The Millennium Development Goals: A Check-up on Latin America’s Progress

By: COHA Research Associate Kelsey Strain

With much to deliberate since their last meeting in 2005, 140 leaders from across the globe came together in New York for the Assembly of the United Nations September 20th through September 23rd to discuss their Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The project, initiated in 2000, has committed 189 countries to eight specific goals to be realized by the year 2015. Leaders have pledged to cut extreme poverty and hunger by half, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health care, combat HIV and AIDS, ensure environmental stability, and build a global partnership for development. But the United Nations has already acknowledged a harsh reality: only one objective, halving the number of people who live in poverty, and a portion of the seventh goal, halving the number of people without drinkable water, are likely be met on a global scale.

Throughout the duration of the summit, UN member-states assessed what has been accomplished during the first decade, and what is still to be achieved, with the pressure of the 2015 deadline looming. Indeed, the MDGs have set the bar high for many nations around the world. But as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explained in the foreword to the Millennium Development Goals Report of 2010, “It is clear that improvements in the lives of the poor have been unacceptably slow, and some hard-won gains are being eroded by the climate, food and economic crises.”

Uneven Improvement in Latin America and the Caribbean

Latin America and the Caribbean are no exception to Ban Ki-moon’s statement, although in light of the improvements that have already been made, the region is expected to meet more objectives than other developing areas of the world. In reality, evaluating progress in the Western Hemisphere is proving to be especially difficult because there is such a broad range of economic situations. The UN’s annual MDG Report, which provided an official input at the summit, offers perhaps the most accurate evaluation of the world’s progress to date, containing the most recent data contributed by more than twenty-five UN and international agencies. With just minimal analysis, it becomes relatively obvious that some nations in the region have taken enormous steps forward in certain realms, while others have been held back for various reasons, resulting in very uneven progress overall.

Brazil and Chile, for example, have taken undeniably huge strides in halving the number of people who live on less than one dollar a day. Other nations such as Mexico and Costa Rica are well on their way, assuming they continue to advance at the same pace. In Venezuela, rates of extreme poverty were at 29.8 percent in 2003, but dropped to an all-time low of 7.2 percent by 2009. Peru has also made dramatic improvements, having cut poverty from 24 percent in 2002 to 11.5 percent in 2009. What is more, the region has nearly reached the target of halving the prevalence of underweight children by 2015, with the proportion of underweight children under five dropping from 11 percent in 1990 to 6 percent in 2008. But according to BBC, in Haiti, 57 percent of the population is considered poor, followed by Nicaragua at 40 percent, Bolivia, 38 percent, Honduras, 32 percent, and Guatemala, at 26 percent, making them the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere. Despite such evident disparity however, the UN claims that Latin America and the Caribbean are both expected to meet the objective by 2015. Moreover, the region appears to be on target for reducing child mortality and improving maternal health care, with a reduction from 52 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990, to just 23 in 2008. With respect to AIDS education, huge progress has also been made, especially in the Caribbean. In countries such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago, more women than ever are receiving education on HIV/AIDS prevention.

Notable improvements have also been made towards the empowerment of women and the promotion of gender equality, the goal being to eliminate disparity in primary and secondary education. For the first time, more girls than boys are enrolled in secondary education programs and higher education. Moreover, in the realm of politics, women now hold eight percent more seats in single or lower houses of parliament than in 1999. Bolivia accounted for much of this improvement; 40 percent of the nation’s upper house is now comprised of women. In the past two decades, twelve Latin American countries have passed various quota laws, requiring at least 20 to 40 percent of participants in national elections be female candidates. But the implementation of quotas has proven to be only mildly effective, and has served to merely patch up the issue. The total proportion of seats held by women in the entire region is still at a dismal 23 percent. Furthermore, only 32 percent of top jobs (i.e. positions of management or senior officials) are occupied by women. So while some components of the goal are being met, there is obviously much room for improvement in the realm of women’s empowerment.

Perhaps Latin America and the Caribbean’s most apparent deficiency is the feebleness of their efforts to reach the seventh goal, environmental sustainability. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the region is still far from achieving substantive and permanent advances in regard to sustainable development. “The structure of the economic model which, up to now, has not managed to overcome problems of poverty and marginality of the region, has not changed,” the commission reports. This can, in large part, be attributed to the extractive, export-based economies of natural resource exploitation characteristic of most of Latin America. Access to clean water, a component of the objective, has increased considerably, but there still exists an excessive gap between rural and urban areas, which is highly detrimental to the public health profile of the countries in question. While 93 percent of the region’s population now has access to improved water sources, only 80 percent of those living in rural areas have access, as opposed to the 97 percent in more developed urban areas. Additionally, access to sanitation is on the rise, but it is still not growing fast enough. 86 percent of people living in cities have improved access, in contrast to only 55 percent of the rural population. Despite the fact that the quantity of protected forest has risen, the region continues to have the highest rate of deforestation in the world, at 4 million hectares a year. For Latin America and the Caribbean, this is the most critical of the MDGs, because the realization of the other objectives relies so heavily on a sustainable environment. For instance, infrequent access to clean water and sanitation, both signs of poverty, cause other illnesses, which affect the fourth and fifth goals of reducing infant mortality and maternal death rates.

A Challenge for the Americas

On the last day of the summit, President Obama introduced the United States’ newest foreign aid plan for nations in turmoil. According to Christi Parsons and Paul Richter of the Los Angeles Times, Obama made one thing certain, “the days when your development was dictated in foreign capitals must come to an end.” Instead, the United States will help countries cultivate their own self-reliance, making it possible for “market forces to create a path out of poverty.” Rather than simply sweeping poverty under the rug, the United States will strive to dispose of it altogether by helping countries create conditions in which they no longer rely on foreign assistance. This will be accomplished primarily by rewarding nations who show voluntary efforts to make improvements for themselves. Obama made it clear that the United States will certainly continue to aid countries such as Haiti, who still require a great deal of special assistance. However, funding for most nations in Latin America and Eastern Europe will probably be reduced because they struggle considerably less than regions such as sub-Saharan Africa or southern Asia. Importantly, Obama’s plan is both ideologically “left” in diminishing Washington-centered development, but also “right” in relying more on free-market forces.

Latin American leaders exuded a shared optimism at the summit, with much to report on the progress that nations are making. Chile’s president, Sebastian Piñera, proposed the creation of a global alliance for development within the Latin American region, declaring that this century will be theirs. “We have to think of a new international relations model where regional entities are recognized,” declared Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patiño. Likewise, if Latin America is to meet all eight of the UN’s Millennium Goals, which is most certainly a real possibility, their governments will need to focus on formulating policies that would improve sustainable development. In the past decade, the region has statistically proven itself capable of making major, lasting improvements. As Piñera affirmed, “We count on vast and fertile territory, abundant natural resources, two brother languages, more and more strengthened democracies, the absence of wars and religious conflicts, and supportive and thriving people who are able to overcome whatever obstacle that nature has in store for us.” While the United Nations has reluctantly admitted that, overall, the majority of the goals will not be met by 2015, perhaps it is not too optimistic to say that Latin America may be an exception.