Interview – Eveline Herfkens and Roberto Bissio

The UN Millennium Development Goals are commonly accepted as the framework for measuring development progress. What role did civil society play in their formulation, and what role can it play in implementation? Has civil society welcomed the goals? And is there enough money to achieve them?

Caroline Hartnell put these questions to Eveline Herfkens, the UN Secretary General’s Executive Coordinator for the Millennium Development Goals Campaign, and Roberto Bissio, Coordinator of Social Watch, one of the key figures in monitoring implementation of international social development commitments.

What role did civil society play in formulating the Millennium Development Goals?

Eveline Herfkens and Roberto Bissio’s answers to this question are remarkably similar. Both see the MDGs as the main outcomes of the great UN conferences of the 1990s – Rio, Copenhagen, Beijing, etc – and both see civil society’s role in those conferences as enormous. ‘If you look at the conferences through the 1990s that led up to the Millennium Declaration, you would say that civil society had played a vital role in formulating those goals,’ says Bissio.

When it comes to actually describing this ‘vital role’, their emphasis is slightly different. ‘Civil society played a huge role in getting governments to focus on social issues, like gender, poverty, the need to get girls into schools,’ says Herfkens. For Bissio, the emphasis is on their ‘demand that there be concrete measurable targets and goals so that governments can be held accountable’.

Those who complain that civil society is marginalized in international arenas and that civil society organizations (CSOs) are never there when the decisions are taken could take some comfort from Herfkens. ‘Well, they aren’t there when decisions are taken,’ she readily admits, but governments and international financial institutions (IFIs) are extremely sensitive to public opinion – and in her view ‘civil society shapes public opinion’. ‘You have to be inside the World Bank or in government to realize what a huge impact the NGO community has,’ she says. ‘I’ve done both, and know how tremendously important CSOs are and how they set the agenda.’

What about implementation?

When it comes to implementing the MDGs, Herfkens is adamant that civil society’s main role must be advocacy – ‘to make governments accountable for actually living up to the pledges they have made, through policy action and budgetary prioritization’. Civil society’s role, and the role of the campaign she’s ‘trying to run’, is to make sure governments ‘walk their talk’ – an expression that she uses on several occasions during the interview. In her unequivocal view, service delivery is not primarily civil society’s job. ‘It is basically the responsibility of government to take care of people, to take responsibility for health, education, fighting poverty. Actually delivering those services, I perceive as the role of NGOs only where government fails.’

Is there any place for advocacy with the multilateral institutions now or is all the real action at the national level? Herkens dismisses the question: ‘The point is that multinational institutions are not out there independently; they are run by governments … The parameters for the IMF and the World Bank are created by the members of their boards, which are the countries of the world, particularly the rich countries.’

Bissio, too, talks of civil society’s role in ‘assessing, reporting and organizing to create the political will that is needed to implement the Millennium Declaration’, and he sees this as happening at ‘an international level’. But he is more willing to accept a role for civil society in delivering services. ‘The fight against poverty is basically a fight of the people living in poverty themselves, and their organizations and the people working with them.’ Many NGOs and grassroots organizations, working in education or health or rural development or human rights, are in effect working towards the goals even if they’ve never heard of the Millennium Declaration or the MDGs. The issue for him, then, is whether or not the MDGs empower people working in these organizations and contribute to their work.

When it comes to advocacy, Bissio clearly feels civil society activists are at a disadvantage compared to Social Watch and others who took on the task of following up on the Social Summit goals. The difficulty he perceives is that the process of following up and reporting on the MDGs is still not ‘a clear political process like the +5 and +10 discussions that were put in place to follow up the different UN conferences in the 1990s’.

What he would really like to see is countries able to argue, and to get away with arguing, ‘I cannot pay so much of my external debt because if I do I will not be able to honour my commitments to the MDGs. Currently this would not be possible at all.’ This would basically mean developing countries being given special treatment, and in some areas having more rights or being allowed to do things that normally wouldn’t be allowed, in consideration of their special needs. This sort of approach would give the MDGs what he calls ‘a very contractual meaning’. It would elevate them above a country’s ‘list of best wishes, what we would like to do if everything goes fine’.

How has civil society reacted to the MDGs?

According to Herfkens, civil society has been ‘largely positive’ but there are some doubts. Of the two she mentions, she personally sympathizes with the first but not the second.

The first doubt she talks about is the amount of attention paid to the first seven goals relative to goal 8. As she sees it, ‘the first seven are basically issues where primary responsibilities rest with the developing counties themselves. But goal 8 is about rich OECD countries providing sufficient assistance, opening up their markets to products from farmers in the south, getting rid of the agricultural subsidies that destroy producers in developing countries, ensuring poor countries’ debts are sustainable … I think that the balance of the package is only fair if we focus sufficiently on what the North should be doing in order to help the South to actually achieve the first seven goals.’ In her view, ‘there is way too little debate about goal 8, which deals with the responsibility of rich nations’. If the focus is only on the first seven goals, she says, this will turn into ‘old style conditionality’.

In fact, what is already beginning to happen is that NGOs in the North – ‘their southern partners always ask them to do this’ – are raising these issues with their governments and demanding that they ‘walk their talk’ in terms of living up to their commitments under the MDGs.

What she has less sympathy with is the feeling that the rights-based approach to social and economic rights is not sufficiently captured in the language of the MDGs. In her view, the MDGs’ objectives are ‘perfectly consistent with a rights-based approach’. Education, she says, empowers people to fight for their rights. ‘I feel that it is fairly theoretical. If you are a six-year-old girl, providing the opportunity to go to school is more important than whether this is theoretically based on rights alone.’

Asked the same question about civil society’s reaction to the MDGs, Bissio talks first about the importance of MDGs in providing an objective standard which CSOs working at national level can hold up and say, “we should be in a different situation”, and second about the shortcomings of the goals in terms of country-level advocacy.

Obstacles to accomplishing the MDGs

CSOs, Bissio says, have identified certain obstacles to accomplishing the MDGs. Partly because the process of actually formulating the goals didn’t involve CSOs in any significant way (despite their active involvement in the UN conferences of the 1990s that led up to them) and partly because there hasn’t been enough dissemination of them, they have not been inspiring and empowering CSOs in the same way as, for example, agenda 21, which came out of the Rio conference. According to Bissio, the ‘ambiguity of the message’ adds to the problem. ‘The Millennium Challenge Account being created in the US[1] is in fact a completely different process, but because of its name and the fact that it was announced at Monterrey, the public tend to link it with MDGs. This is problematic in terms of the many criticisms that have been raised about the types of conditionalities the Millennium Challenge Account is bringing in.’

Bissio also mentions the fact that ‘the World Bank and the IMF are publicly and very actively promoting their support for the MDGs in a framework of privatization of services’. ‘Out of the eight goals, six seem to be related to service provision. So the MDGs are about providing basic services and that has to be done according to the Washington Consensus and through private investment and privatization, which is at least highly controversial’. In the context of recent and highly unpopular attempts to privatize water provision in Bolivia and electricity provision in Peru, and continuing negotiations on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), if the MDGs are too closely associated with the Washington Consensus and the push for globalization, ‘this will clearly not rally people’s favour’.

What about money for the MDGs?

Has enough new money come with the MDGs? Here Herfkens is more upbeat than Bissio, and here again her emphasis is on making rich country governments ‘walk their talk’. Conceding in passing that ‘even the poorest nation can make a better effort in terms of pro-poor budgeting’, she focuses on the commitments the rich nations made at Monterrey[2] and the crucial role for civil society in mobilizing public opinion in those nations to ensure governments put their money where their mouth is and translate their commitments into their budgets. ‘If the EU lives up to the 0.39 per cent of GNP by 2007 that they have agreed and then continue with a timeframe to reach 0.7 per cent, that would bring in a hell of a lot of money, and you would achieve the $50 billion.’[3]

Bissio is less sanguine about the money. ‘There isn’t a lot of extra money, that is very clear. There are different ways of estimating, but the additional money might become some $12 billion additional in three or four years.’ He also points out that Oxfam and other NGOs have estimated that it is not $50 billion but $100 billion additional per year that is needed.

However, he questions the basis of the estimates, which he describes as ‘very complex’. ‘We say we will try to curb the spread of AIDS, but are we going to do that with AIDS medication at the prices set by the multinational companies or using generic drugs? The cost of meeting the goal will be much more or much less depending on a set of policies.’

He also emphasizes that poverty eradication is not just about more aid. ‘Even if there is more aid, there are the prices of commodities, the access poor countries have to markets, the internal distribution of income within countries – so a lot of questions.’ It also concerns developed countries, he reminds us. There should be a clear priority for Africa and for the least developed countries, ‘but that doesn’t mean there is no poverty in developed countries or that they shouldn’t be considering their own social agenda and there own commitments’.

Are the MDGs sapping energy from the goals set at the UN Social Summit in Copenhagen?

No, Herfkens and Bissio agree, Herfkens more emphatically. For her, ‘the MDGs capture the essence of what we discussed in Copenhagen’. Or, putting it still more strongly, ‘I believe the MDGs sum up everything anyone who has ever worked in development has campaigned for.’ She sees the Copenhagen summit as the beginning of the idea that development should be people centred, the first time that goals were set in terms of the poor rather than trade or adjustments or some other means to an end. ‘I’ve spent 25 years in development cooperation and we had decades of disagreements, between east and west, between north and south, between the UN systems and the IFIs, between government and non-governmental experts? With the Copenhagen breakthrough, finally summed up in the MDGs, we have for the first time a package of what development is about, signed by 189 national leaders. It came from the UN but is endorsed by the IFIs. It resulted from an intergovernment system, but is warmly endorsed by most of the NGO movement.’

Bissio concedes that the MDGs are less demanding than the goals that came out of the Social Summit. A lot of the goals that were initially formulated for the year 2000 have simply been postponed for 15 years. But, he stresses, ‘goals have to be achievable, otherwise they are not going to mobilize anybody. On the other hand, they cannot be so easy to meet that nobody has to make an effort. In that balance, in a way the Millennium Declaration was realistic. The goals that were formulated for 2000 were maybe over-optimistic.’

But he dismisses this as a discussion more for the writers of history. For him, the key issue now is whether we are really looking at what we need to do to reach those goals. ‘Even if they are less ambitious, if we leave it as business as usual, what is going to happen is the same as happened in the 1990s, and we can already say that even those more moderate goals are not going to be met.’

The $1 a day measure of poverty

The other major problem he sees in the formulation of the MDGs is measuring poverty in terms of an income of $1 per day. Many see this as reducing poverty from a multifaceted problem to simply a problem of income. The Social Summit talked about poverty eradication, not just reduction by a certain proportion. It also demanded that every country had its own plan. The idea was to create a national process, nationally owned, ‘which everybody agrees is much more valuable than just a generic international declaration’.

The problem with this, he concedes, is that it makes it very difficult to compare how countries are doing. ‘What the Millennium Declaration did was to establish a form of very practical standards. The $1 a day measure can probably help us to get the big picture of whether poverty is increasing or decreasing.’

But he still insists that it isn’t helpful at a national level. It will be crucial, he says, for each country to internalize the goals and say what they mean in that country. ‘This is where a lot of civil society involvement is required. In Brazil reducing poverty has now acquired a national definition: by the end of Lula’s mandate, everyone should have three meals a day. That is a national translation of the MDGs. It is setting a standard that is backed politically by society and can be understood by the public.’ According to Bissio, many other countries are trying to come up with that kind of formulation – a process in which civil society must participate. ‘I think the Social Summit and the Millennium Declaration are probably trying to go in the same direction, but from different angles. Where those angles meet is at the national level, and that is where the action is needed.’

Herfkens ends on a very positive note. ‘What I really think is wonderful for NGOs,’ she says, ‘is that for the first time they are actually campaigning for something that in principle governments have committed themselves to. It is much easier to advocate for something that has been pledged in principle than for something the government never accepted in the first place. So I think that is a very important breakthrough in the Millennium Declaration and the resulting millennium development goals.’

1 President George Bush pledged that the US would increase its core assistance to developing countries by 50 per cent over the next three years, resulting in a $5 billion annual increase over current levels by 2006. This ‘additional’ aid would go into the Millennium Challenge Account.

2 While the US pledged the extra $5 billion, the EU reconfirmed their commitment to the figure of 0.7 per cent of GNP per year.

3 Neither the US nor Japan have ever accepted the 0.7 per cent figure.

Eveline Herfkens is the UN Secretary General’s Executive Coordinator for the Millennium Development Goals Campaign. She was Netherlands Minister for Development Cooperation from 1998 to 2002. From 1996 to 1998, she was Ambassador to the UN and the WTO. From 1990 to 1996, she was Executive Director of the World Bank Group. She has also been active in several NGOs. She can be contacted at

Roberto Bissio is co-director of the Instituto del Tercer Mundo (Third World Institute), a non-profit research and advocacy organization based in Uruguay. He is in charge of the secretariat of the Social Watch network and edits the yearly Social Watch report, which reflects the input of citizen coalitions in 60 countries monitoring the implementation of international social development commitments. He is also a member of Third World Network’s international committee and of the civil society advisory group to the UNDP administrator. He can be contacted at




Why CSO multilateralism is growing

Nigel Martin

Against the background of increasing American unilateralism and a growing concern that American hegemony is displacing governmental multilateralism, global civil society is becoming increasingly multilateral in its outlook. Why is this happening?

One of the main reasons is a concern that UN reform is moving too slowly and that a growing proportion of global governance bodies are not directly accountable to democratically elected representatives, plus a conviction that active participation by civil society at the global level will mitigate the increasingly autocratic tendencies of certain global institutions.

One can also discern the beginnings of a move on the part of CSOs from issues affecting quality of life to issues perceived as affecting the survival of the human species. This in turn is bringing a recognition of the need for global solidarity and a realization that, in order to deal with the root causes of such issues, CSOs must work at global as well as local level. As southern CSO leaders begin to take an increasing lead within the global CSO movement, they bring to that movement a greater sensitivity to, and understanding of, the multilateral system. This is only natural as most multilateral programmes have much more of an impact on countries of the South than of the North.

At the same time, the capacity of civil society to function globally is growing as CSOs increasingly gain access to, and expertise in, global communications technology. Increased CSO willingness to share lessons learned from successful multilateral advocacy experiences is leading to a greater body of shared knowledge. There is also a growing experience of the effectiveness of global CSO ‘swarming’[1] in order to deal with specific multilateral concerns.

Solidarity is another factor: both a sense of solidarity with those multilateral bodies that have relatively clear democratic accountability and the growing North/South solidarity around specific issues and targets which is slowly replacing the traditional North/South, donor/recipient model.

Although the trend towards multilateralism is a global one, it is developing via civil society’s well-worn tradition of following its collective instincts rather than being guided by any preset ideological path. Like all strengths, this intuitive bent creates its own weaknesses, one of which is the continual inclination to reinvent the wheel. This is why it is essential that academia play a greater role in global civil society; their skills complement very well those of the activists. They know what has gone before, what has worked and what has failed. Two very positive next steps would be the refinement of action research, so that it becomes a standard action tool rather than merely an academic discipline, and the creation of a global media, or global free press, rooted in civil society and independent of global corporate interests.

1 This wonderful new term refers to the coming together of rather disparate elements of civil society, for a brief period of time, in order to deal with a specific issue or event that effects their respective missions, eg a World Bank Annual Meeting; a G8 meeting; a summit conference, etc.

Nigel Martin is President and CEO of Montreal International Forum (FIM). He can be contacted at

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