NGOs Want New UN Goals to Focus on Rights

Dozens of non-government groups met in Phnom Penh this week to have their say in the U.N.’s plans for a new set of global development goals for the next 15 years. They will replace the U.N.’s current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are set to expire in 2015.

–News Analysis

Established in 2000, the first set of eight MDGs gave countries specific targets to meet on poverty, health, education and the environment. NGOs in Cambodia hope that the second set will highlight human rights, equality and jobs.

As officials at the U.N. in New York this week started designing the new goals that will likely focus on narrowing income gaps, improving social protections and holding countries more accountable for the development targets they sign up to, nongovernmental organizations here were also asking themselves and local communities what they want the new goals to achieve.

They met on Wednesday and Thursday in Phnom Penh to pool feedback from earlier discussions on the topic, which they hope will help shape both the U.N.’s new goals and the Cambodian government’s next National Strategic Development Plan.

The Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), an umbrella NGO leading the effort, organized meetings in Battambang and Kompong Cham provinces in March to get input from local communities, informal associations and the NGOs helping them.

The most common request, said Soeung Saroeun, the CCC’s executive director, was that human rights and a free and fair judicial system, for example, be made central to any new set of development goals the U.N. would seek to adopt.

“The most important thing is… rights based development. Everything must put human rights at the center,” Mr. Saroeun said on the sidelines of the meeting in Phnom Penh. “The second is social inclusion and equality, because we see that with economic land concessions, the distribution [of land] is not fair. People with power and money, they can get more.”

Mr. Saroeun said the other two main concerns raised at the meetings were that the U.N.’s new development goals also focus more on environmentally sustainable development and creating more and better jobs.

In its most recent assessment of Cambodia’s progress on the current eight development goals, from mid-2012, the Ministry of Planning said the country had already met two goals—reducing infant and maternal mortality—and was most likely to meet at least two more—on reducing poverty and raising primary school enrollment rates.

The ministry said meeting the 2015 targets for the other four goals, which relate to gender equality, disease infection rates, environmental sustainability and partnering with other governments, would prove harder or unlikely. It said a ninth goal Cambodia added on its own, to eliminate landmine deaths and clear the most mine-contaminated land, was also unlikely to be reached.

The country’s original target for reduced maternal mortality by 2015 was 140 deaths per 100,000 live births. But with that figure unlikely to be met, the government later changed the target to 250 deaths per 100,000 live births. As of 2011, the number of deaths stood at 206, meaning the revised target had already been met.

By lowering the bar, Cambodia achieved its 2015 development target. The government also changed the way it calculates the poverty line in 2011, a complex formula based in part on how much it costs to consume a given amount of calories.

In a report on the country’s poverty line released in April, the Plan­ning Ministry said the new formula was “more realistic.” Cambodia is now expected to just barely meet its target goal of having only 19.5 percent of the population living in poverty by 2015.

“Now the poverty rate is 20 percent, so the forecast for 2015 is that the poverty rate will drop to maybe 17 or 18 percent,” said Theng Pag­nathun, the Planning Ministry’s director-general of planning.

Marc Derveeuw, country representative for the U.N. Population Fund, praised Cambodia on its progress, and said that revising development goals downward was not unique to Cambodia, and de­fended the changes.

“Opportunities were given to many countries to set new targets that were more realistic and achievable,” he said.

“Cambodians are less poor, they are healthier. Cambodians are better educated…. It’s [better] to be Cam­bodian than 15 years ago,” he said.

But Cambodia has only met some of its 2015 targets if it lowers the bar.

The CCC’s Mr. Saroeun said the current development goals, original or revised, still focus too much on economic targets at the expense of social ones, like human rights.

“The new MDGs should focus on both, how social development and economic development can work together,” he said. “We appreciate what they [the current goals] have done…but there is a gap.”

He said the CCC will turn the feedback it received this week and in March into a report and submit it to the U.N. and the government next month.

(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)

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