Arab failure to hit poverty reduction targets 'unacceptable' says UN

Data indicates some countries may fail to meet Millennium Development Goals, in large part because of the global economic crisis.

Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, will have difficulty fulfilling its commitments against a backdrop of instability.
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NEW YORK // The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, tried to rally support behind a set of poverty-reduction targets yesterday, with recent statistics showing some Arab countries are expected to fail to sufficiently raise standards of health care, education and women's rights by the deadline. The South Korean diplomat said it "would be an unacceptable failure, moral and practical" to fall short of the so-called Millennium Development Goals before a summit on hunger and other global ills at UN headquarters in September.

World leaders agreed upon 15-year targets for combating hunger and disease, improving school enrolment and child health and expanding access to clean water at the Millennium Summit in September 2000. But, with only five years until the deadline, a new report, Keeping the Promise, warns that some targets could go unmet unless UN members work harder to tackle poverty against the backdrop of a global economic crisis.

"Our world possesses the knowledge and the resources" to achieve the millennium goals, Mr Ban writes in the report. "We must not fail the billions who look to the international community to fulfil the promise of the Millennium Declaration for a better world." Recent data on the development goals for the 14-nation Western Asia bloc revealed that poverty had increased in some Arab countries within the time span of the goals, with the number of poor quadrupling in the region to 11 million from three million between 1990 and 2005.

The percentage of those living on less than US$1.25 (Dh4.6) a day increased steadily to six per cent from two per cent in the same period; the proportion of hungry people grew within that period and showed no signs of decreasing between 2006 and 2008. The predominantly Arab region showed "particularly dismal" results on improving women's empowerment, with some of the world's lowest levels of female school attendance and poor prospects in politics and the job market. Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, will have difficulty reaching its poverty-reduction targets against a backdrop of political and economic instability.

The region recorded progress on access to safe drinking water and improving levels of sanitation, with 84 per cent of the population benefiting from better hygiene facilities, such as toilets and latrines, by 2006. The new report shows that even very poor countries have made great strides in advancing the eight development goals by producing more food, abolishing school fees and tackling such diseases as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/Aids.

Agricultural investment in Vietnam has helped halve the number of underweight children, to 13 per cent in 2005 from 28 per cent in 1991, the report said. Another example of success was Rwanda, where a majority of women (56 per cent) was elected to the lower chamber of parliament in 2008. Researchers say shortfalls in progress towards the millennial goals demonstrate a failure of leadership, blaming the "unmet commitments, inadequate resources and lack of focus and accountability" of governments.

The document echoes concerns raised by Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, a UN messenger of peace, and wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who in January urged leaders to get their "priorities straight" on the millennium goals. Quoting Sheikh Mohammed, Princess Haya said total military expenditure across the Middle East over the past 60 years amounted to more than $3 trillion, while Arab governments collectively spend one tenth of the amount their counterparts in the developed world provide for education.

The Millennium Development Goals meeting from September 20 to 22 is expected to attract key leaders, as it takes place before the annual UN General Assembly, which usually attracts dozens of heads of state from the world body's 192 members.