By Samya Kullab
While a new U.N. report shows the region making progress toward the 2015 Millennium Development Goals , an MDG expert warned Monday that the security situation in Lebanon threatens its ability to strategically plan for the deadline and beyond. “Lebanon is doing rather well in terms of the basic [requirements of the MDGs] however, if we want to achieve real development, we need a stronger state, stability and security so that we can have the proper economic environment and national social policies that can realize these goals,” Adib Nehmeh, the regional adviser for the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, told The Daily Star.
The MDGs, a set of eight development goals with 21 associated subtargets, were established following the U.N. Millennium Summit in 2000, most with a due date of 2015.
The pursuit of the goals has been met with criticism from scholars and development experts, who argue that progress has been uneven, not just between countries, but also the different communities within them.
An annual report released by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Geneva Monday outlined the progress made at the global level over meeting the goals, which include the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases, environmental sustainability and the advancement of a global development partnership.
“In some countries the goals are advancing more than in others,” said Nehmeh, who identified three persistent disparities – between the urban and rural divide, between men and women, and between rich and poor countries – as factors that serve to distort the findings.
Sharp regional disparities were also apparent. The global average demonstrated that the poverty target had been met, with the proportion of people living in extreme poverty was halved in the last 10 years.
However, regional numbers told a different story.
“If you look into the figures of northern Africa and western Asia, you will find that we didn’t progress in the same goals as in the global level,” Nehmeh explained.
“We didn’t improve in terms of poverty, the numbers have been stable since 1990.”
In Lebanon, specifically, huge economic disparities are evident.
Although national poverty levels dropped from 10 percent in 1995 to 8 percent in 2005, geographic disparities are persistent. For instance, poverty rates are around 6 percent in Beirut and skyrocket to 52 percent in Akkar and Tripoli, where 17 percent live in conditions of extreme poverty.
“With respect to unemployment rates, we have the highest,” said Nehmeh referring to regional statistics. Regarding decent employment, Lebanon reported low overall labor force participation, which was attributed to the low participation of women in economic activities, another MDG indicator that is lagging behind regionally and in the country.
Even in areas where Lebanon surpasses the global average in attaining goals, Nehmeh tempers the success with a qualitative appraisal, saying: “We didn’t adapt the MDGs to fit the national context.”
Using the Lebanon’s ostensible achievement in providing near-universal primary education as an example, he said, “It means nothing, because the problem is not that people don’t go to primary school in Lebanon, it’s that many drop out, especially in poor areas around the age of 14.”
Nehmeh’s qualification echoes widespread criticism that questions the value of the MDG target-based approach to international development, and suggests that its successor agenda rethink the approach.
Going forward in a new direction, Nehmeh maintained, requires shifting to an inclusive economic development system.
“I believe the main problem in achieving the MDGs is and will still be the restructuring of the global economy,” he said, adding that the social and environmental components of the MDGs hinge on this prerequisite.
Studies concerning the conditions of the poor in Lebanon find that economic aspects related to poverty, such as employment and housing, were more severe than the social aspects, such as health and education.
Taking this into consideration, Nehmeh said social economic policies were important, but required a stable security situation, a condition which festering sectarian and political tensions fueled by the neighboring Syrian conflict threatens to undermine.
“In Lebanon, it’s about having a state that can strategically plan for the next five years,” he said.
At the September 2010 MDG summit, steps toward a post-2015 agenda ere advanced and are currently underway, with inclusive consultations being held all over the world, including Lebanon, with the participation of civil society organizations, academics and think tanks.
According to Nehmeh, a preliminary draft of the new agenda, which has not been approved, has separated poverty, hunger and employment as separate goals, and combined the three health-focused goals into one category, as well as including peace, security and good governance as new targets.
Addressing the pervasive concerns that the current MDGs do not capture the elements needed to achieve the goals it intends to, suggestions were advanced in the past three years that the new agenda include adjusted measurements of progress.
These adjustments need to take into consideration inequalities, national context, and efforts exerted to meet objectives, “So that it’s not just about reaching a goal, but asks the question, did you improve the living conditions of the extremely poor,” Nehmeh said.
“Because you can decrease the average national poverty rate by improving the conditions of the middle class, but the MDGs are about the poorest of the poor.”