The MDGs and the current MDG summit in New York have received mixed press in the UK during the past week. A series of articles in the Independent on Monday summed things up. Some experts were quoted as suggesting that the importance of aid is exaggerated or that the MDGs measure the wrong things and should be scrapped. But others, such as economist Jeffrey Sachs -one of the original architects of the MDGs – continue to insist they remain important and that it’s the developed world’s government’s failure to move quickly enough towards the pledge of 0.7% of GDP for international assistance that’s the problem.
Personally I think the MDGs broadly represent a sensible set of initial goals for actions on poverty reduction. I also think that it’s pretty amazing that the political will was created 15 years ago to get 189 countries signed up to them. And I like the idea that, having agreed them they are not then forgotten but that, at this summit, progress against them is being reviewed, forcing governments to face up to the fact that, although we have made progress in some areas, for Africa in particular, there is a lot left to do.
One issue that never made it into the original MDG definitions and targets was the issue of energy poverty in the developing world. Access to clean and modern sources of energy are pre-requisites for achieving all of the MDG’s, so it is disappointing that this has never been recognised within the targets. Currently 1.4 billion people in the world still have no access to electricity and 2.7 billion (almost half the world’s population) still cook over open fires. Apart from the physical burden this imposes in terms of fuel collection, the wasted time, and the environmental burden of the inefficient burning of wood as fuel, there is a huge, but unrecognised, burden on health arising from this situation. 1.4 million people (mostly women and children) die each year from the effects of inhaling smoke from traditional cooking stoves in the home; that’s 50% more than the number who die from malaria each year!
So while much of the press comment and public debate on the MDG summit remains mixed or cynical, I was very pleased to be invited by UNDP to a dinner yesterday at which the UN Secretary General lent his weight to the call for establishing a new target for universal energy access by 2030 and raising the possibility that 2012 will be declared the UN year for ending energy poverty. There has been a clear effort by UN officials to squeeze the energy issue into as many debates as possible across the summit. I attended a side event hosted by the Danish Government today, at which the President of Liberia, the Prime Minister of Tanzania, the Prime Minister of Denmark and the President of the African Development Bank, amongst others spoke. The event was supposed to be a debate around the relationship between economic growth and the achievement of the MDG’s, but even there a number of references were made to the fact that ‘adequate, reliable and equitable access to energy’ has to be a priority if the MDG’s are to be met.
Better still, yesterday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the US government has put its weight (and $50 million) behind a new ‘Global alliance for clean cooking stoves’ which aims to ensure that 100 million homes adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020. I’ll be finishing off my stay in New York by attending a launch event for this alliance, and seeing how Practical Action might itself become involved, tomorrow evening.
There’s a lot left to do to ensure that the MDG’s are achieved, and no-one should underestimate the change that’s necessary to create the momentum needed to finish the job. But I will leave New York on Thursday night feeling that one part of the change necessary – the recognition of the critical role energy access plays in fighting poverty – is beginning to get due recognition; something Practical Action has been fighting for for a long time.