'Millennium Goals: Vest monitoring with beneficiaries'

'Millennium Goals: Vest monitoring with beneficiaries'

The Inquirer

Salil Shetty

In an interview with Kavitha K of Deccan Herald, Shetty says that a national database with biometric authentication that is voluntary and can track delivery of basic MDG entitlements and services to the poor through the UID, could really enhance transparency and accountability.

What are the Millennium Development Goals?
The world leaders of 189 countries met at the largest gathering of its kind at the historic Millennium Summit in September 2000 at the UN to sign on to the Millennium Declaration and solemnly commit themselves to significantly reducing illiteracy, disease, environmental degradation and poverty by 2015. They promised to do this through a series of eight time-bound and clearly defined goals to be achieved over the 15 year time-frame, which were christened the Millennium Development Goals.

Is the world on course to meet these goals?
The latest official UN report on global performance against the goals was released just last month and in fact over the last nine years there has been significant progress in aggregate terms on most of the goals across virtually every region of the world. On the poverty goal, the average has been boosted because of the spectacular performance of China and the world is on track to achieve this goal. We have also made significant strides in putting children into primary school education, about 40 million kids are in primary school today. At least 2 million children’s lives have been saved due to improved immunisation services. And millions more people now have access to drinking water.

So, overall we can take some pride in what has been achieved. On the downside, we have seen little progress on reducing the rate of women dying during childbirth. On many of the goals like education and water, we know that the quality is still very poor. We also know that averages are misleading and this could be particularly problematic in highly unequal societies where excluded groups, including women, continue to get left out of realising the MDGs.

What brings you to India at this point in time?
Given that India accounts for a high proportion of the world’s poor, India’s performance has a direct bearing on the performance of the world as a whole. Next year ie 2010 is the second five year performance review of the MDGs at the Heads of State level at the UN.

India has been able to make important strides in poverty reduction, education, some health indices and water. But we know that there are still big challenges on reducing maternal mortality, hunger, child nutrition, sanitation, the quality of education, environment, etc.

So, what do you think India needs to do differently in the next six years to meet the MDGs?
Obviously, there is no easy answer to this question. Compared to even a decade ago, today the problem is less with the policies. India, at the national level, and in most of the states, has the right policies in place. Both at the Centre and the state level, the governments have a fair bit of financial resources at their command. So the problems lie mainly at the implementation and execution stage, mostly at the local level. Many state governments are unable to even spend the resources that they have. The delivery system is weak and the resources don’t reach the poor. A good case in point is the NREGA, where the scheme is fairly well designed and targeted on the poor, but getting this scheme to convert into real benefits for poor people is a gigantic challenge.

In my view, an important part of the solution is to localise the MDGs and vest much greater monitoring authority in the local people, particularly the intended beneficiaries ie the poor and excluded communities, particularly women. With the massive spread of mobile phones, radio and TV, we could really put this to good use. Sending an sms when a water point is not working cannot be that difficult but this can lead to action only if the government is open to some form of joint state-citizen tracking mechanism. I do believe that technology offers some new possibilities of increasing efficiency and fighting corruption and leakages.

Do you see any link between UID and MDGs?
Yes, Nandan was amongst the people I met and although its early days, I have no doubt that a national database with biometric authentication that is voluntary and can track delivery of basic MDG entitlements and services to the poor through the UID, could really enhance transparency and accountability. Of course, technology does not offer a magic bullet, but the potential is obvious, if we can harness it and link it with social mobilisation and the Right to Information at the local level.

How does it feel to be an Indian national leading this global campaign against poverty?
I have had the privilege of working extensively at the coalface, so to speak,in the two biggest poverty hotspots of the world ie South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa. Whilst there are big differences between different parts of the world, there are also striking similarities. I wake up every morning, feeling quite proud of many of India’s impressive achievements but exercised about how we can ensure that the benefits reach the bottom third of our country’s population.