Millennium summit falls far short of needs

Posted: 29 September 2008

It was a cruel coincidence that the day set aside for the world to consider the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - September 25 - was also the day that the world was preoccupied by something else, the crisis in United States financial markets, writes John Madeley, in this report on the outcome of that event.

The MDG summit, aimed at highlighting the needs of the world's poor, stood in stark contrast with the greed of the rich which brought the global financial system to the brink of collapse.

Women at a waterpump, Tidi, Rajasthan,
Women at a waterpump, Tidi, Rajasthan,
Women at a waterpump, Tidi, Rajasthan, India. Photo © Kai Friese/People & the Planet.

The MDGs, eight in all, were agreed at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. By 2015, all the UN's member nations pledged to: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a Global Partnership for Development.

These goals are the most determined international effort in history to galvanise action to raise the living standards of the world's poor.

Within each of the MDGs there are specific targets. One of the targets under the first goal is to reduce by half, by 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. Under Goal 7 a target is to "reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water".

The aim of the September 25th summit was "to renew commitments to achieving the agreed goals and to set out concrete plans and practical steps for action".

Some progress

While there has been some progress in the last eight years - the water target, for example, is on track - the UN and aid agencies have raised the alarm that the MDGs are behind schedule. Progress varies a great deal. It is a greatly more advanced in Asia than in Africa. Worldwide, while some developing countries have achieved all the targets, others are not on track to attain any of them. And some of the gains have been wiped out by this year's steep rise in food and fuel prices.

At the summit meeting, contributions and pledges of US $16 billion were announced which should help towards attaining the targets. The US$16 billion includes US$1.6 bn to foster food security, US$4.5 bn to put 24 million more children in school by 2010, and US$3 bn to help combat malaria. Some of the money will also go to support national health plans and improve access to clean water and sanitation.

"Today we did something special. We brought together a broad coalition for change," the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told a news conference at the end of the day-long event; the summit "exceeded our most optimistic expectations," he said.

He believed that this expression of global commitment was all the more remarkable "because it comes against the backdrop of financial crisis".

"Today, we have strengthened the global partnership for development," Ban told participants at the event's closing. "Your resolve to act is evident. Yes, you have stepped up to confront growing challenges. Now, I urge you to move with more speed and focus."

Ban has called for a summit on the MDGs in 2010 to further assess the delivery of the commitments undertaken.

Paltry pledges

But the US$16 billion is nowhere near enough to meet the challenge of achieving the MDG targets. The amount seems paltry when compared with the US$700 bn bailout plan for US banks. Development agencies believe that over US$70 bn, not US$16 bn, is needed.

Credit crunch cartoon
Credit crunch cartoon
Credit: Alexei Talimonov

"While the US Congress is currently finalising a US$700 billion bailout for financial firms, it seems the UN General Assembly cannot mobilise the $72 billion a year needed to realise targets set to end world poverty and hunger", said the aid agency, ActionAid International.

"Money is on offer freely to reward the failures of the private sector in Washington. But in New York the pleas from poor countries, representatives from marginalised communities, and UN agencies, for a massive injection of finance to address the food crisis, appear to be falling on deaf ears," said Colm Ó Cuanacháin, International Head of Campaigns ActionAid International.

"New money is welcome but is limited unless we tackle the root causes of poverty", said Joanne Green of the aid agency, CAFOD; "aid plays animportant role but it won't solve world poverty and the MDGs themselves are the absolute minimum we should achieve by 2015. Now is the time to make a long overdue shift from pursuing the greed of the few to the well-being of the many."

The London-based aid agency Christian Aid believes that wider factors must be taken into account, other than the money which hs beenpledged.

Malnourished Afar child, Ethiopia
Malnourished Afar child, Ethiopia
An Afar child in Ethiopia is given a Middle Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) test. The majority of children in the area were suffering borderline malnourishment (under 12 centimetres in circumference). Photo © Oxfam/Nick Danziger

While welcoming the pledge of US$3 bn to fight malaria as "a significant move in the right direction" Alex Cobham, Christian Aid's policy manager, said that "the MDGs in many countries are going to remain out of reach until rich nations stop forcing inappropriate trade liberalisation measures on poorer economies that are not ready for them."

'The activities of transnational corporations to unfairly reduce their tax liabilities in the developing world as much as possible, are alsogrievously undermining international aid efforts", said Cobham.

More attention must be paid to realising MDG 8 which calls for 'a global partnership for development' that would address the needs of least developed countries and include an 'open, rule-based, and predictable non discriminatory trading and financial system', says Christian Aid. Tax evasion by big business in the developing world is costing as much as US$160 billion, "which is one and a half times the combined aid budgets of rich countries last year", it says.

More controls on big business at least seems likely as a result of financial crisis. The MDGs, and the lifting of people out of poverty, will only be achieved if their attainment now becomes a priority for all countries. And that means looking at all the issues which affect the poor, including a world trading and financial system which is basically unjust.

Crisis on Wall Street hit the headlines. For millions of people the daily, ongoing crisis is how to survive. The MDGs are fine in principle, but need translating into action to meet that crisis.

John Madeley is a Contributing Editor of this website.