Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Millennium Development Goals

Do you know what the Millennium Development Goals are? In September 2000, the 189 countries of the United Nations agreed to a project to reduce human misery around the world by 2015 by working for the following items:
  • Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
  • Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education ;
  • Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women;
  • Goal 4: Reduce child mortality;
  • Goal 5: Improve maternal health;
  • Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases;
  • Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability;
  • Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development.
And wouldn't this be a better world if we could do it!

So far, progress has been mixed. A U.N. report warns that the world is not getting there on schedule. The leaders of many nations gather at the United Nations today to assess that progress.

There have been critics. The Marxist objection was articulated by Samir Amin: the goals were not the result of an initiative from the economic South, the poor nations, but from the small group of North American, European and Asian nations that benefit from imposing their definition of global development on the peoples of the periphery.

I've heard a more personal version of this critique from an individual U.S.-citizen aid worker recently returned from a stint in a poor African country: nobody asked anyone she worked with whether these formulations were how they thought they could work their way out of poverty.

Even the professional nonprofit aid "industry" sometimes raises questions about the MDG approach:

In his 2006 book "The White Man's Burden," former World Bank economist William Easterly issued a sweeping critique of the whole prevailing approach to aid, detailing how, for decades, aid providers had come up with massive plans to help poor nations and then, Soviet-style, attempted to impose them from outside, to little effect. Lacking local input and insensitive to local needs, these megaproposals often failed to make a real dent in the problems they were spending millions of dollars to address.

Perhaps even worse (same source) the big signatories have mostly reneged on their promises:

Wealthy countries have closed their wallets. In Japan, the government has slashed aid budgets dramatically. In 2006, the United States cut development aid by over 18 percent, and it dropped again the next year. Despite the promises of Gleneagles, net aid handouts from the G-7 group of powerful nations fell by 1 percent in 2007, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a monitoring group. The nongovernmental organization Oxfam projects that by 2010, wealthy nations will fall short of their pledges by some $30 billion - more than the United States' entire annual aid expenditures.

Okay, so the Millennium Development Goals are in trouble. Do they really matter?

I say yes, provisionally. Their pursuit may do something concrete for some people in the world who need a better chance to survive with human dignity. But the MDGs also give those of us in the rich world who are surviving so very well indeed on the backs of the world's poor a place to stand. They ask us to demand of our governments that they reconfigure themselves as members of an interdependent humanity and planet. It's that simple.

Given the wide diversity peoples and traditions around the planet, it's hard to find a shared platform from which to make claims for common humanity. No one religious faith or historic experience can claim to know it all. Somehow, we must learn to live together or die. The MDGs are a flawed but significant attempt to set such a goal across our differences.

Internet activists: if you want to work for the MDGs in the way we so accustomed to, I urge you to take part in the Poverty Promise Breakers petition campaign. The organization is an effort to build something like MoveOn across national boundaries. The world needs to develop this kind of solidarity.

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