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UN anti-poverty goals a tall order for Mideast

The UN wants to end global poverty by 2030. Try doing that with Syria, Yemen and Libya in your region
Photo shows Stefan Schweinfest, director of the UN’s statistics unit (MEE/James Reinl)
NEW YORK, United States – As world leaders meet to adopt the UN’s new anti-poverty targets on Friday, Middle Eastern delegates will be acutely aware of how ambitious the goals are and how difficult they will be to achieve in their turbulent region.
 
The UN’s bid to wipe out poverty everywhere by 2030 is ambitious. In the Middle East, it is made doubly so by the chaos in Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Libya that causes death and destruction and has contributed to the global refugee crisis.
 
Abdallah Al Dardari, the deputy executive secretary of a Beirut-based UN commission known as the United Nations Economic and Social Commission (ESCWA), is one of those leading the charge for the UN’s so-called sustainable development goals (SDGs). A tough road lies ahead, he says.
 
“Our region is affected by war and conflict in unprecedented proportions,” he told Middle East Eye.
 
“The baseline from which we were supposed to start our journey towards 2030 has receded considerably, but that doesn’t deny the fact that the region has also demonstrated tremendous resilience and even shown economic signs of life at the worst of times.”
 
The SDGs will be adopted at the UN headquarters on Friday at the start of a three-day summit featuring some 160 world leaders including Pope Francis and the presidents of the US and China – Barack Obama and Xi Jinping.
 
Celebrities and tycoons from Mark Zuckerberg to Beyonce, Bill Gates, Shakira and Bono will help UN chief Ban Ki-moon launch the 17 goals, which are broken into 169 smaller targets that each participating country should aim to achieve, voluntarily, by 2030. 
 
It is a bold project. The first two goals call for ending hunger and poverty “in all its forms everywhere” within 15 years. By then, nobody in the UN’s 193 member states should be living on less than $1.25 per day, the UN’s threshold poverty figure.
 
The SDGs document, which was agreed last month after three years of negotiations, also lays out targets on women’s rights, reducing income inequality, improving hospitals and schools, utilising clean energy and stopping climate change.
 
Advocates of the SDGs say they can radically improve life for everyone on the planet. Critics say there are too many goals, that they are difficult to measure, and that the estimated $1-3 trillion they will cost each year is too much.
 
The new targets are a successor to the millennium development goals (MDGs) – the world body’s previous set of eight 15-year anti-poverty objectives that will be scrapped at the end of 2015 with a mixed scorecard.
 
UN officials call them the “most successful anti-poverty movement in history,” but their record in the Middle East is bothersome. 
 
The Middle East was on track to achieve most of its MDGs. But the protests that began in Tunisia in December 2010 lit the fuse on region-wide conflicts that have derailed many poverty-fighting projects across North Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula.
 
The region’s poverty rates fell from 5.3 percent in 1990 to 1.5 percent in 2011. But that figure started rising again and is expected to hit 2.6 percent in 2015 thanks to “war, civil unrest and a rapidly growing number of refugees” the UN says.
 
The “hunger reduction target remains distant for the region,” the UN adds. It is the only part of the world where the number of undernourished people has risen. Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict has had a “devastating impact” on the number of children going to school.
 
“The ground has shifted in a very dramatic way since 2011,” Al Dardari told MEE.
 
“Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the MDG situation in the region deteriorated dramatically. Syria was one of the top four performers in the region. Today, it is second only to Somalia. The same goes for Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.”
 
Of course, it is not all bad news on the MDGs. Nowadays, across parts of the Middle East, it is easier to find safe drinking water, fewer children die before their fifth birthdays, more girls go to school and more women are in parliaments.
 
Rewan Youssif works in sexual health for the Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS in Egypt, which has seen protests and occasional violence since 2011. For her, progress can be made towards the SDGs even when societies are shaken up.
 
“There is hope and we shouldn’t be pessimistic about the whole situation,” she told MEE. “If we focus on our priorities and take baby steps, in 15 years there are going to be evident huge differences between 2030 and 2015.”
 
There are naysayers too. Some point to the broader remit of the SDGs compared to the MDGs. The new UN goals include a call for ending corruption and providing “effective, accountable and transparent institutions” of government.
 
This is a tall order for some Middle East nations, which have reputations for graft and complexity and rank poorly on the World Bank’s index on governance.
 
Others point to SDG number five, a call to “end all forms of discrimination against all women”. While Middle Eastern countries have more women in schools, universities and parliaments nowadays – they still struggle in the job market.
 
Achieving the gender equality goal will involve re-writing law books, notably in the countries that discriminate against women when they drive, travel, give evidence in court or wish to pass citizenship on to their children.
 
Farah Mesmar, a Jordan-based policy officer for ActionAid, a global charity, worries that the SDGs are not legally binding, so a Middle East leader can show up for a photo opportunity in New York without intending to return home and build a model society.
 
“It’s basically a process of showing off,” she told MEE. “But even though it’s voluntary in nature, there is some pressure that can come from public shaming. If a country pledges to do something and doesn’t meet the target, then they can be judged for that.”
 
One final problem for the SDGs extends beyond the region and will impact their success globally – measurability. Number crunchers complain that it is hard to assess how much progress is achieved on goals because data are not always available.
 
According to Varad Pande and Molly Elgin-Cossart, researchers who have worked with the UN, more than 40 poor countries lack sufficient data to track performance on extreme poverty and hunger. Data on maternal mortality, malaria and tuberculosis have also proven to be weak.
 
Rather than simplify this problem, the SDGs require much more data than their predecessor goals. Stefan Schweinfest, director of the UN’s statistics unit, says gaps in data can be managed – but remain a real concern.
 
“For me, as a statistician, the worst outcome would be to get to 2030 and have to say ‘I don’t know,’” Schweinfest told MEE. “I'll have a lot of work in the next 15 years to try to get the data together.”