Millennium Development Goals 'far from adequate'

The UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDG) are failing to meet their objectives and highlight wealthier nations inadequate approach to tackling global poverty, writes Justin Frewen.

The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Haiti has forced the West yet again to consider the plight of the poor and destitute in the developing world. While Haiti widely covered by the media - if not generally in any great depth as to the underlying causes of such wholesale poverty – billions of people continue to live in dire poverty, hunger and inequitable conditions globally.

The Egyptian economist and director of the Third World Forum in Dakar (Senegal), Samir Amin, wrote at the beginning of this millennium: "The polarization that is characteristic of modern globalization is phenomenal, without precedent in the entire past history of humanity."

Moreover, despite the expenditure of some US$2.5 trillion in international development assistance the situation seems worse than ever. However, while outlining the problems facing the poorest of our planet’s citizens is a relatively easy task, what can be done to stop this ongoing cataclysm?

Probably the best known large scale recent international initiative to tackle the evils of poverty, hunger and inequality in the area of international development is the Millennium Development Goals. The MDG arose out of the proceedings of the 1996 FAO-organised World Food Summit and were animated by 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”, approval of the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and a “Plan of Action to combat hunger”.

According to the 2005 UN Millennium Project report, these MDG are aimed at providing support and assistance to over a billion people who are “still living in extreme poverty” and are “a life and death issue” for them. The document states: "Extreme poverty can be defined as “poverty that kills,” depriving individuals of the means to stay alive in the face of hunger, disease, and environmental hazards. 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 and cover areas including the end of poverty and hunger, tackling child health and maternal health concerns, the provision of universal education and so on. Each goal is further broken down into a number of specific targets. The target date set for the realisation of the majority of these goals was 2015. For many commentators, the drawing up and implementation of the MDG was seen as a realisation on the part of the world’s leaders that the promotion of human development was crucial if social and economic progress was to be made sustainable.

However, this was not the first time such a development programme had been instituted. In fact, development goals had been set by the UN since the 1960s but the lack of effective accountability mechanisms and dispersal of such initiatives amongst various bodies frequently contributed to their overall failure.  

Furthermore, praiseworthy though the aims of these MDG might appear at first sight, they were never intended to act as a universal panacea for the planet’s poor and hungry. The MDG has been plagued by bickering from the start as to their exact significance. In the preparatory debates to 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 to be merely one more example of bureaucratic haggling, its outcome could literally signify the difference between life and death for millions of mean. As Thomas Pogge, the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University, outlines:  

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.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lower target 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% of the population is far below the national average.” As a result several of the MDG targets were unlikely to be met.

For instance, 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 London, New York and Tokyo. This would add a total of 41 more children dying from poverty – between 2005 and 2015 than would have occurred if the MDG target had been reached. Similarly, the target of universal primary education would not be achieved with some 47m children still not in school by 2015.

The 2009 MDG progress report is also very pessimistic regarding the potential realisation 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, it is important to point out that this progress has not been equitable across the developing world. In fact, the great majority of the gains in this area have been made in Asia and, in particular, China. Moreover, the current lack of economic growth, diminished resources, food security resources and so forth is now making their realisation 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 Monterey Financing for Development Conference in 2002 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 some US$200 billion in total aid. However, the following year 2003 saw the 22 richest states failing absolutely to honour their development assistance pledge. In fact, the total development assistance amounted to just over $69 billion, some $130 billion dollars less than - or approximately 35% of - the 0.7% promise would have realised.

While international development aid did increase over the following years and in 2007, an 8.4% drop in net aid disbursements in real terms over 2006, saw a total of $103.7 billion committed, representing only 0.28 per cent of the combined GNP of developed countries.

Although Ireland’s ODA for 2010, at 0.52 per cent of our GNP, is comparatively high with respect to the average, it falls below the government’s interim projected target of 0.6 per cent. This would appear to indicate that it is highly 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 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 could occur if the higher income brackets experience a faster rise than lower income levels. Given the present extremes of inequality, as discussed in part 4 of this mini-series, this is hardly a desirable outcome, as further increases in inequality risk provoking even greater marginalisation of lower income groups, reduced social cohesion and a decline in the general well-being of poorer people.

There is also a further absolutely critical objection, which relates to the limited scope of the MDG. Thomas Pogge1 puts this point very well when he writes 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?”

It would appear therefore, that the MDG are a far from adequate approach on the part of the richer countries to tackle the evils of poverty, inequality, hunger and half-lives of those living in the poorer countries. Though it may be true that the MDG might have positive consequences for a certain number of those in poverty, even allowing for the wrangling over the numbers targeted for assistance, they still condemn many who might be assisted to continue to live and die in poverty and hunger. 

1Recently Pogge has further criticised the manner in which the MDG targets have been established. See, for instance, How World Poverty is Measured and Tracked, where he wrote about the first MDG to reduce poverty:

"Since its celebrated adoption by the UN General Assembly, MDG-1 has undergone further dramatic dilution. The current UN interpretation and tracking of MDG-1 expresses the number of poor as a proportion not of world population (“the world’s people”), but of the faster growing population of the developing countries. It also backdates the baseline to 1990. Because the population of the developing countries in 2015 is expected to be 145% of what it was in 1990, a reduction in the number of poor to 72.5% of what it was in 1990 is now deemed sufficient to “halve poverty by 2015.” Shrinking the reduction to be achieved and also lengthening to 25 years the period in which to achieve it, this revision of MDG-1 lowers the needed annual reduction in the number of poor people down to 1.28%. This revision also raises the acceptable number of poor people in 2015 – to 1318 million (1990 benchmark minus 27.5%), according to the current World Bank statistics (ibid.).

The revision of MDG-1 also has its comical side: causing the UN to report that the 2015 target was met, or very nearly so, in the world’s most populous region – East Asia and the Pacific – already in 1999, a full year before this goal had even been adopted!