By Fikrejesus Amahazion,
Last week, amidst all of the mainstream topics receiving attention at the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), members of the United Nations (UN) and the Government of Eritrea (GoE) hosted an important, yet less heralded, meeting that focused on Eritrea’s health developments.
Titled “Innovations Driving Health Millennium Development Goals“, the meeting offered insight into how the low-income country, located within one of the world’s most volatile, fractious regions, has become the only country to achieve all of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals related to health (and amongst the few expected to achieve several others).
In 1991, after a devastating 30-year war of independence, Eritrea was faced with immense socio-economic, political, health, and reconstruction challenges. However, through making health a cornerstone of the national development strategy, and utilizing innovative, pragmatic solutions, the country has produced tangible, positive development outcomes.
During the meeting, a succession of keynote speeches and technical presentations, by Ms. Yoka Brandt (UNICEF), Dr. Abraham Kidane (Senior Economic Advisor in the GoE and in the Ministry of National Development), Dr. Andeberhan Tesfazion (Director General for Eritrea’s Department of Public Health), and Dr. Usman Abdulmumini (WHO representative in Eritrea), detailed an array of unique health interventions and impressive figures.
Regarding HIV/AIDS, Eritrea’s prevalence rate of ~0.6%, and less than 500 new infections annually, distinguish it across the developing world. Vitamin A supplementation, critical to reducing the likelihood of a variety of childhood maladies, is above 90% for children, while national immunization and vaccination coverage rates consistently hover at approximately 99% – comparing favorably with industrialized, developed countries.
Tuberculosis, polio, and malaria mortality and morbidity have plummeted or been eradicated, while access to water and sanitation, vital to preventing various illnesses and also important for their “positive multiplier effect,” have increased impressively within both rural and urban areas.
As well, numerous temporary maternal clinics have been established, while mobile medical units can be found across the country. Ultimately, these efforts have led to dramatic reductions in infant, child, and maternal mortality, large increases in life expectancy, and considerable improvements in standards of living.
An especially important topic raised during the meeting was gender equality and empowerment, which has been a central focus within the country. Traditional cultural and patriarchal stereotypes and practices have been targeted, with FGM/FGC and child marriage outlawed. Further, the government’s efforts at decreasing the burden of poverty borne by women have included, inter alia, ratifying several relevant international rights instruments, making gender equality a fundamental component of the National Education Policy and national poverty reduction strategies, issuing Labour and Land Reform Proclamations to secure the equal status of women in society, and working closely with the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) to coordinate, monitor, and implement gender-equality programs and policies across all sectors of society.
The diverse efforts promoting gender equality, coupled with gradual – yet noticeable – societal behavioral and cultural changes, have seen women integrated into many sectors of the economy, allowing them to play a vital role in the country’s development and progress. Eritrea’s women, vital cogs within the nation’s health and development progress, now constitute between 35%-45% of the workforce, and they remain very active in the informal sector. While women have traditionally been concentrated in manufacturing, improvements in education and expanded opportunities have meant that more women are transitioning to high-skilled sectors. Notably, many women proudly own land, often using it for farming or to build houses. Their ownership also extends to business, where they retain control over 40% of all small and medium-sized enterprises.
Ms. Christine Umutoni, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resident director in Eritrea, pointed out that much of Eritrea’s success is down to “Community participation, the enabling environment, leadership, strong mechanisms for prevention, value for money and coordinated inter-sectoral approaches.”
Other important aspects include the country’s self-reliant approach, its capacity to adapt to adverse circumstances, and the relentless, indefatigable efforts of innumerable men, women, and children around the country. Umotoni also noted that with many developing countries, particularly in Africa, not doing well within the MDGs or overall health sector, Eritrea “should be recognized as an example,” and “needs to give Africa and the rest of the world lessons on how these successes were achieved.”
Overall, the meeting constituted a remarkable leap; only decades ago, Eritrean “society” literally resided within underground trenches, caves in the mountains, and in the harsh, barren deserts. Yet, in spite of an assortment of socio-economic, regional, and global challenges, the country has produced notable and tangible developmental improvements and success. At the same time, numerous challenges still exist. Moving forward, the development community, international partners, as well as various regional, state, and local actors should remain committed to solidifying and building upon Eritrea’s past success. Efforts can include promoting regional peace and stability, supporting new development programs, augmenting existing projects, and working cooperatively with the Eritrean government (and local or international Eritrean organizations) to improve the lives of citizens.