As the world’s leaders gather to meet in the UN, I thought I would share an article which was first published for the World Development’s Movement’s WDM in Action magazine. I would strongly recommend joining WDM. Find out more>>
Since I wrote the article, the situation unfortunately is even worse as the US has systematically gone through resolutions deleting many references which oblige action by a specific deadline.
It was the year 2000. The Greenwich dome stood as a monument to our lack of imagination, the millennium bug had barely infected even a computer screen, and “end of the world” cults sat around disenchanted that life was continuing as normal.
In this context, more than 150 Heads of State gathered in New York in September 2000 for the largest gathering of world leaders in history. The result of the meeting was the Millennium Declaration which outlined eight development targets which included an overarching goal to halve world poverty by 2015.
Rising to the occasion, the leaders declared grandly that “We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty.”
Five years later, the International Community prepares to gather again in New York to assess progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. The results hardly live up to the heady rhetoric of 2000. In fact, progress has been pitiful.
Sub-Saharan Africa, taken as a whole, will not meet a single target, according to the UN’s latest assessment. The goal of free primary education, set for 2015, will not be met until 2130 at present rates of progress. Five years into the new millennium, more than one billion people still live below the extreme poverty line of one dollar per day, and 20,000 die from poverty each day.
Worst of all, it is not even as if the goals were over-ambitious or unrealistic. Jan Vandemoortele, who helped develop the targets when he worked for the United Nations Children’s Fund says: “By and large, the quantitative targets were set on the premise that the progress observed in the 1970s and 1980s at the global level would continue for 25 years from 1990 to 2015.”
In other words, rather than “sparing no effort,” our progress has actually slowed down since 1990.
Unfortunately this should not come as a surprise. It is not just that the leaders of the rich North frequently break promises on tackling poverty as we have seen yet again at the G8 summit. The UN Millennium Development Goals are flawed in their very conception.
Like many unsuccessful development projects, they were proposed by the donor community with no consultation during the late 1990s. They arose at a time when targets were all the rage (Remember the Labour Party and NHS targets which equally became a source of embarrassment as the Government failed to meet them?).
But there was little detail about how they were to be achieved, and not surprisingly nothing about the culpability of the rich countries for perpetuating poverty. There was also nothing about the structural changes that would be needed to crucial development institutions like the IMF, World Bank, WTO and indeed the UN to ensure a sustainable end to poverty and inequality.
Goal 8 (“Develop a global partnership for development”) gets the closest to talking about actions that will need to be taken: a trading system with “a commitment to poverty reduction”, “sustainable” levels of debt and more “generous official development assistance.”
The trouble is that without any challenge to the continued domination of institutions like the IMF by the rich countries, what is “sustainable” or “generous” is invariably determined by the most powerful nations. We saw the result at the G8, where an “historic debt deal” was announced which falls far short of the 62 poor countries the Jubilee Debt Campaign argue need immediate 100% debt cancellation to have a chance of meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Moreover, the deal is tied to conditions that paradoxically have been shown to worsen poverty.
It is noticeable that the goal to halve poverty by 2015 which could still be met is due to progress by China and India who have both followed economic policies of building up State industries and regulating multinational investment. These polices directly contradict the advice that is imposed on the vast majority of developing countries by the IMF and World Bank.
The lack of focus on process also conveniently hides actions by Governments such as the UK, that continue at an international level to prioritise their own economic interests, by for example pushing for privatization, even if this worsens poverty.
Bolivia is a case in point, where the water utility of the impoverished city of El Alto was privatized in the late 1990s with the promise that foreign investment would greatly extend safe drinking water to the poor (a key Millennium Development Goal).
The result instead was that the cost for connections to the network rose to between $335 and $445 dollars, which is the equivalent of nine minimum wage salaries. This would be like demanding poor people in the UK pay between £6,000 and £8,000 to start receiving water! In January 2005, popular opposition forced an end to the contract with the French multinational water company Suez. Yet despite the failure of privatization, Bolivia is currently under heavy international pressure to form a public-private partnership to run its water utility.
This obviously does not mean that the Millennium Development Goals are without merit. The fact is that they are the most broadly-supported and clearly measurable international targets in history. As a result, they provide us campaigners with a very clear means for holding our Governments to account. We must use every opportunity to remind our government of its commitment, and to push for the actions such as total debt cancellation that will be needed to meet them.
However we also need to turn the Goals on their head, and say that the process is actually more important than the targets themselves. For poverty is fundamentally not about lack of resources, it is a result of injustice and control of power and wealth by a few. There is no point halving poverty by throwing money at it, if we leave in place the mechanisms that allow rich nations to dominate the global economy for their own profit.
To end poverty, we need to end injustice.