Women, children, poverty…
What's missing from the Millennium Development Goals programme?

Carolyn Moynihan
23 September 2010
Reproduced with Permission

As the UN summit on its Millennium Development Goals wound up this week the global face of poverty came into sharp focus, and it was female. That is how Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N.'s World Food Program saw it. "We know that the most powerful intervention we can do is ensure women have access to food so they can build a future for their children, for themselves and for their villages."

It was also the vision headlined by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, launching his Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health. "In many parts of the world, women have yet to benefit from advances that made childbirth much safer nearly 100 years ago," Ban said. "Millions of children die from malnutrition and disease which we have known how to treat for decades. These realities are simply unacceptable. The 21st century must be and will be different."

Associated Press reports that more than $40 billion in financial commitments by governments and nonprofit agencies were announced for the global strategy, which aims to save the lives of 16 million mothers and children over the next five years.

"You can count on the United States and the Obama administration for the success of this initiative," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Ban at the "Every Woman, Every Child" event.

Maternal and child mortality

Maternal and child survival/health cover just two of the eight MDGs but with five years to run of the 15-year global anti-poverty programme, these are goals that seem unlikely to be reached. According to a World Health Organisation Report, some 358,000 women died from treatable causes while giving birth in 2008 -- down from 546,000 in 1990 -- but the rate of progress is "less than half of what is needed" to reach the goal's target.

Diarrhoea, a Kenyan paediatrician points out, kills 1.5 million children under five each year, and yet the solutions are simple: increased access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation (called for under MDG 7) rotavirus vaccinations, oral rehydration therapy, exclusive breastfeeding, and zinc supplements.

Against a backdrop of scepticism that new pledges would be honoured by recession plagued richer countries, and calls for a shift of emphasis from aid to development, the UN needed something to shame governments into keeping up the momentum of the MDG programme, and the plight of so many women and children was the obvious choice.

Certainly the statistics are shameful, and there is no doubt that developing the health and other basic infrastructure which will save the lives of mothers and children will benefit whole communities and countries. These are absolute priorities.

But there comes a point in the rhetoric about women's and children's health where it begins to spin off into ideology. When Ms Sheeran of the World Food Programme wants to enable women to "build a future for their children, for themselves and for their villages"; when Hillary Clinton talks about "Every woman, every child"; and when former Chilean President Michele Bachelet, who will head the new, super-sized, US$500 million budget UN Women agency, chants slogans like "women's issues are human rights issues", one fears that something vital is being deliberately left out.

Where do men come in?

Isn't there something slightly worrying about a picture from which men are so notably absent?

It is true that women and children are particularly vulnerable to poverty -- women, because they are the ones who give birth, often lacking the most basic obstetric care, and because of their financial dependency; and children because of their physical immaturity and dependency.

It is also true, in a third world setting, that the man involved in begetting a child -- the husband and father -- can do little by himself about ensuring a safe delivery; that is dependent on healthcare and other infrastructure that is beyond his control. But before and after the birth he very definitely has a role in providing the necessities of life, including education, for his family. If only his upbringing, education and earning capacity equip him to do it.

This is something that the MDGs, and development programmes generally, fail to address. They seldom speak of husbands and fathers except in the context of "gender equity" where they loom as the perpetrators of inequality and violence. For the same reason, the family unit is ignored and the word "family" is hardly ever heard except in combination with "planning" -- in which case the context is not the family as such but women's rights and/or population policy.

In this connection it is not encouraging that during the UN summit Hillary Clinton announced a new alliance between USAID (the official US development agency), the UK, Australia and the Gates Foundation, which, reports the Guardian, "will focus on the dearth of family planning in developing countries". Access to contraception and abortion seems to be Clinton's idea of "maternal health".

What will happen in the long term if governments and aid agencies keep dealing with women and children as though they do not belong to families but are simply classes of people whose material and social status needs to improve?

Granted, there are serious obstacles to men in developing countries fulfilling their role in the family (as there are among the poor in developed countries also): lack of productive land or employment, sickness and disability, social conflict and wars, for a start. Traditional cultural attitudes can lead men to dominate their wives and withhold education from their daughters. On the other hand, global mass media culture can corrode good traditional values and undermine a man's fidelity to his wife and responsibility for his children.

Women, of course, are not perfect and have made their own contribution to family breakdown in the developing world, as elsewhere.

None of these difficulties -- or others that might be raised -- is a reason for giving up on men and the family unit. In fact, there are compelling reasons for building family "capacity" in developing countries, as current development-speak would have it.

Building family capacity

For one thing, the United Nations, its signatories and its agencies, are committed, by Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the recognition the family as the "natural and fundamental group unit of society … entitled to protection by society and the State". And this founding document is not talking about "families" consisting of women and children, but of families founded on marriage. Nor was Article 16 meant only for white middle class people living in rich countries; it is a fundamental principle for all societies.

Secondly, marriage is a wealth building institution, while single parenthood and marriage breakdown are major causes of poverty. This is true of the richer countries, as family scholars have repeatedly pointed out -- as recently as last week -- and developing countries that want to wipe out poverty should take note. Steps to strengthen families will deliver long-term dividends long after specific aid programmes have ended.

Thirdly, strong families will build democratic capacity. Committed, responsible parents will raise children with similar strengths and such families will be more resistant to extreme political agendas and corrupt government. This is important because corruption continues to divert and waste untold amounts of national budgets and aid money.

Most importantly, strong families are essential for the emotional health of children as well as their material security. It would be a sad mission to save children from death by diarrhoea only to deprive them of responsible and loving fathers.

If men in poverty-stricken countries are not up to their role, there needs to be an intensive effort to educate and support them in it. Partly this is a moral and spiritual task, one of those to which faith-based NGOs can make an important contribution -- as the Holy See's delegate to the summit hinted in his address. At government level, nothing could be more important to building the morale of men than shaping an economy that delivers decent jobs for them, and not only for women (see MDGs 1 and 3).

All the money in the world will not make up for social weaknesses. The terrible mortality rates of mothers and little children in developing countries urgently need to be reduced. But the ongoing health and wellbeing of women and children is intimately tied up with the family unit, and, whatever weakens that, also needs urgent attention.