Airplanes, Indicators and the Countdown to the Millennium Development Goal Deadline

09/23/2010 05:51 pm 17:51:16 | Updated May 25, 2011

We couldn't find one person in the small village we visited on Kenya's Maasai Mara who had been inside an airplane. The idea of stuffing into a rickety bus, travelling six hours across bumpy roads to Nairobi and trying to even enter a terminal without money or a passport is absurd to most.

Except for Mama Jane who dreamed her daughter would be a pilot.

This when delegates at the Millennium Development Goal 10-year reunion met, they likely only thought of airplanes as the best way to get to the United Nations General Assembly. For most people, the MDGs are a set of indicators meant to challenge extreme poverty, child mortality, HIV/AIDS and more by the year 2015.

Not for Mama Jane. For her they mean airplanes.

We were struck by her interest when we met her outside her family's dwelling, a small hut with a thatched roof that housed the entire family. There are no airports here. Rarely can a plane be spotted flying through the open sky over the grasslands. Growing up, the woman said she didn't know what an airplane was. She married young and had children early. She never had the opportunity to go to school.

Now though, Kenya is on track to meet goal two: providing universal primary education to all children. Her six-year-old girl got the chance to go to school. And one day, she came home and excitedly told her mother how she'd just learned about airplanes.

The Mama realized if her daughter could learn about planes, maybe she could fly one.

At this week's meeting, analysts called that an indicator. This Mama calls it a future.

We can't help but envy the sense of hope that so visibly beamed from either side of the Mama's toothy grin. We felt it ten years ago and we wish we could get that feeling back.

When we kicked off the millennium, we didn't call the MDGs indicators. We called them a legacy when the largest-ever gathering of world leaders collectively put the most vulnerable members of our society first.

Now, as those leaders regroup to talk progress on the tenth anniversary of the targets, there is now a feeling of discouragement. That's because the indicators show many countries are falling behind.

There are some successes. Brazil, for one, has already achieved four of its eight goals and is on track to meet the rest by 2015. Others -- Haiti, Malawi, Swaziland -- are dramatically off-track.

Some call it a failure. Like the Kenyan Mama, we still call the MDGs a future.

Look at Sierra Leone. Indicators for this country say it is on track to achieve universal primary education, but changes need to be made if it hopes to improve maternal health.

It sounds hard to achieve. But, Sahr Banga says different.

The 13-year-old girl says she used to go to a school with walls made of mud and dung. The mothers from the community would re-smear them every few months. But, that doesn't stop torrential downpours in the rainy season from breaking through. When the weather warmed to scorching temperatures, they dried, cracked and crumbled.

Sahr saw kids pack about 70 to a class in the dilapidated structure. A former conflict zone, they tried to sharpen pencils with a machete.

At her new school though, she doesn't feel that frustration that caused many to drop out. With her education, she doesn't have to marry young and start having children before her body is fully developed.

We call the statistic of one in eight Sierra Leonean women dying in childbirth an indicator. Sahr calls her education beating a statistic.

Ten years ago, we used to call the MDGs our legacy. We still do. Despite setbacks, what some people call indicators, others still call futures.