Making the MDGs accessible to all

Editorial, Normal


WORLD leaders have gathered in New York to encourage progress towards meeting the United Nations millennium development goals (MDGs) – a set of eight objectives, ranging from eradicating extreme poverty and hunger to reducing child mortality and achieving universal primary education, which are to be achieved by 2015. 
The purpose of the summit, which began yesterday, is to take stock of successes and failures and to move towards “concrete strategies for action”.
The summit would do the entire world a great service by acknowledging what has gone wrong with the MDGs and choosing a radically different approach.
The MDGs, as they are currently conceived, address the symptoms of poverty and underdevelopment but mostly ignore the deeper causes. They draw attention to 18 targets in total – those for which data are most easily compiled.
However, the result is that the MDGs may divert attention from the mechanisms that produce underdevelopment – rather like the drunken man searching for his keys under the lone streetlamp because the light is better there.  
Instead of vowing to support humanitarian objectives and throwing money at poverty’s symptoms, rich countries must recognise the urgency of removing the obstacles to development that they have the power to address.
Each year, for example, developing countries miss out on US$124 billion in revenue from offshore assets held in tax havens. By not closing down such tax havens, we actively encourage corrupt elites in these countries to continue cheating their populations. 
Moreover, the current system of international trade is deeply inequitable. It exposes developing countries to unfair competition and discourages diversification of their economies. These countries face a burden of foreign debt – estimated at US$500 billion for poor countries – that is simply incompatible with the pursuit of development goals.
Addressing these issues is vital for development objectives to have any chance to succeed.
Yet, although goal 8 is to achieve a global partnership for development and, although some progress has been made on the debt issue, too little has been done to give this initiative concrete meaning.
Another major deficiency of the MDGs is their failure to recognise human rights as essential to any sustainable development strategy. However, human rights are not just symbols; they are also tools. They are valuable because they are operational.
The world’s one billion hungry people do not deserve charity. They have a human right to adequate food and governments have corresponding duties which are enshrined in international human rights law.
Governments that are serious about making progress on development objectives should be asked to adopt a legislative framework for the realisation of economic and social rights such as the right to food or the right to health care.
That framework should be designed through a participatory process involving civil society. It should define which actions should be taken, by whom, within which timeframe and with which resources.
The intended beneficiaries of these actions should be defined as rights-holders.
Accountability mechanisms should be established, allowing victims to hold governments responsible for their failure to take action. This removes the stigma of charity and it is empowering for victims.
The framework also should include a non-discrimination requirement, ensuring that we focus our attention on the most vulnerable groups – not just the well-connected, the literate and the favourites of the regime, and not just groups for which quick wins can be achieved.
All democratic revolutions begin with human rights.
The MDG summit is missing an opportunity to begin this much-needed revolution in our understanding of economic development as well. – Project Syndicate


*Olivier De Schutter is the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food.