A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been prepared and submitted to the UN Secretary General last month by the UN Millennium Project, an independent advisory group commissioned to recommend strategies for meeting the MDGs. It was commissioned in preparation for the upcoming MDG + 5 review by the UN General Assembly in September 2005. The group was led by Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and comprised of 250 distinguished development scholars and practitioners, including Indonesia’s Mari Pangestu, who has since joined the Cabinet of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as Minister of Trade.

The MDGs were adopted by Heads of State and Government at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. They include reducing the proportion of people suffering from poverty and hunger by one half, from 1990 to 2015; achieving universal primary education; eliminating gender disparity; reducing child mortality by two thirds and maternal mortality by three fourths; halting and reversing the incidence HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major diseases; and reducing by one half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

The UN Millennium Project concluded, not surprisingly, that massive investments in physical and human (health, education, nutrition) capital will be required to realise the MDGs. To finance these investments, rich countries must live up to their promise of more aid reaching 0.7 per cent of their GDP by 2015, along with more generous debt relief and more open trade. And to make these investments work for the MDGs, poor countries in turn must live up to their promise of good governance, including enhancement of transparency and accountability and mobilisation of domestic resources. This proposed deal between rich and poor countries for realizing the MDGs is reminiscent of the Millennium Development Compact articulated in UNDP’s 2003 Human Development Report.

According to the report, all necessary promises have already been made in a number of international declarations, including at the Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development, and if these promises are fulfilled, the MDGs can still be realized within the prescribed time-frame. In other words and quoting from the recent speech of Nelson Mandela, there is a great opportunity to make poverty a history within the next ten years. This optimistic scenario is projected notwithstanding the findings that to date, 10 years before the deadline, many regions are off track to meet several of the goals.

To realize the MDGs, the report recommended ten concrete actions to be taken by poor as well as rich countries, along with the UN system. Poor countries were advised to craft and implement MDG-based poverty reduction strategies at both national and local levels in an inclusive and transparent process that allows engagement of CSOs, the private sector and their international partners. On the part of rich countries, the report made a call to front-load official development assistance (ODA) into the remaining ten-year period and to improve the quality of ODA by untying and providing it largely in the form of grants for budget support. It argues that front loading of aid in the short-term to help realise the MDGs would reduce aid dependency in the long-term. With respect to the UN, the Country Teams were admonished, as they had been many times in the past, to have properly trained staff to support the countries and to work more closely with the World Bank, IMF and regional development banks to improve the quality of technical advice.

The performance of Southeast Asia as a region towards realizing the MDGs compares well with many other regions of the world. It is assessed by the Millennium Project to be on track with respect to poverty reduction, gender equality in school enrolment, child mortality reduction, sanitation in urban areas, and improvement of the lives of slum dwellers. However, it is off track with respect to universal primary schooling, maternal mortality reduction and many other targets.

It is not surprising that the region as a whole is assessed to be on track with respect to poverty reduction goal given that poverty incidence has been declining in the region over the last two decades (save from a blip in the aftermath of the 1997-98 economic crisis). Indeed, poverty reduction in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia has been dramatic mainly as a result of decades of sustained growth. However, income inequality in these countries actually worsened during the same period, suggesting that while both the rich and the poor benefited from growth, the former benefited more than the latter. Because of the boom and bust pattern of growth in the Philippines, poverty incidence has remained high at over 30 percent, which is within the range of poverty incidence in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

The impressive performance of Southeast Asia as a whole hides the striking socio-economic disparities within and among countries in the region. Based on one dollar a day poverty threshold, UNDP’s 2004 Human Development Report recorded less than 2 percent poverty incidence in Malaysia and Thailand. The report did not even have statistics on poverty for Brunei and Singapore presumably because the incidence was nil. But at the other extreme were Cambodia and Lao PDR with poverty incidence of 34 and 27 percent respectively. Per capita GDP of Singapore was 24 times more than Myanmar’s. In terms of Human Development Index (HDI), Singapore was ranked 25th and Lao PDR 135th.

Socio-economic disparities are similarly striking within countries. In Indonesia, for instance, poverty incidence has come down to single digit levels in Jakarta and Bali, but it remains as high as 30 percent or more in Aceh and Maluku and 42 percent in Papua. The same disparity can be observed in Thailand, particularly between Bangkok and its Northeast region, and in the Philippines, between Metropolitan Manila and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. It seems as if the people in Muslim Mindanao, Papua and Northeast Thailand do not have the same right not to be poor as the people in Manila, Jakarta and Bangkok.

ASEAN Leaders are fully aware of this disparity across and within ASEAN Member Countries (AMCs). They see this disparity or development gap as a constraint to deepening and broadening of regional economic integration. But more importantly, they also see economic integration as a means to narrow this gap when they declared the formation of an ASEAN Economic Community, in which there is a free flow of goods and services, investment and skilled labour and reduced poverty and socio-economic disparities.

ASEAN Leaders have agreed to cooperate more closely to narrow the development gap both as an end in itself and as a means to the successful formation of ASEAN as a single market. The Vientiane Action Programme (VAP) they adopted at their last Summit contains measures not only to realize the three pillars of the ASEAN Community but also to narrow the development gap as manifested by large disparities in per capita GDP, poverty incidence and other dimensions of human development. The VAP provides that AMCs will determine and agree at an appropriate forum the extent to which the development gap could be realistically narrowed by 2010 and by 2015. In addition, they intend to share their experiences so that they can learn from each other. The objective is to draw lessons from each other as to how economic integration and enhanced competitiveness that it engenders could be managed more effectively so that they result in a more equitable and inclusive development and thereby narrow the development gap across and within AMCs.

ASEAN can

help realise the MDGs in Southeast Asia as a whole and in less developed AMCs by promptly translating those agreements and intentions into further actions. To start with, ASEAN should now take steps towards convening “an appropriate forum” to enable AMCs to agree on specific targets for 2010 and beyond for narrowing the development gap in terms of per capita GDP and other human development dimensions. For this purpose, AMCs could use the MDGs as a framework and the quantitative targets as benchmark. For instance, if they could agree on the extent to which the gap in poverty incidence could be realistically narrowed by 2015, this might imply setting poverty reduction targets for CLMV countries over and above the global benchmark. They could then identify innovative regional cooperation measures to supplement national efforts in realizing those targets, with the understanding that the more advanced AMCs would provide support to CLMV countries in the context of a strengthened Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI).

In this regard, Indonesia should be commended for offering, on the occasion of the last ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting on Poverty and Rural Development, to share with other AMCs the outcome of their efforts to localise MDG targets at the district level and to link those targets to local poverty reduction action plans and operational programmes. This initiative spearheaded by the Coordinating Ministry for People’s Welfare is fully consistent with the call from the UN Millennium Project to craft and implement MDG-based poverty reduction strategies. In turn, Indonesia expressed keen interest to learn from other AMCs their experiences relating to poverty mapping, measurement and targeting. A project for UNDP support to enable this cooperation has been prepared by ASEAN with encouragement, guidance and support from another prominent Indonesian who is actively engaged in the MDGs – Erna Witoelar, the UN Special Ambassador for the MDGs. This is a concrete example of how AMCs can cooperate with each other to help realize the MDGs. More of the same can and should be pursued.


[1] Senior Adviser, ASEAN-UNDP Partnership Facility. The views expressed herein are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of ASEAN, its Member Countries, or UNDP.