Sometimes when we start a long journey, it can be hard to see how far we have gone. Towns begin to look the same, and the destination seems as far away as it did when we started. And without charting our progress, finding the motivation to continue is difficult.
Our journey towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the same. Our destination is far, and many of us are unsure of the progress we have made.
Last month, Bill and Melinda Gates co-authored the Goalkeepers Report, which maps out how far the world has come and how far it has to go. The report aims to encourage the world to stay the course and accelerate the progress on this long journey.
The report, which will be released every year until 2030, will track 18 SDG indicators including child and maternal deaths, stunting, access to contraceptives, HIV, malaria, extreme poverty, financial inclusion and water sanitation.
Encouragingly, the report finds that progress has been made. Since 1990, the proportion of the people living on less than 1.90 dollars has decreased from 35pc to nine percent. Reduced child mortality rates meant that 100 million children around the world were able to survive, dream and thrive.
This progress has been largely driven by strong leadership and commitment from governments, organisations, institutions and communities. Less than two decades ago, my country, Ethiopia, had some of the worst rates of child and maternal mortality in the world. In 2003, the Ethiopian government launched the Health Extension Programme to give people access to health information and services. Through the programme, 40,000 health extension workers were trained to provide basic, preventative health services in rural communities. Within eight years, child mortality was halved.
Simple innovations have also sparked progress on the SDGs. While Ethiopia had success in reducing child mortality, maternal health was not improving at the same rate. This was mainly due to women choosing to give birth at home where they did not have access to skilled midwives.
The government had learnt, through the Programme, that women were more likely to seek care at a health facility if they had received health information from people in their own community. This sparked the idea for a Women’s Development Army – an army of three million volunteers who talk to women about health issues over coffee, at a church or mosque. This personal, community-led dialogue broke down the barriers that made women wary about going to health facilities to give birth.
As a result, the number of women giving birth in health facilities has increased from 20pc to 70pc.
Other countries have similar success stories too. Tanzania has embarked on an ambitious health data initiative that aims to strengthen oversight of the health system and ensure resources are efficiently allocated to fight disease. This innovation – and commitment to change – has helped Tanzania achieve routine immunisation rates of more than 90pc. Considering 1.5 million children around the world will die from diseases that we can prevent with vaccines next year, Tanzania’s immunisation success will mean more children will be blowing out the candles on their fifth birthday.
Despite this progress, the report also found that we are at a critical point in our journey towards the SDGs. Our progress is in jeopardy, putting millions of lives at risk.
Uncertainty hangs over foreign aid budgets in many countries. In May, the United States (US) administration announced a possible cut of 19 billion dollars to its diplomatic and aid budgets. Programmes on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria are expected to feel these cuts the most, threatening a serious setback on our journey to achieving the SDGs.
Take HIV as an example; it was not that long ago that funerals for AIDs-related deaths occurred regularly. Through initiatives like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, more people can access products and services to reduce the rate of new infections and keep existing infections at bay. These initiatives are saving the lives of millions of people, with about 800,000 fewer people dying each year from AIDs-related illnesses. But this success is at risk; an additional 5.6 million people could die if funding for HIV treatment is cut by just 10pc.
Closer to home, many of our governments and communities could be doing more to prioritise the welfare of our poorest people. It is easy to stand by today and let governments make decisions that affect somebody else’s tomorrow. It is even easier when most of us lead happy, healthy lives and our closest connection to hunger and poverty is through social media.
But the SDGs are not numbers for a future destination; they are a reflection of the world we live in. They represent a mother in Ethiopia who can celebrate the birth of a healthy baby or the boy in Nigeria who can dream about playing football for his country because he did not die from a preventable disease. It also represents HIV-positive parents who know that thanks to medication, their children will not get infected.
The road to the SDGs is long, and it can be hard to see the progress we have made. But we are making progress, and with leadership, commitment and innovation, it is possible to give millions of people a better life.
Is that not a journey worth taking?
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