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Tackling Development in Tandem

He used to live in darkness, unable to do his homework after sunset. Watching TV was something he could only dream of.

But seven years ago, 18-year-old Abudulamuti in Bulungkol County, about 130 km southwest of Kashgar in the central region of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, finally got to enjoy the basic necessities of modern life.

In 2002, his herding community received a wind-solar-diesel hybrid power system, funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The project brought electricity for lights and simple domestic appliances.

"It was one of the happiest moments in my life," Abudulamuti said in the Kirgiz dialect, of the day when the lights went on and his 35-cm TV screen began to show images.

The Bulungkol effort is one of the projects UN agencies have been piloting in the country, in line with the ongoing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to make the world a better place.

The UN's MDGs themselves are not new to Chinese people.

They have been familiar with the concept through a similar one of their own for more than two decades - that of striving for xiaokang, or a well-off society.

"The emphasis of the UN's MDGs is similar to the vision of xiaokang," said Khalid Malik, United Nations Resident Coordinator in China, before he attended the high-level summit held in New York on Thursday.

The eight objectives under the MDGs, adopted in 2000, include raising the status of women worldwide and cutting extreme poverty and hunger in half by 2015.

Correspondingly, xiaokang by 2002 had become a broader and more comprehensive goal with defined targets and indicators.

The similarity and shared objectives have helped the country and the UN in dealing with the challenges of development.

To that effect, the latest UN summit is meant to serve as a midway review of the MDGs.

In 2005, the UNDP launched a US$10 million pilot program in six provinces to address issues such as xiaokang, policy development, government capacity building and public awareness.

The UN officials involved then credited the country for its goals and their implementation.

"What is remarkable about China is that the leadership system is very competent," said Malik, who has been stationed in China for five years.

"Once agreement and understanding have been reached, things get applied quickly," he said.

Lasting partnership

For the past 30 years, UN agencies in China have maintained a strong partnership with the government in the field of development.

The UNDP was one of the first agencies to showcase microfinance in country. During the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, UN agencies also provided immediate relief and conducted joint appeals for reconstruction efforts.

"Given the fact that China is a large country, even if the UN did 100 times more than what it has done, those are still rather modest," Malik said.

"Therefore, what are required are strategic ways of doing things, in partnership and by bringing key stakeholders together," he said.

Meeting goals

Malik also praised China for its remarkable achievement in meeting goals to help fight poverty and hunger, and to give universal access to primary education.

"China has alleviated poverty successfully, although it depends on where the line is drawn, but it is a remarkable achievement by any number, given the sheer improvement of lives, not only in income, but also in health and education," Malik said.

Poverty in the country dropped from 46 percent in 1990 to 10.4 percent in 2005, surpassing the targeted 23 percent, UN figures have shown. The efforts have helped lift about 390 million people out of poverty in 15 years.

As such, the poverty gap has fallen 75 percent from 1990 levels. The number of people suffering from hunger also fell from 17 percent in 1990 to 7 percent in 2002 - beyond the targeted reduction of 8.5 percent.

However, there are still about 135 million people in the country earning less than $1 a day.

Malik said he believes poverty can be eradicated in China.

"It is possible to end poverty in China and to make poverty history. If there is a country that can do this, it is China," he said.

The target of providing 9-year primary education has also made headway, with 99.3 percent of both boys and girls in the country getting such access.

Improving and providing quality education should now be the focus, Malik said, with education becoming an increasing driver of income and with significant gaps in it across the country.

While literacy rates among those aged 15-24 have increased from 94 percent in 1990 to 99 percent in 2006, gaps in literacy still remain among adults, particularly in rural areas of western regions and among minorities.

Future challenges

The remaining MDGs look set to be met by 2015, Malik said, with areas like gender, HIV/AIDS, other infectious diseases and the environment yet to be fully addressed.

Still, environmental sustainability continues to face the pressures of a growing economy and an increasing use of resources, Malik said.

The country is a global emitter of greenhouse gases and is reportedly engaging these issues "proactively", taking concrete actions to mitigate them by pushing for energy efficiency and increasing its share of renewable energy.

In that regard, China has proven to be vulnerable to climate change, Malik said, citing the devastation wreaked by the snowstorms earlier this year.

The per capita availability of water, land and other resources is also comparatively low, increasing such vulnerability.

"There are ideas, that you grow first, and when you pollute as you get rich, you clean up. But the country can grow in a clean and most sustainable way," Malik said.

As to the challenge of HIV/AIDS, while prevalence of the disease is low in the country - 0.05 percent, or 700,000 people infected - there are worrying signs that disease transmission is increasingly occurring in mainstream groups, UN figures have shown.

"Important progress has been made, but more can be done to prevent it spreading further, provide treatment and combat stigma and discrimination," Malik said.

Similarly, gender equality is still challenging, with women earning only 46 percent of men's wages and constituting just 21 percent of parliamentarians, a number that has essentially not risen in the last 30 years.

A "high and rising sex ratio also indicates a serious issue that needs to be countered", Malik said.

(China Daily September 26, 2008)

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