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Eritrea’s Achievements in Health Related MDGs Advance Economic and Social Rights

By Sophia Tesfamariam

In addition to the celebrations on the United Nation’s 70th Anniversary since its founding, the most important agenda undertaken by member states at the UN this year was the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

They agreed to the next set of development goals, which seek to end poverty, achieve gender equality and ensure food security in every corner of the globe by 2030. Also included are plans to ensure access to water and sanitation, reduce economic inequality and take urgent action to fight climate change. The 17 SDGs contain 169 targets and will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire at the end of the year.

It should be recalled that it was at the Millennium Summit in September 2000 that world leaders adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and setting out a series of time-bound targets, with a deadline of 2015 that have become known as the Millennium Development Goals. The UN says:

“…The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the world’s time-bound and quantified targets for addressing extreme poverty in its many dimensions-income poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter, and exclusion-while promoting gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability. They are also basic human rights-the rights of each person on the planet to health, education, shelter, and security…”

Eritrea, a member state, is one of a handful of countries in sub-Saharan Africa that is on track to meet6of the 8 MDGs. Eritrea is on track to meet MDGs 2-7: Universal Primary Education, Gender Equality and Empowering Women, Reducing Child Mortality, Improvement of Maternal Health, Combating HIV/ AIDS, Malaria and other Disease and Ensuring Environmental Sustainability.Eritrea policies in education, health and development were geared towards advancing human development, human dignity and security.

On 29 September 2015, while the UN was celebrating its 70th Anniversary and touting the Millennium Development Goals, Sheila Keetharuth, a member of the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea (COIE) was giving a lecture at the African Studies Centre at University of Leidenin the Netherlands and insisting on undermining Eritrea’s achievements. The event was organized by an individual who is a member of anti-Eritrea groups closely associated the regime in Ethiopia.

It is also not the first time that the Special Rapporteur has participated in events sponsored by this individual. It should be recalled that despite calls by over 300 community organizations around the world who represent the vast majority of the Eritrean Diaspora, the Special Rapporteur has chosen to associate only with individuals and groups who have campaigned to strangulate Eritrea’s economic and political development for the last 17 years.

For those of us who have followed Eritrea’s nation building efforts, it was quite interesting to listen to Keetharuth speaking at an event organized by the very individuals and groups who worked for the last 15 years, to isolate Eritrea economically and politically, essentially denying the people of Eritrea the right to development, right to food security, and the right to live in peace within their own internationally recognized borders. The Rapporteur feigns concern for the economic and social rights of the Eritrean people, yet engages with those who have campaigned to deny the people of Eritrea development and humanitarian aid.

These individuals and groups are also closely associated with the minority regime in Ethiopia, the very regime which enabled her appointment. But, for brevity’s sake, let us take a look at the issue she chose to raise, as it will undoubtedly be developed and presented in the upcoming report of the COIE in New York.

Keetharuth began her lecture by telling her audience that she was addressing them as the “Special Rapporteur” and that she was not mandated to speak on behalf of the “Commission of Inquiry”-as if there was material difference. It was obvious from the beginning of her presentation that her next report would be to attack Eritrea’s progress in achieving economic and social rights. The Special Rapporteur seems to have a problem understanding the relationship between economic and social rights and poverty reduction and invited discussions on how to “assess the current situation regarding economic and social rights in the country”. Keetharuth said:

“..There is a certain discourse that is saying that…a narrative that is saying the country is on track that it is amongst the few countries that is on track and has reached MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) on health, reduction on maternal mortality, on malaria, education for example and at the same time, having done all this, I don’t see the impact on MDG 1, which was the reduction of poverty…”

MDG 1 according to the UN, seeks ‘‘to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger”. MDG1 is not only about reduction of poverty, but also about ending hunger-not sure why Keetharuth chose to omit that more important part of this goal. In any case, what would reducing poverty entail? Let us take a look at what the World Bank has to say about poverty reduction:

“…A meaningful path out of poverty requires a strong economy that produces jobs and good wages; a government that can provide schools, hospitals, roads, and energy; and healthy, well-nourished children who are the future human capital that will fuel economic growth…”

A deeper understanding of the nature of poverty and deprivation is required to appreciate the need for more directed interventions on the part of the state and other institutions to effectively address specific problems associated with poverty. Sheila Keetharuth needs a few lessons on poverty reduction, but more importantly, on the importance of social justice, access to education, health, food and equitable access to services regardless of locality, and improvement in the standard of living of all. Achieving the highest possible growth is not necessarily the same as achieving the highest possible poverty reduction. As the world is witnessing today, “double digit growth”, assuming the statistics are correct, has not translated to achievement of food security or poverty reduction in Ethiopia.

Eritrea is a young nation, only 24 and half years old, but has managed, despite all odds, to achieve what many older African and other states have failed to achieve. The government and people of Eritrea did not set out to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were introduced before Eritrea’s independence in 1991. According to UN Development Program:

“…The overall goal for the health system in Eritrea as articulated in the Health Sector Strategic Plan Development Plan (2013-2016)is the improvement of health status, general wellbeing, longevity and economic productivity for all Eritreans…Eritrea is one of the few countries expected to achieve the MDGs in health. Infant and child mortality rates have reduced dramatically; immunization coverage has increased sharply; malaria mortality and morbidity have plummeted; and HIV prevalence has almost halved in a very short period of time…”

In addition to sound government policies, participation of the population in the arduous nation building project has been the key to Eritrea’s successes, which have been misconstrued and misrepresented by Keetharuth and the COIE.

It does not require being a rocket scientist to understand the relationship between the health MDGs and poverty. According to the UNDP:

 “…The significance of the MDGs lies in the linkages between them: they are a mutually reinforcing framework to improve overall human development. In the comprehensive nature of the MDGs is the recognition that development is an intersectoral and interdependent process. For example, improved nutrition affects school completion rates. Improved education levels contribute to better health. Better health contributes to poverty reduction. Poverty reduction contributes to employment creation and wealth creation…”

Eritrea’s successes in meeting the MDGs on health will have significant impact in alleviating the disease burden on the nation. Eritrea’s achievement in the four health related MDGs which include eradicating Tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS is laudable and have a direct effect on mortality. Eritrea has reduced infant mortality and improved maternal health and as a result of all the achievements in the MDGs, the life expectancy and quality of life of Eritreans has increased significantly.

If the MDGs were not that important in improving the lives of millions around the world, why then did the UN and its partners invest so much in financial and human resources to advance the goals? Eritrea has achieved what few in Sub-Saharan Africa have been able to do with very little external assistance and despite the 13 year long Ethiopian occupation and the illegal and unjust US-Ethiopia engineered sanctions.

If Sheila Keetharuth wants to help the people of Eritrea achieve MDG1, she can start by calling for the unconditional removal of Ethiopian forces from sovereign Eritrean territories, including Badme and the immediate lifting of the illegal sanctions; as they are a violation of the rights of the Eritrean people to self-determination, development and security.

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