None of the goals have been or can be achieved by government alone. When other people are involved, they start owning the goals, not the government alone. The more the synergy, the faster the goals can be achieved.
Because of high growth, countries such as India or China have to live with uneven developme-nt and rising inequ-ality. Doesn’t this make it even more difficult for them to achieve the MDGs?
That is always the case when we follow trickle-down theories. Grow first, “green” later, or “equity” later. But we have seen now that it is not possible. We need to engage in pro-poor growth, green growth, gender-equal growth. Environment, empowerment and gender considerations will make the growth balanced. More and more countries, China for instance, are now slowing down and doing it in a parallel way with a new awareness about climate change. On the contrary, if you get rid of poverty and improve the environment, growth is better.
Will achieving the MDGs prove very costly for the poor countries, especially since aid is slowing down, as (economist) Jeffrey Sachs has argued?
The developed countries must continue to fulfil their part of the promise and give aid. That is a must. But we don’t need to hinge our development on their aid. Achieving MDGs is possible with our own resources without outside help. But the aid is needed to catalyse development and make us move faster. These resources will help us get electricity and water, which will help us meet our goals of education or sanitation. It is our right. The developed countries have the obligation to share some of the profits they have taken in the past from us or from the environment.
We have a lot of people who are campaigning on this in developed countries. Like Sachs, but we don’t have to take his solution.
Achieving MDGs will not be easy. There are always constraints—new actors who are trying to slow down things, new people who see things from their own perspective. The developed countries have agreed that they will not dictate to the aid-receiving countries, but in practice, it is not always so. So, we need to take charge of our own development and tell them where to get off. That is where India is also strong with its nationalist attitude.
Do you need to pick a couple of new development goals, such as fighting terrorism and reducing corruption?
MDGs cannot be seen on their own. Not only education and food, for instance, but also electricity and water. So we link the goals with good governance. Many countries can achieve the goals if only they use their money effectively and get rid of corruption. We also link it with peace and security and human rights because you cannot have these if people go hungry.
In some parts of Indonesia or Myanmar where there is internal strife, we campaign for MDGs in a different way.Mongolia’s goal no. 9 is good governance and reduced corruption.