By Tim Ledwith
NEW YORK, USA, 20 September 2010 – The United Nations High-level Plenary Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals – the MDGs – kicked off today in New York with side events highlighting the goals on education and child survival. Discussions echoed the key conclusion of UNICEF’s recent ‘Progress for Children’ report: that an equity-based approach, targeting the poorest of the poor, offers the best hope of achieving the MDGs by their 2015 target date.
The day began with a distinguished panel on MDG 2, which calls for achieving universal primary education. The panel was organized by the Global Campaign for Education, which has just released a report warning that poor countries are on the brink of an education crisis, with growth in access to education stalling.
In fact, chronic under-investment in education – despite promises from the international community – means that 69 million children are still out of school, according to the Global Campaign report.
Help for the hard-to-reach
To bridge the education gap, this morning’s panellists appealed to governments to make a top priority of investing in schools in the developing world. They stressed the central role of education as an indispensible human right that helps vulnerable families gain access to broader social, economic, political and cultural benefits.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, referring to the ‘Progress for Children’ findings, asserted that reaching the world’s poorest households is the surest way to get every child into primary school.
“We need to concentrate not just on the hardest-to-reach nations but the hardest-to-reach areas, because those are the areas of the greatest need. It’s more cost-effective to work in these areas because that is where the needs are greatest and the payoffs are greatest,” said Mr. Lake.
‘The issue of our generation’
Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan , UNICEF’s Eminent Advocate for Children, emphasized the far-reaching impact of access to schooling. “Education doesn’t just beat poverty. It beats disease. It beats inequality,” she said. “And for girls, education is nothing less than a life-saver from stigmatization, insecurity and violence. It’s the issue that cuts across all others…. It’s the issue of our generation.”
Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown also cited the historic challenge posed by MDG 2. “I am angry about the waste of opportunity and potential in education in so many parts of our world today,” he said. “But I am inspired by so many people who want to make possible in our generation, for the first time, the right of everyone to be able to go to school.”
In a move welcomed by her fellow panellists and other participants, World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala announced that the bank would allocate an additional $750 million over the next five years to countries that are lagging on their education goals.
But perhaps the event’s most poignant moment came when Nthabiseng Tshabalala, a 12-year-old girl from Soweto, South Africa, made a direct appeal to the assembled adult leaders. “Please help us, politicians,” she said. “You had the opportunity to go to school. Now you are here and meeting at the UN. Please make sure that 69 million children get the chance to go to school.”
Vaccines and immunization
The education side event was followed this afternoon by a panel on immunization against deadly childhood diseases. Expanding routine immunization of children under five will be critically important to the achievement of MDG 4, which aims to reduce child mortality by two-thirds compared to its 1990 level.
Hosted by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization – known as the GAVI Alliance – the panel addressed progress on immunization coverage and the challenges that remain, such as insufficient funding and weak national health systems.
Participants paid special attention to pneumonia and diarrhoea, which lead to about 40 per cent of child deaths annually. They noted that MDG 4 can be met only through accelerated prevention and community-based treatment programmes focused on these diseases.
‘The road to the MDGs’
“From where I stand, looking at the data, the road to the MDGs goes right through pneumonia and diarrhoea,” said panellist Orin S. Levine, who heads the International Vaccine Access Centre.
Executive Director Lake noted that UNICEF has pioneered efforts to treat children at risk in their own communities, using low-cost interventions such as oral rehydration salts, antibiotics and micro-nutrients.
GAVI Alliance Chief Executive Officer Julian Lob-Levyt explained that the alliance has made a high priority of introducing pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines where they are needed most over the next five years. While this effort moves forward in a range of developing countries, said Mr. Lob-Levyt, “we need to do a lot more in some of the poorest.”
Global action plan
The three-day MDG summit is being held as part of the 65th Session of the UN General Assembly. It is an opportunity for governments, UN agencies and other partners to review their progress to date on the development goals – and to adopt an accelerated action plan for the final, five-year push toward the MDG deadline.
The summit comes 10 years after 189 world leaders signed the UN Millennium Declaration, committing themselves to meet targets on extreme poverty, education, gender equality, child survival, maternal health, HIV/AIDS and other diseases, environmental sustainability and global partnerships for dev.
Chris Niles and Anja Baron contributed to this story.