MANAGUA – Enabled by shiftingdemographics and a steadily decliningbirthrate, Nicaragua is entering a vital“window of opportunity” to make realheadway against poverty and underdevelopment,the United Nations reported in astudy released last week.If the government takes advantage ofthe country’s growing workforce and allocatesadequate resources to public spendingprograms, Nicaragua will be in a positionto achieve universal MillenniumDevelopment Goals in education, healthcare and water treatment by the 2015deadline, the report found.Demographics show that Nicaragua’slargest generation is children 14 andyounger, accounting for 45% of the total5.1 million population. As this groupcomes of age and enters the workforce,productivity will increase, the tax basewill grow, and overall dependence on thestate will decrease, the report states.“Nicaragua is one of the youngestcountries in the world,” said JorgeChediek, U.N. coordinator in Nicaragua.“The new workforce can contribute to thedevelopment and future of the country.”BY increasing the overall publicspending budget by a modest 3.8% eachyear for the next decade, Nicaragua canrealize the Millennium DevelopmentGoals of providing universal primary education,universal maternal health care, anddrinking water to 92% of the populationby 2015, the report found.The Development Goals came out ofthe U.N. Millennium Summit inSeptember 2000, when leaders of 189countries agreed to achieve eight goals by2015: halve extreme poverty and hunger;achieve universal primary education; promotegender equality and empowerwomen; reduce child mortality; improvematernal health; combat HIV/AIDS,malaria and other diseases; ensure environmentalsustainability; and develop aglobal partnership for development.Although every country in the hemisphereagreed to the MillenniumDevelopment Goals, only Argentina,Bolivia, Guatemala, Nicaragua andPanama have conducted reports in LatinAmerica analyzingtheir country’s progress,and identifyingsteps that need to betaken to comply withthe goals by 2015.Chediek told TheTico Times the Nicaraguareport only focusedon three of the eightgoals, because the otherfive “are difficult tomeasure quantitatively.”He said that focusing on primary education,maternal health and drinkingwater does not preclude Nicaragua fromalso achieving the other goals. But nosimilarly comprehensive game plan hasbeen presented to combat the other identifiedgoals.IN Nicaragua – the hemisphere’s second-poorest country – progress againstpoverty and underdevelopment has beenslow, and the notion that things are bettertoday than a decade ago is debatable.Forty-five percent of the populationhere lives below the poverty line, and 15%live in extreme poverty (on less than $1 aday), according to government statistics.Macroeconomic indicators haveshown slight progress over the last 10years, but rags-to-riches stories aren’tcommon here.TO ensure Nicaragua doesn’t miss thedemographic window of opportunity, theU.N. report provides concrete and realisticsteps the government should take toaccomplish three of the Millennium Goals.In the area of education, Nicaraguamust increase its education budget by1.4% annually ($1.9 billion over 15 years)to provide universal primary coverage, thereport found.Demographic patterns suggest thenumber of elementary school students inNicaragua will decrease from 867,664next year, to 816,341 in the year 2015,keeping education costs manageable forthe government.To reach universalmaternalhealth goals, thereport found,Nicaragua mustincrease its budgetfor pre/postnatalcare andfamily planningby 4.1% a year.IN the areaproviding drinkingwater, Nicaragua is facing a more difficultchallenge, due to neglected aqueducts,limited infrastructure, poor managementand contamination problems.Now, 77% of the rural population and85% of the urban population have accessto potable water, according to the UnitedNation’s loose definition of access (“ apublic or private water source within a 15-minute walk of the individual’s place ofresidence”).The government estimates there are5,000 rural aqueducts that are in disrepair,and more alarming estimates inManagua suggest the capital city couldexhaust its drinking water aquifers inthree years, if drastic measures are nottaken now.Considering this dire situation, theU.N. report estimates that Nicaragua needsto increase its water treatment budget by10.8% annually just to maintain the currentlevel of services.To reach the Millennium Goal ofincreasing coverage to 92.2%, the governmentmust increase its budget by 12%a year, extending coverage to an additional153,000 people annually, the reportfound.THE United Nations claims the publicspending goals set forth in the report arefeasible.But like all forecasts in Nicaragua, theconclusions carry several asterisk marks,such as political will and the country’sability to create 80,000 new jobs a year toabsorb the growing work force.Perhaps the biggest hurdle to implementingthe report’s suggestions are thepublic-spending barriers imposed onNicaragua by the International MonetaryFund (IMF) and other international lendingorganizations.To remain eligible for debt relief underprograms such as the Heavily Indebted PoorCountry’s Initiative (HIPC) Nicaragua is notallowed to increase its public spending bymore than 3.4% annually (.4% less thanwhat is needed to achieve the threeMillennium Development Goals, accordingto the U.N. estimates).Chediek admitted to The Tico Timesthat it would be “very difficult” forNicaragua to achieve these goals withinthe framework of the HIPC initiative,and that Nicaragua needs to renegotiateits structural adjustment programs withthe IMF.Still another limitation of the report isthat it attempts to treat poverty as a long-termstructural problem focusing onfuture generations, while offering nothingin terms of immediate relief to the hungry,the homeless, the ill, the unemployedor the elderly – a group that represents alarge percentage of the impoverishedpopulation that continually falls throughthe cracks in Nicaraguan society.The National Assembly, which is currentlyfinalizing the 2005 national budget,has not commented on the U.N.report.