Reaching the Millennium Development Goals – picking up the pace

An op-ed by Pratibha Mehta, UN Resident Coordinator in Viet Nam as published in Viet Nam Net on 5 April 2013.

I’m sure you can visualize the agony of a runner who enters the last lap of a race in the lead, but in sight of the finishing line relaxes the pace, only to see another runner pass him by.

As the Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon has reminded us this week, today marks 1,000 days to the deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. 13 years ago President of Viet Nam, Mr Tran Duc Luong was one of 189 World Leaders who gathered at the United Nations in New York to sign the Millennium Declaration, the springboard for setting eight aspirational but concrete goals. Together they pledged to cut global poverty and hunger by half, fight climate change and disease, tackle unsafe water and sanitation, expand education and open doors of opportunity for girls and women. 

Viet Nam is one of the countries where the Goals have made the most impact. Not only did the Vietnamese Government manage to halve the poverty rate in the nine years from 1993, they halved it again in the four years between 2002 and 2008. Vietnamese citizens must have felt proud when by 2010, the country was ranked 6th globally in terms of progress, both in absolute and relative terms.

Major gains have also been made in education, gender equality and child health. These impressive achievements are already having real and lasting impacts on people’s lives.

However, as we reach the last lap of this poverty reduction marathon, with only 1000 days to go, Viet Nam cannot afford to rest on its laurels. This is not a countdown moment – the Vietnamese Government must seize this opportunity to accelerate its efforts, and keep its eyes firmly fixed on the prize.

Although Viet Nam has made progress at the national level, not everyone is benefiting. There are major disparities and inequalities among different groups of people, and within different regions of the country. Let me give you a few examples.

On poverty and hunger, although there has been a drastic reduction in poverty overall, there are still problems with malnutrition. One third of Vietnamese children under-five are stunted and one-third of women and children are anemic, with most of these living in rural areas.

On child mortality, the excellent progress made has not been uniform across the country, and there are large disparities within regions. For example an ethnic minority child is three times more likely to die before his or her fifth birthday compared to a child from the Kinh majority. And some provinces have infant mortality rates five to six times higher than in more developed areas.

On maternal health, data shows that a mother in the 62 poorest districts in the country is five times more likely than the national average to die giving birth, and there are other examples of inequalities as well. On a recent visit to the mountainous northern province of Yen Bai, we met My. She told us that, pregnant at 15, she gave birth to her daughter at home with only the help of her husband. Like many other ethnic minority women, unable to read or write from never having been to school, she resumed her grueling farm work less than a month after delivery. She now carries her 18-month-old child on her back when she goes to work in the fields from dawn until dusk. My’s story reminds us of our unfinished agenda.

If we are to make sure that the MDGs are achieved in every village, city and province in Viet Nam, we still need to promote more sustainable, inclusive and equitable growth - growth that even the most vulnerable and marginalized in society can actively participate in, and benefit from.

So let’s use this 1,000-day milestone as a call to action to pick up the pace, and build on our success. Viet Nam’s experience proves that focused global development goals can make a profound difference.  They can mobilize, unite and inspire.

Whilst we’re not running a competitive race, we need to dig deep on our reserves of strength to make sure we can attend to our unfinished business. Success in the next 1,000 days will not only improve the lives of millions in Viet Nam, it will energize us all as we plan for beyond 2015, and help us face up to the daunting challenges of development that benefits everyone. 

Most of all we need to make sure that in the race to this crucial finishing line, no one gets left behind.

Pratibha Mehta is the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Viet Nam