Your Excellencies; Ladies and Gentlemen;
Today marks the 45th anniversary of my country joining the United Nations. Over the past 45 years United Nations, other international organizations and friendly countries have helped the Maldives to achieve enormous progress. For that, I would like to thank today. Thank you.
I could stand here and tell you that the Maldives is progressing well towards the Millennium Development Goals. I could explain that the Maldives has already achieved five out of the eight MDG ahead of the 2015 deadline, making it South Asia’s only “MDG+” country. I could talk about our achievements across eradication of poverty, primary education, reducing child mortality, maternal health, and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
However, I prefer to use the opportunity provided by today’s high-level event to give the august audience a sense of the enormous challenges that the Maldives faces in continuing and consolidating its positive trajectory.
Tragic events like the 2004 Asian Tsunami remind us that progress towards the MDGs should never be taken for granted. Improvements and successes that have taken years to accumulate can easily be put into reverse unless we remain vigilant and prepared to respond to such extreme events, natural or man-made.
The Maldives faces three broad horizontal challenges, and a number of challenges specific to certain MDGs.
First, in parallel with our socio-economic drive towards the MDGs, the Maldives is also struggling with the political imperative of consolidating democracy and integrating the concepts of human rights and rule of law into the national consciousness.
We are not unique in this. All countries in transition experience an inherent tension between the past and the future, between those segments of the population that have benefited from and would prefer a return to the old system, and those parts of society who are impatient for real change and a fairer, more just society.
This underlying tension, coupled with related challenges such as the rise of religious extremism, has important implications not only for democratic consolidation but also for our efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. This is because the Government’s approach to development is premised on empowering the people and giving them the freedom and the opportunities to build better lives.
Promoting human rights, decentralization of government and administration, privatization, redistribution, promoting SMEs and competition; these are the foundations of government policy. But such policies are also a clear threat to the powerful vested interests that once controlled the country.
Second, and linked with the country’s political challenges, it is an unfortunate fact that the Maldives is struggling to consolidate democracy and the rule of law at a time when the macro-economic situation remains precarious. This was caused by extravagant spending by the former Government in the run-up to the 2008 elections, coupled with the after-effects of the Tsunami and the onset of the global financial crisis.
In consultation with the IMF, the Government has taken a wide-range of steps to confront this problem, and the outcome of these efforts will go a long-way towards determining whether we achieve the MDGs, and our people’s broader development aspirations. For example, pressures on the national budget are already having a negative impact in the health and education sectors.
A third broad development challenge facing the country is our impending graduation, at the end of this year, from the UN’s list of Least Developed Countries.
This will have enormous implications for the Maldives’ economy and for our continued socio-economic development. Despite this, the Maldives has welcomed graduation as a reflection of our progress over many years, and as the start of a new phase in our national development.
That said, it would not only be wrong, but also dangerous to assume that the Maldives’ well-documented vulnerabilities as a Small Island Developing State will disappear the moment we are recognized as a middle income country. Indeed, no one would question the fact that the Maldives remains acutely vulnerable at economic, commercial, social and environmental levels.
Thus, the question is: how might we square this circle - how can we agree that graduation is a positive development, something to be welcomed; while at the same time conceding that key vulnerabilities remain and that Small Island States like the Maldives will continue to need support if we are to meet the MDGs?
The answer, to us, is clear: there needs to be a far better organized, more efficient, more targeted, and more measurable system of United Nations support for Small Island Developing States. This reformed system must include a formal, transparent, SIDS category.
Before concluding, I wanted to briefly touch on two MDGs where the Maldives, relatively-speaking, has made less progress: namely MDG 3 on achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, and MDG 7 on ensuring environmental sustainability.
Overall, the gender gap in Maldives is closing, albeit perhaps slower than is necessary to meet this MDG by 2015. Cultural and social norms in the country, in certain circumstances, create obstacles to women’s equal participation in society; while isolation and a lack of access to resources, educational and employment opportunities likewise pose major challenges, especially for the girl-child.
The creation of space and opportunities for women to contribute to development is a policy priority for the Government. Gender mainstreaming is now obligatory across all government policy areas, while new laws are being prepared to combat discrimination and violence against women.
Environmental sustainability is one of the most fundamental problems in Maldives, challenging the basic right to life. The country has considerable ground to cover to achieve MDG7. The Maldives is determined to play its part. Protecting the environment is a priority for the Government, and last year we announced plans to become the world’s first carbon neutral country. However, the transnational nature of environmental harm means we cannot win this battle alone – we need the commitment and support of the international community, especially in the context of climate change.