Amidst the noise and the sound bites, the political posturing and the delicate diplomacy in New York in late September at the annual session of the General Assembly, there were also nuggets of reflection and introspection about the future of the most vulnerable people. One discussion that dominated the conversation in the development circles was: where are we with regard to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? The MDGs were agreed upon by all 193 member states of the UN in 2000 to be achieved by 2015. The eight goals included eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality rates by two-thirds, reducing maternal mortality rates by three quarters, combating HIV, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development. The progress report that just came out paints a rather grim picture of the success of a number of developing countries, including Pakistan, not meeting most of these targets by 2015.
There are three points I want to make regarding the MDGs and Pakistan. First, there are areas which need particular attention. Maternal and child mortality in Pakistan is among the worst in the world and so are poverty and hunger. We may choose to believe otherwise but the data does not change regardless of who we blame for all our ills. If we are not at the very bottom, we are pretty close, and while progress is being made, it is at an extremely slow rate. Second, why aren’t we, as a society, taking these issues seriously? When was the last time we had a national outcry on the failings of the state to save mothers and babies from preventable causes? Frankly, I am not even sure if we as a society know that we rank among the bottom four countries of the world where maternal mortality rates are the highest.
Now, on to my third point. To me, the whole point of the MDGs is not to create one more aid or another loan mechanism. To me, the goal is for the nation to come together as a family and gather around a proverbial table to see how we can sort out these issues. Sustainable development is not a one-way street where the money comes from country A and goes into country B, without even reaching the most worthy. Instead, the whole purpose is for us to develop our talents, nurture our innovations and create an environment where we can continue to grow and meet the biggest challenges. Going back to the list of the goals — in particular, the ones where we fail more than others, I envision creating an incentive for our students and researchers to come together and develop our own affordable and sustainable innovations to close the gap in maternal and infant mortality and to increase access to healthcare. As I have argued before, the role of higher education and cross-disciplinary approaches cannot be overstated. When I envision an ecosystem where engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs and public health experts put their heads together to come up with national solutions for national problems, I am not imagining a utopian world but a place well within our reach.
Development is an incentive in itself; we do not need to sweeten the pot with any other goodies. If we are able to create a mechanism where our students and researchers are encouraged to reach beyond the disciplinary boundaries and break the silos, the MDGs or any other development targets may not be out of our reach.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 8th, 2012.