A United Nations conference is underway in Melbourne this week examining progress on the Millennium Development Goals.

Tamzin Byrne, a freelance journalist, reports:

Is the UN doing enough to improve global health? Chile’s Dr Claudio Schuftan, a health consultant who has worked in the world’s poorest communities, doesn’t think so.

He says the Millennium Development Goals are weak and that those people whose lives we seek to change are not being consulted. “Poverty will remain entrenched, even if the MDGs are achieved”.

With the People’s Health Movement, an alliance of grassroots agencies working to improve public health, he is calling for the world’s poor to reclaim their human rights.

This week’s United Nations conference has brought NGOs from around the world to Melbourne, to evaluate progress toward the Millennium Development Goals, eight targets to reduce poverty and improve health and education outcomes for the world’s poorest people. The MDGs are realistic – reduce poverty by half, halt the spread of AIDS and malaria, and get all primary-aged kids into school.

The UN has set a deadline of 2015. But, at this midpoint in the timeline, it’s looking like the world’s governments may not keep their promise.

The recent Millennium Development Goals Report, published by the UN, measures progress in graphs, statistics and averages. Dr Schuftan says that’s not good enough.

An ‘MDG skeptic’, he reckons that these national averages hide the true story. UN statistics don’t account for variations within a country, “Rich people don’t get malaria,” he says, “so they push the average up.”

Dr Schuftan goes further. “Why are you poor?” he asks his patients. “Do you really understand?” Using the language of revolution, he tells them to stop begging, and instead demand that their human rights be satisfied.

Dr Cathey Falvo, a paediatrician who has worked in Haiti, Vietnam and Nicaragua, defended the targets. “Nothing happens overnight, and unless you’re talking about an acute crisis like the floods in Pakistan… you really don’t want them to.”

Speaking at the same session, she made the case for incremental change and long-term thinking. She says that detailed planning and discussion, like that happening this week, is essential. It’s about the broader picture. “People are poor, what can we do about it?” She feels that these talks, lengthy though they are, will help the international aid community to break down this central question into a series of tangible actions.

But she agreed that the MDGs are not perfect. “To achieve half of anything is only a step…what are they going to do when they get to 2015?”

• Tamzin Byrne produces Panorama, the flagship current affairs show on SYN youth radio in Melbourne. She is coordinating a team of student journalists for the UN conference this week.

Previous stories on the conference:

Yoga for global health
From world poverty to the other extreme: “disease development”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey