The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank today warned that many developing countries will not be able to reach health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) unless clear actions are taken, starting now and with a concerted effort over the next 12 years. More worryingly still, the organizations noted that the health Goals are particularly difficult to meet and that progress towards them is slower than towards some other MDGs.
The eight MDGs were set at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000, where 189 countries committed to ambitious targets for improving the health and well-being of hundreds of millions of people in the developing world by 2015 . Four of the Goals relate to health: to reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters and child mortality by two-thirds, halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other infectious diseases, and improve access to safe drinking water and essential drugs.
"When these kinds of targets are set, it seems too soon to take urgent action, and then, after a few short years, it seems too late," said Dr LEE Jong-wook, Director-General of WHO. "Where the targets are the product of a large consensus there is also the hazard of everyone waiting for everyone else to risk making the first move. We still have time to avoid these pitfalls with the targets for 2015, but to do so we have to act now."
The World Bank estimates that progress against child mortality has so far been so slow that no sub-Saharan country in Africa is on target to reach that MDG. At the current pace in the developing world as a whole, only 16% of countries (representing 19% of the developing world’s population) are on track for this goal. Similarly, only 17% of developing countries are likely to meet the maternal mortality MDG; here, Latin America and the Caribbean are faring worst, with just 4.2% of countries on track to meet the target. In addition, only 40% of developing countries are on track to reach the malnutrition MDG.
"Even with general economic growth and faster progress on the non-health MDGs, many regions will still miss many of the health MDG targets. We need to look at measures such as committing increased resources to meeting the health-related MDGs, and using those resources more effectively in countries," said Mr James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank. “Donor harmonization in resource mobilization and use, strengthening human resources in the health sector and improving monitoring and evaluation, through the optic of a strong country and equity focus, will be particularly important.”
Lack of progress towards the health MDGs is likely to affect progress towards other MDGs, such as those concerned with education. Furthermore, for example, access to clean water and education for mothers are both key determinants of infant and child mortality rates. Coming together in a high-level meeting in Geneva on 8 and 9 January, some of the most influential people in the development field, including representatives from concerned countries, development agencies and UN organizations will assess progress so far towards meeting the health MDGs, and most importantly, map out what needs to be done if the world is to stand a realistic chance of reaching those goals.
The meeting will note that slow progress in health is particularly distressing as many of the "technologies" needed to improve health are available and affordable. The difficulty is getting them to people: in other words, building strong health systems in all countries. Lack of resources is a huge constraint but that it is not the only issue. Delivering quality health services in poor countries is a complex challenge, involving human resources, reliable health information and ensuring that the poorest people are reached. Countries providing aid need also to work together better - both to raise more money and to ensure that advice given to poor countries is consistent. All these issues will be discussed in detail during the meeting.
Recognizing the complexity of the health agenda, participants represent a broad group with differing perspectives: Ministers of Finance alongside Ministers of Health, donor agencies alongside recipient countries. The meeting will issue a final communiqué which is expected to identify critical actions - both at the country and international community levels - which will facilitate the scaling up of interventions aimed at reaching the MDGs.
For more on the Millennium Development Goals