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How You Define the Millennium Development Goals Really Matters

Some countries have achieved the goal of "gender parity" in education, despite having education systems that are bad or totally unfair.

In 2000, all 189 member countries of the U.N. signed on to the Millennium Declaration, an eight-point platform to combat global poverty and hunger, fight AIDS and malaria, and improve maternal health, among other goals. The idea was to hit ambitious targets in each area by 2015.

With the U.N. General Assembly taking place right now, some people are checking in to see how we're doing on those goals (including GOOD's own Alex Goldmark). The short story: It's a mixed bag.

But are the goals themselves appropriately defined? Over at the Guardian's Poverty Matters blog, Jonathan Glennie points out that part of the education goal is to make sure that girls are attending school in the same percentage as boys. And the problem, Glennie notes, is that a country could meet that goal while still having 1) a very low percentage of boys and girls in school and 2) a very wide gap between the percentage of rich urban girls that attend school as compared to the percentage of poor rural girls.

Here's the chart (larger version at the Guardian):

As you can see, Egypt, which is doing relatively well educating its children, hasn't officially achieved "gender parity." But Malawi, a country in which fewer than 10 percent of children attend secondary school, has achieved gender parity. Nicaragua has also achieved gender parity even though that's only because about 70 percent of rich girls attend secondary school, counterbalancing the fact that only about 5 percent of poor girls do.

Gender parity is only one part of the Millennium Development Goals. There are others that address other aspects of education and employment. But the lesson of this gender parity data is that, depending on how they're defined, you can sometimes achieve these goals without really fixing underlying problems of equality.

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