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From MDGs to SDGs – seeing the transition through the eyes of a child in rural Uganda


By dxw

Blog by Robin Hart, Director of Programmes

Geoffrey was born in central Uganda in 2000, the year the MDGs were agreed. I have sponsored him through World Vision since 2007, and this summer had the privilege to visit him and his family, and spend time in his community.

By all measures Geoffrey and his family are still living in extreme poverty. No running water, toilet or electricity; a house made of non-durable materials, with cooking of basic meals outside. Geoffrey’s household consists of his parents, four siblings and nine nephews and nieces (orphans); 16 people to feed every day.

Through Geoffrey’s life it was rewarding to see some progress being made towards the MDG targets. Having discussed ways to achieve most MDGs at Wilton Park I was struck during my visit that the new challenge will be how to reach the ‘last mile’ to eradicate extreme poverty (Goal 1 in the SDGs). That will take very different approaches to the MDGs.

Geoffrey is small for his age, as many of the older children are from poor nutrition/stunting, but he now has better access to basic healthcare. Voluntary community health workers, trained by radio programmes, can now test for malaria and hand out malaria drugs, they encourage pregnant women to go to antenatal classes and to the ‘clinic’ to have their babies.  Clinics for those with HIV (up to 7% of the population) are clearly saving lives but despite energetic health workers, their facilities remain basic and they have a long list of requirements. No computers and expensive electricity to run some of the more advanced laboratory related kit they have received.

Improved basic healthcare is clearly saving lives of mothers and their babies, leading to an unspoken population explosion, with half of Uganda’s population now being 15 or under. This has significant implications, including for achieving the SDGs:

  • How do you ensure adequate healthcare for growing numbers of adolescents, particularly girls and young women?
  • How to support family planning?
  • How to educate this bulging cohort of children?

Geoffrey is at school, but at almost 15 he’s still stuck in a primary school, with large classes (sometimes 60 pupils), and very limited resources. With government schools unable to cope, private schools are being set up to meet demand but they may have even fewer resources and shed-like classrooms. Many of the schools I visited had some inspiring teachers, with music, drama and sport included in the curriculum. Whilst football might be ubiquitous it was good to play netball with some of the girls and to see how something like building a toilet block can make such a huge difference to encouraging girls to stay on at school.

Robin's blog image - no 2

Enrolment at primary level in the region has increased from 65% to 85% in the area, but there are limited secondary schools, particularly in rural areas. What opportunities then after school? It was good to hear of some opportunities for technical training in the local town, Geoffrey’s 17 year old neighbour Judith for example is learning hairdressing but such higher education and skills training in multiple forms will have to increase rapidly to meet the needs of the next cohort, encouraging the current and next generation to generate their own jobs and set up their own business.

Geoffrey’s family are subsistence gardeners, the size of their plot is about 100m square. With World Vision support and agronomy advice to farming groups, introduction of new seeds, demonstration plots and piggeries, links to market and introductions to buyers, I saw evidence that they, alongside many families, are starting to move beyond subsistence agriculture, earning some irregular income from selling cash crops. By this way farmers become business people, taking risks in what they grow and sell.

Farmers groups I met were learning together, setting up shared buying and selling groups, and also operating saving and loan accounts, with strict rules around savings and repayments, and fines for absence or late arrival at their weekly meetings. Through such initiatives more women are also getting access to money and clearly this empowerment is of significant benefit to their families.

More significant improvements are likely to come by the creation of more co-operatives, improvements to storage, water harvesting, and access to markets (buyers and transport) however, climatic changes pose a threat and Geoffrey’s neighbours asked me how our family farm was preparing.

Whilst it was evident that government structures are in place for schools and healthcare, and international assistance is getting to the communities in part, resources are still very scarce for head teachers and doctors. Small steps, such as those taken by donors and NGO’s like World Vision working with Geoffrey’s community, are clearly making a difference alongside government efforts.

They can only go so far and I was struck that achieving the SDGs will need new approaches for there to be real and universal transformation. The President of Uganda chaired the special UN SDG session in September and noted “The tug of war as to what is more important, electricity or education, now comes to an end. It is clear that both and more are the sine-qua-non of socio-economic transformation.”

Renewed government leadership, women’s empowerment, the growth of the local private sector and entrepreneurship are just some of the approaches which should enable Geoffrey and his community to move out of extreme poverty by 2030 and thus contribute to achieving the SDGs.

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Sport for development: a catalyst for change (2015)

Higher education and development: tackling 21st century challenges (2014)

Scaling up HIV/AIDS treatment as prevention (2013)

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