Galvanizing global civic action against poverty

Salil Shetty

As 191 world leaders travelled to New York in September 2000 for the UN Millennium Summit, the largest such meeting in human history, the stark paradox of the last decade must have weighed heavily on their minds. The world had seen massive increases in both wealth and poverty, fuelled by growing inequality both between and within countries.

Against this backdrop, the Millennium Declaration that came out of the Summit was undoubtedly inspirational. Recognizing that such a world is neither just nor stable, the leaders committed themselves to freeing their fellow citizens from the suffering and indignity that goes with abject poverty, and to spreading the benefits and costs of globalization more evenly.

Of course, it is not unusual for UN Summits to come up with statements that have the right ring to them. What was new on this occasion was the decision to include concrete promises within the Declaration itself, translated shortly after into the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a series of quantified objectives to be achieved by 2015.

These Goals represent a compact made by governments of rich and poor countries at the highest political level – and with the UN system, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the regional development banks. For the first time, the international financial institutions and rich country governments made explicit what they can be held accountable for, not just in terms of process but also in terms of outcomes. The Goals aim to address poverty in its many dimensions: low income, hunger, lack of education, gender inequality, disease, environmental degradation, insecurity of shelter, and lack of access to safe water and sanitation. The eighth Goal commits rich countries to give more and better aid, reduce debt levels and create fairer global trade rules, something that was absent in many previous commitments.

It was made clear in the Declaration and after that the Goals have to be seen as building on the other commitments that came out of the various UN Summits of the 1990s in Copenhagen, Beijing, Cairo, etc. Seen in this light, the Goals cover, albeit in a minimalist way, a broad and fairly complete terrain of basic human well-being. In combination, they seek to define a dignified life. They are strongly interconnected, and achieving progress in any one of the Goals is dependent on making progress in the other seven.[1]

A human rights framework

This concept of human development is explicitly embedded within a human rights framework outlined in the Millennium Declaration. The Declaration sees the Goals as operationalizing the Right to Development, recognized in a UN Resolution in 1986. The human rights underpinning of the Millennium Goals helps remind us that poverty is multi-dimensional. As well as hunger, illiteracy, disease, poor housing, insecurity, etc, it brings with it an absence of respect, dignity and choice. Without the human rights concepts articulated in the Millennium Declaration, the Millennium Goals lose their teeth and become another set of lofty promises.[2] Without a human rights framework – which underlines that what the Goals promise is no less than the inalienable rights of all human beings – achieving and, even more importantly, sustaining the Goals would not be possible. It is essential that the Millennium Goals are achieved through a process that respects the values, standards and principles outlined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

The Millennium Goals, in fact for the first time, offer a real possibility of benchmarking progress on existing human rights treaties, covenants and commitments, by putting some hard numbers and dates on progressive realization. The idea of halving extreme poverty might sound contradictory to the universal nature of human rights (if freedom from extreme poverty is seen as a universal human right, how can we countenance leaving the other half of those in extreme poverty in that state?), but we have to remember that the halving idea is linked to a precise date, 2015, and at a global level. The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights and the Special Rapporteurs, particularly on Health, are finding practical ways of using the Goals to push the human rights agenda forward.

Where the rubber hits the road

While the Goals have some value at the global level as a set of outcomes around which there is political consensus, their real value is at the national and local level – where the rubber hits the road. And there the global Goals have to be seen as merely the minimum, requiring adaptation to each context.

Furthermore, the Goals are precise and quantified. Performance against them is measurable and accountable. This enables members of the international community to peer review each other, governments to be accountable to their citizens, and civil society to put pressure on governments to monitor their performance. Poverty-focused strategies and approaches are called for if the Goals are to be achieved, rather than relying on economic growth to ‘trickle down’ to all sections of society. Growth is necessary, but it’s definitely not sufficient. The end has to be human well-being. And the end is not open, but time-bound.

MDGs dominating development discourse

In the past four years, the Millennium Goals have become part of the dominant development discourse, not just among donors but also among many developing country governments and, increasingly, civil society movements around the world. They are proving a potent tool to mobilize resources and galvanize political and social action. In rich countries these demands centre on aid, trade and debt (Goal 8). In the South, civil society is focusing its efforts on getting governments to improve their levels of accountability and transparency and to implement national plans that are geared towards achievement of the Goals. The Global Call to Action Against Poverty and several other campaigns across the world are framing their policy demands around the promises explicit in the Millennium Declaration.

There is no doubt that without the framework of the Millennium Compact and the Millennium Goals agreed in September 2000, fortified at the Monterrey Conference on Financing for Development in 2002, aid levels would not have finally started going up. Civil society pressure for the Goals through over 50 national campaigns in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and North America, such as Make Poverty History in the UK, has led to real advances in a very short space of time. The campaigns have been able to work closely with the media to create awareness of the Goals and poverty globally, and ultimately to increase accountability of governments. Local authorities and Parliamentarians in many countries have also become very active in the campaigns.

Growing consciousness but slow progress

However, the reality is that progress at the ground level in poor countries across the world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, is still unacceptably slow. The aggregates on performance on extreme poverty (Goal 1) at the global and indeed the national level are misleading. The Commission for Africa Report[3] and the Millennium Project Report[4] – the two major policy assessments – confirm this, as does the latest progress report from the UN Secretary General.[5] It is an oft-quoted statistic that at the current rate of progress, many of the Goals will not be reached even in another 100 years in many of the poorer countries across the world, and certainly not for the poorest people.

The good news, however, is that many poor countries are starting to move in the right direction and several of them are on track to meet some of the Goals by 2015. This proves that the Goals are achievable if the political will exists, and the right policies, institutions and resourcing for their achievement, at both national and international level, in both North and South.

A propitious year

The year 2005 offers an amazing range of possibilities for a real breakthrough towards achieving the Goals in the ten years remaining until 2015. The European Union has announced some concrete and positive measures on improving aid quantity and quality in the last couple of months. The G8 announcements in early July have built upon that, although most campaigners would have liked to see more, particularly from the non-EU countries, on aid and debt, and a stronger push for fairer terms of trade between North and South as a result of the Doha Round of trade negotiations. We now look towards the UN Summit in New York in September 2005, where over 150 heads of state will review progress against the Millennium Declaration, including the Millennium Goals, and the WTO Ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in December. Each of these events will see a massive global mobilization from civil society and citizens generally with one simple demand to governments: Keep your promise.

Several key world leaders have put their weight behind achieving the Millennium Goals and have put addressing poverty and inequality on top of their government’s agenda. These include President Lula, President Wade, President Obassanjo, President Zapatero, Prime Minister Blair supported by Chancellor Gordon Brown, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and President Yudhoyono. Leading the charge for the people’s campaign is Nelson Mandela, whose message to over 20,000 campaigners gathered in Trafalgar Square earlier this year was clear: we won the struggle against slavery and then against apartheid, both of which seemed insurmountable at the time. The next big war is the one against poverty and we have to win this for the sake of humanity and our collective future.

The role of the private donor community

This issue of Alliance intends to help make the private donor community aware of the opportunities that the Millennium Goals offer in terms of helping them achieve their own objectives. Several key foundations are starting to use the Goals as the overarching framework for their activities, whether it be for their operational projects or grantmaking in the South or for development education work and campaigning in the North.

In any case, most private donor support is in fact directed towards the first seven Goals. Many civil society actors – NGOs, foundations, etc – have been focused for the last several decades on providing information and services to the underprivileged. This is a very valuable contribution: as things are, these groups of people stand little chance of accessing these services without the support of non-state actors. This alignment with private donors’ work already exists because the Goals simply represent the basic needs, basic rights and indeed aspirations of people across the world, particularly in poor countries.

But the central challenge is that despite all this work, we still have 30,000 people a day dying from poverty, 120 million children (mostly girls) denied the right to even primary schooling, 3 million people succumbing to AIDS last year, and over half a million women dying annually during childbirth. The tragedy, of course, is that this is all preventable.

To change this we need a step change in the level of action. Using the Goals as the rubric to connect the work of individual organizations provides a larger purpose and a clear sense of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole. This should lead to private donors thinking more about scale and sustainability and about the need to avoid duplication with the work of others who are working towards the same larger goals.

Civil society is increasingly recognizing the challenge to scale up and sustain. This inevitably requires governments to deliver, in conjunction with strong independent civil society monitoring at the national and global level. We need governments in the South to adapt the MDGs to the national context, involve their citizens in deciding the right policies to achieve these nationally tailored goals, build institutions that will respond to the needs of the poor and excluded, particularly women, challenge the international financial institutions and bilateral donors to focus on achieving the MDGs, and ensure that adequate domestic and external resources are allocated to achieving them for all citizens by 2015. They will have to do this in a manner that is accountable and transparent to their own citizens and the international community. But for this, we need governments in the North to meet their long-standing promises on aid, debt and trade now.

A high return on investment

Aligning the work of individual organizations with the Millennium Goals, particularly supporting campaigns towards this end, has a very high return on investment. Many Alliance readers may be familiar with the open letter of gratitude from President Mkapa of Tanzania to the Jubilee campaign. Thanks to the work of the anti-debt campaigners in the North working in close cooperation with civil society campaigners inside Tanzania, debt cancellation was secured and the money that was released was put directly into removing school fees. Overnight hundreds of thousands of children were able to go to school in Tanzania – a massive return on a very small investment from a few far-sighted donors.

The private funding community has everything to gain from using the Millennium Goals in their own work. And that is why many foundations are starting to do so already. They can add a great deal of value by accompanying existing civil society efforts to enhance government accountability – becoming advocates themselves as well as funding NGO campaigns. They can use this to link more closely with the citizens of their own home country and with the citizens of some of the poorest countries in the world. Their contribution will be unique as very few official donors will be supporting the civil society campaigns at the national level, particularly in the South. A basic campaigning infrastructure is already in place now, with a strong track record over the last year or so. Given that civil society extracted many of these pledges from governments through decades of effort, they can play a crucial role in holding governments to account for their implementation.

Only through sustained pressure from its citizens will governments show the political will, moral courage and leadership to take action. The community of foundations, grantmakers and private donors could play a vital role in this struggle for true freedom – freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom from indignity.

1 For more information on the MDGs, visit http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals or http://www.millenniumcampaign.org

2 Human rights instruments provide some means of legally enforcing the Goals.

3 Commission for Africa (2005) Our Common Interest. Report of the Commission for Africa London (March)

4 UN Millennium Project (2005) Investing in Development. See http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/reports

5 UN (2005) Millennium Development Goals Report, 2005. See http://millenniumindicators.un.org

Guest editor for the special Alliance feature on ‘Meeting the Millennium Development Goals’

Salil Shetty is the Director of the UN Millennium Campaign. He was with ActionAid from 1985 to 2003. He can be contacted at salil.shetty@undp.org

He would like to thank his colleague, Ciara Gaynor, for her help in putting this article together.


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