Despite the expenditure of over US$2.5 trillion in official development assistance (ODA), billions of people continue to live in conditions of the direst poverty. Hunger and inequality stalk their lives as they struggle to survive. As Samir Amin wrote at the turn of the millennium:
“The polarization that is characteristic of modern globalization is phenomenal, without precedent in the entire past history of humanity.”
So what can be done to tackle this global catastrophe? Arguably the best known initiative to improve the living conditions of people living in poverty, hunger and without adequate education or access to health treatment is the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).
The MDG were introduced at the 1996 FAO World Food Summit and embraced a commitment “to halve the number of hungry people in the world by 2015, as a first step towards the goal of food for all”. They were established to provide assistance to more than a billion people who were living in extreme poverty.
The MDG comprise eight goals in areas including poverty and hunger, child and maternal health, the provision of universal education and so forth. Each goal is broken down into a number of specific objectives. 2015 was set as the target date for the realisation of the majority of these goals. Many commentators praised the establishment of the MDG as an important step by the world´s leaders to promote human development and thence ensure that social and economic progress would be made sustainable.
However, laudable though the MDG might appear at first sight, they were never intended to serve as a universal panacea for the planet’s poor and hungry. From their outset, the MDG were plagued by disputes as to what they actually signified. During their preparatory debates, a major dispute arose as to whether the MDG entailed a commitment to halve “the numbers of poor and undernourished” with respect to the “percentage of the world’s rising population or of the faster-rising population of the developing countries.” This was not merely a question of bureaucratic haggling. Plumping for the slower rising percentage of the world´s population would literally signify the difference between life and death for millions of people. As Thomas Pogge, the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University, explains:
Since the aggregate population of the developing world is projected to grow from 4,860 million in 1996 to an estimated 6,217 million in 2015, we would then aim to reduce the numbers of poor and undernourished by merely 36 (rather than 50) per cent.
In the end, the lower target carried the day. By 2001, even this less ambitious objective appeared unlikely to be achieved as trends indicated the probability of greater poverty and malnutrition in 2015 than there had been in 1996.
The 2005 UNDP HDR was also pessimistic regarding the MDG. It noted that poor people were being left behind across many of the goals. The 2005 HDR also highlighted that the “recurring theme in data from a large group of countries is that progress among the poorest 20% of the population is far below the national average.”
It was estimated that the MDG target for reducing child mortality would be missed by 4.4m, a figure equivalent to three times the total number of children under five in New York, London and Tokyo. This would potentially result in a total of 41 million more children dying from poverty – between 2005 and 2015 - than would have occurred if the MDG target had been reached. Similarly, the objective of universal primary education would not be achieved, as it was estimated that some 47m children would still not be in school by 2015.
The 2009 MDG progress report continues in this pessimistic vein. Although there were dramatic gains in certain areas, including a substantial reduction in the percentage of those living in extreme poverty from just under half to slightly over a quarter of the population, this progress was not equitable across the `developing´ world. The great majority of these gains have been made in Asia and, in particular, China. Moreover, the current lack of economic growth, diminished resources and increase in food insecurity has made their continued attainment even more difficult.
A major obstacle to the realisation of the MDG has been the failure of the richer nations to fully honour their development commitments. At the 2002 Monterey Financing for Development Conference, the ‘developed’ nations pledged to make concrete efforts towards meeting the UN 1970 General Assembly Resolution target of allocating 0.7% of their GNP in international aid. Meeting this target would have resulted in approximately US$200 billion in total aid.
However, the very next year 2003 saw the total ODA of the 22 richest nations amount to just over $69 billion, some US$130 billion dollars short or a mere 35% of what would have been forthcoming if the 0.7% promise had been honoured.
Although Ireland’s ODA for 2010, at 0.52% of GNP, is comparatively high in international terms, it falls below the government’s interim projected target of 0.6 per cent. It is therefore relatively unlikely the Irish government’s international commitment to meeting the 0.7 per cent target in 2012 will now be realised.
Furthermore, the manner in which the MDG were drawn up makes their fulfilment potentially compatible with increasing inequality. One of the principal objectives of the MDG is a decrease in the levels of poverty worldwide. While a reduction in poverty levels is of course welcome, particularly if it provides people with the chance to enjoy lives free from want and hunger, it is possible for inequality to increase at the same time. This would occur if those enjoying a higher income experienced a faster rise in their overall incomes than those at a lower level. Such an outcome is far from desirable, as high levels of inequality lead to an ever-increasing marginalisation of lower income groups, reduced social cohesion and a decline in the general well-being of people who are less well off.
There is also a further absolutely critical objection, which relates to the limited scope of the MDG. Thomas Pogge encapsulates this point excellently when he argues that the MDG
“[p]ledge cannot justify setting this problem aside: Our governments’ plan envisages that, even in 2015, there will still be 420m undernourished human beings and, assuming rough proportionality, 9m annual poverty deaths. Are these levels we can condone? With a linear decline, implying a 474,000 annual reduction in the number of poverty deaths, the plan envisages 250m deaths from poverty-related causes over the 19 year period. Is so huge a death toll acceptable because these deaths would be occurring at a declining rate?”
In short, the MDG are a far from adequate approach on the part of the richer countries to tackle poverty, inequality, hunger and the health concerns of those living in the poorer countries. Although the MDG will benefit a certain amount of those in poverty, even allowing for the wrangling over the numbers targeted for assistance, they still condemn hundreds of millions to lives wracked by poverty, misery and hunger.
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