`Fresh' U.S. strategy on MDG goals

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The Obama administration today released a government-wide strategy on a subject that previously had drawn little high-level attention from Washington – the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.

Much like National Security Strategy documents put together by a succession of U.S. administrations, Obama’s MDG strategy serves as more of a framework of principles, rather than giving specific details on how the U.S. government will help developing countries reach the goals by 2015.

Some of the most prominent MDGs are eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing child mortality, and improving maternal health.

“We just think it’s a tremendous opportunity to have the US engage proactively in the MDG dialogue with some fresh ideas,’’ said Ben Hubbard, deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Agency for International Development, in an interview with Science Speaks. “We are 10 years in, and five to go. We looked at the data, and asked ourselves what is needed to get to the finish line and what the U.S. can uniquely contribute.’’

The strategy, which was released today in an invitation-only gathering in Washington with no press coverage, comes two months before the United Nations will hold meetings on MDG progress.

It lists significant achievements as well as miserable failings in countries.

“Important obstacles remain to meeting health-related MDGs,’’ the reports states. “Infant mortality is still unacceptably high, especially in South Asia and Sub‐Saharan Africa. Despite encouraging new data, reductions in maternal mortality and child under‐nutrition rates have been much too slow. HIV continues to spread in many countries, and a significant gap remains between those who need treatment and those who can access it. In many countries, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation remains unacceptably high.’’

The government strategy is based on four principles: leverage innovation; invest in sustainability; track development outcomes, not just dollars; and enhance the principle and the practice of mutual accountability.

Asked whether the document would give other countries and groups a peek at future funding priorities, Hubbard said, “We will look at the components that embody these four imperatives. Our overall purpose is that while this is a U.S. strategy, we want this to help shape a global strategy. It’s important we don’t want to take a siloed systems approach. An effective strategy needs to address multiple goals at the same time.’’

Hubbard said part of that means investing in research. Many U.S. research and advocacy groups involved in global health research and development have pointed out the lack of funding opportunities for research, but Hubbard wouldn’t commit the administration toward pushing for new research dollars in areas such as tuberculosis vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics – one particular area in which advocates say is woefully underfunded.

“This commitment to science and technology and innovation is already playing out,’’ he said. “We hosted a conference on science and technology and innovation two weeks ago. … There’s a lot of existing research and development capacity out there, and now we need to gear it toward some of these big grand challenges.’’

Last month, the Overseas Development Institute and the United Nations Millennium Campaign released a report (PDF) on MDG goals and found that many African countries had made the most overall progress. But it also pinpointed several countries lagging far behind.

Would the U.S. government, guided by its new MDG strategy, now focus efforts on those countries doing so poorly?

Hubbard seemed to indicate this would happen: “We want to make sure we’re focusing our efforts in the places and the sectors where we feel like U.S. investment can really move the dial forward in some of these key sectors.’’

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