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Can We Save the MDGs?

By Shashi Tharoor | Project Syndicate | September 14, 2010

CREDIT: United Nations.

The target date for fulfilling the Millennium Development Goals is 2015, and the world knows it is not on course to meet those goals. So world leaders are set to gather at the United Nations to undertake a comprehensive review, with the aim of agreeing on a roadmap and a plan of action to get to the MDG finishing line on schedule.

I was at the UN in September 2000, when world leaders met at the Millennium Summit and pledged to work together to free humanity from the "abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty," and to "make the right to development a reality for everyone." These pledges include commitments to improve access to education, health care, and clean water for the world's poorest people; abolish slums; reverse environmental degradation; conquer gender inequality; and cure HIV/AIDS.

It's an ambitious list, but its capstone is Goal 8, which calls for a "global partnership for development." This includes four specific targets: "an open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system;" special attention to the needs of least-developed countries; help for landlocked developing countries and small island states; and national and international measures to deal with developing countries' debt problems.

Basically, it all boiled down to a grand bargain: While developing countries would obviously have primary responsibility for achieving the MDGs, developed countries would be obliged to finance and support their efforts for development.

This hasn't really happened. At the G-8 summit at Gleneagles and the UN World Summit in 2005, donors committed to increasing their aid by $50 billion at 2004 prices, and to double their aid to Africa from 2004 levels by 2010. But official development assistance (ODA) last year amounted to $119.6 billion, or just 0.31 percent of the developed countries' GDP—not even half of the UN's target of 0.7 percent of GDP. In current US dollars, ODA actually fell by more than 2 percent in 2008.

The UN admits that progress has been uneven, and that many of the MDGs are likely to be missed in most regions. An estimated 1.4 billion people were still living in extreme poverty in 2005, and the number is likely to be higher today, owing to the global economic crisis. The number of undernourished people has continued to grow, while progress in reducing the prevalence of hunger stalled—or even reversed—in some regions between 2000–2002 and 2005–2007.

About one in four children under the age of five are underweight, mainly due to lack of quality food, inadequate water, sanitation, and health services, and poor care and feeding practices. Gender equality and women's empowerment, which are essential to overcoming poverty and disease, have made at best fitful progress, with insufficient improvement in girls' schooling opportunities or in women's access to political authority.

Progress on trade has been similarly disappointing. Developed country tariffs on imports of agricultural products, textiles, and clothing—the principal exports of most developing countries—remained between 5 percent and 8 percent in 2008, just 2–3 percentage points lower than in 1998.

The time has come to reinforce Goal 8 in two fundamental ways. Developed countries must make commitments to increase both the quantity and effectiveness of aid to developing countries. Aid must help developing countries improve the welfare of their poorest populations according to their own development priorities. But donors all too often feel obliged to make their contributions "visible" to their constituencies and stakeholders, rather than prioritizing local perspectives and participation.

There are other problems with development aid. Reporting requirements are onerous and often impose huge administrative burdens on developing countries, which must devote the scarce skills of educated, English-speaking personnel to writing reports for donors rather than running programs. And donor agencies often recruit the best local talent themselves, usually at salaries that distort the labor market. In some countries, doctors find it more remunerative to work as translators for foreign-aid agencies than to treat poor patients.

Meanwhile, donors' sheer clout dilutes the accountability of developing countries' officials and elected representatives to their own people.

We must change the way the world goes about the business of providing development aid. We need a genuine partnership, in which developing countries take the lead, determining what they most acutely need and how best to use it. Weak capacity to absorb aid on the part of recipient countries is no excuse for donor-driven and donor-directed assistance. The aim should be to help create that capacity. Indeed, building human-resource capacity is itself a useful way of fulfilling Goal 8.

Doing so would serve donors' interest as well. Aligning their assistance with national development strategies and structures, or helping countries devise such strategies and structures, ensures that their aid is usefully spent and guarantees the sustainability of their efforts. Donors should support an education policy rather than build a photogenic school; aid a health campaign rather than construct a glittering clinic; or do both—but as part of a policy or a campaign, not as stand-alone projects.

Trade is the other key area. In contrast to aid, greater access to the developed world's markets creates incentives and fosters institutions in the developing world that are self-sustaining, collectively policed, and more consequential for human welfare. Many countries are prevented from trading their way out of poverty by the high tariff barriers, domestic subsidies, and other protections enjoyed by their rich-country competitors.

The European Union's agricultural subsidies, for example, are high enough to permit every cow in Europe to fly business class around the world. What African farmer, despite his lower initial costs, can compete?

The onus is not on developed countries alone. Developing countries, too, have made serious commitments to their own people, and the primary responsibility for fulfilling those commitments is theirs. But Goal 8 assured them that they would not be alone in this effort. Unless that changes, the next five years will be a path to failure.

© 2010 Project Syndicate. Republished with kind permission.

Read More: Agriculture, Aid, Cities, Debt, Development, Diplomacy, Economy, Education, Environment, Ethics, Finance, Food, Gender, Globalization, Health, Human Rights, Poverty, Trade, Global

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