Time to Revisit the Millennium Development Goals?

Filipino children from a slum area in Manila on Feb. 20 line up to receive a bowl of gruel in front of Sto. Nino Church during a feeding program organized by a child welfare group. (Photo: Noel Celis/ AFP-Getty Images)

In the midst of the global economic meltdown that continues to smoulder around us, the plight of the poor and the destitute tends to take a back seat. It is only when a disaster such as the recent horrendous earthquake in Haiti strikes that we are confronted with the daily struggle for survival faced by so many. While humanitarian relief efforts have been mobilized in Haiti, billions of people continue to live in poverty, their misery unnoticed by an unheeding world.

In an effort to tackle the problems caused by poverty, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) were launched at the 1996 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) World Food Summit. The MDG were established to provide support and assistance to over a billion people living in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty was defined as "'poverty that kills,' depriving individuals of the means to stay alive in the face of hunger, disease, and environmental hazards." The MDG added, "When individuals suffer from extreme poverty and lack the meager income needed even to cover basic needs, a single episode of disease, or a drought, or a pest that destroys a harvest can be the difference between life and death."

The MDG are comprised of eight goals, including poverty and hunger, child and maternal health, and the provision of universal education. Each goal is broken down into a number of specific targets. The target date set for the realization of the majority of these goals is 2015. For many commentators, the drawing up and implementation of the MDG was seen as a realization on the part of the world's leaders that the promotion of human development was crucial if social and economic progress were to be made sustainable.

The establishment of the MDG was not the first time such a development program had been instituted. In fact, development goals have been set by the United Nations since the 1960s. However, the lack of effective accountability mechanisms and dispersal of such initiatives amongst various bodies frequently contributed to their overall failure.

Furthermore, while the articulation of the MDG and their targets was undoubtedly a positive step, they were never intended to act as a universal panacea for the planet's poor and hungry. Indeed, the MDG have been plagued from the start by bickering over their exact significance.

In the preparatory debates of the MDG, there was a major dispute as to whether they were to be understood as a commitment to halving "the numbers of poor and undernourished" in relation to the "percentage of the world's rising population or of the faster-rising population of the developing countries." While this might appear mere bureaucratic haggling, its outcome could prove a matter of life and death for millions.

Thomas Pogge, the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University, calculates that adoption of the latter approach would mean a target reduction of 36 percent rather than 50 percent in the numbers of poor and undernourished. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lower figure carried the day. However, by 2001, achievement of even the less ambitious target was not looking good, as the trends indicated the possibility of even greater poverty and malnutrition in 2015 than there had been in 1996.

The 2005 UNDP HDR was also pessimistic regarding the possibility of achieving the targets laid out in the MDG, as it noted that poor people were being left behind across many of the goals. Moreover, the same report also noted that the "recurring theme in data from a large group of countries is that progress among the poorest 20 percent of the population is far below the national average." As a result, several of the MDG targets were unlikely to be met.

It was estimated that the MDG target for reducing child mortality would be missed by 4.4 million, a figure equivalent to three times the total number of children under five in London, New York and Tokyo. This would add a total of 41 million more children dying from poverty between 2005 and 2015 than would have been the case if the MDG target had been reached. Similarly, the target of universal primary education would not be achieved with some 47 million children still not in school by 2015.

The 2009 MDG progress report is also very pessimistic regarding the potential realization of the MDG by 2015. While this report does point out dramatic gains in certain areas—such as the massive reduction in the percentage of those living in extreme poverty in developing regions from just under half of the population to slightly over a quarter—this progress has not been equitable across the developing world. In fact, the great majority of the gains have been made in Asia and, in particular, China. Moreover, the current lack of economic growth, diminished resources, food security issues and so forth are now making their realization even more difficult.

A major obstacle to the realization of the MDG has been the failure of richer nations to honor their development commitments. At the Monterey Financing for Development Conference in 2002 the developed nations pledged to make concrete efforts towards meeting the U.N. 1970 General Assembly Resolution target of allocating 0.7 percent of their GNP in international aid. Meeting this target would have resulted in some $200 billion in total aid. However, the following year saw the 22 richest states failing absolutely to honor their development assistance pledge. In fact, the total development assistance amounted to just over $69 billion, some $130 billion dollars less than if the 0.7 percent promise had been fulfilled.

Despite a general increase in official development assistance, 2007 saw only 0.28 percent of the combined GNP of developed countries ($103.7 billion) being allocated.

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 that inequality could 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 ever-increasing marginalization of lower income groups, reduced social cohesion and a decline in the general well-being of poorer people.

Thomas Pogge puts forth a further critical objection related to the limited scope of the MDG. Pogge writes that the MDG "pledge cannot justify setting this problem aside: Our governments' plan envisages that, even in 2015, there will still be 420 million undernourished human beings and, assuming rough proportionality, 9 million 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 250 million 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?"

It would appear, therefore, that the MDG are a far from adequate approach on the part of the international community to tackle issues such as poverty, inequality and hunger. Though the MDG will undoubtedly benefit a certain number of those in poverty, even allowing for the wrangling over the numbers targeted for assistance, they will still condemn many who could potentially be assisted to lives wracked by poverty, misery and hunger.

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