Interview – Ezra Mbogori

It’s become almost a commonplace to find fault with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): they are minimal in their ambitions; they are based disproportionately on the views of the North rather than the needs of the South; they reduce to statistical targets matters of human aspiration and human need; they involve simply throwing money at questions whose solution is not primarily a matter of money – the list could go on.

In spite of this, argues Ezra Mbogori of MWENGO,[1] they’re all we’ve got and they’re worth striving for. Not only for their value in themselves but, as he told Alliance, for the part they might play in restarting a development process which has to some extent stalled.

There is no question, he feels, that the MDGs are not all that they might be. They do not so much represent progress in the development argument as a kind of holding of the line: ‘The Millennium Development Goals are really for all intents and purposes minimum development goals. They fall far short of development commitments that were made in the past. But in our current situation, I think, the MDGs do help those who want to maintain some sort of focus on development to at least arrest the flight or regression … and they enable us to start building up arguments again for being a little more ambitious in pursuit of development.’

A spirit of pragmatism

So while the MDGs are unambitious, ‘they do offer a starting point’. He believes that both developed and developing countries are approaching the MDGs in a pragmatic spirit. He sees the need for the South to make compelling arguments to reinflate the notion of development, which had to some extent gone flat in the North.

In Mbogori’s view, this relates in part to more ambitious goals having been missed in the past. He begins his resume of the recent history of development with the ending of apartheid: ‘With the dismantling of apartheid and the coming into the fold of the community of states of South Africa, one of the biggest blights to humanity was overcome. And the new enemy of humanity on the planet was poverty … One doesn’t have to think too far back to remember the demands for health and education for all by 2000. Then came the year 2000 and none of those goals had been met. So I think that as the Millennium Declaration was being signed, there were pragmatists who thought, “Let’s not be too ambitious, let’s face it we’ve missed targets we’ve set in the past. So let’s set some modest targets that we can meet that will make a difference.”’

However, with terrorism becoming the top priority for northern countries after September 11, he believes poverty and development initiatives were sidelined. ‘The sudden shift of focus to terrorism tended to shift the attention almost entirely from the development goals that had been set, however modest they were. That’s why the MDGs now appear like such a radical set of targets.’

Moreover, while the MDGs are undoubtedly ‘less ambitious than developing countries would go for’, they do provide a framework that touches on some of the aspirations of southern countries. ‘The fact that they at least start to address some of the right questions is important for many of us. It’s almost a question of saying they’re better than nothing.’

Who framed the MDGs?

Another point of criticism of the MDGs is that they are a largely northern initiative that the South had no option but to go along with. Without being quite so categorical, Mbogori agrees that, while the Millennium Declaration was signed by leaders from both the South and the North, ‘I think quite frankly that the leadership came to a large extent from the North.’ This touches on the question of the dynamics of power, about which he has much to say.

The heart of the matter

The dynamics are clearly reflected in the way the Goals are formulated, he argues. ‘If you analyse the MDGs, you see that Goals 1-7 are all focused on what southern countries and southern governments need to do.’

However, he suggests, the real key to success is Goal 8: ‘Goal 8 is for me the real clincher. It’s to do with the resources that are required and the structural shifts that need to happen, for instance in the areas of trade and writing off debt. I continue to get really frustrated,’ he adds, ‘at the thought that if we were to write off all debt, and change the trade regime, and double the amount of aid – or take it to the level of 0.7 per cent of GNP that was agreed 35 years ago – the chances of meeting these goals would be increased many fold.’

For Ezra Mbogori, writing off all southern debt, changing the trade regime and raising the level of aid constitute three of the four major steps necessary to achieve the Goals, and these are the responsibility of the North, not the South.

What about corrupt and inefficient governments in the South, many northern commentators would ask at this point. However much aid you throw at the problem, nothing will be done until governance and efficiency are improved. The fourth step, he agrees, is addressing issues of governance, ‘because that would have a direct impact on the question of corruption and address accountability in relation to application of resources.’

He believes, though, that the common argument that unless governance and efficiency improve, a good deal of aid will be wasted, is largely an ‘escapist’ one. In other words, it is advanced by people who ‘want to find an excuse for not meeting their commitments anyway’.

Modest goals, massive challenge

Of course, the ambitiousness of any aim is proportionate to the means available to its attainment. In the case of the MDGs, their achievement is dependent on the existence of sufficient will and means among the international community. Seen in this light, 2015 might actually be overambitious as a date for achieving them. Mbogori cites economist Jeffrey Sachs, who claims that at the pace some countries are moving, the MDGs ‘won’t be met by 2100 let alone 2015’, especially in Africa. At the present rate, some goals may be achieved only in 2150. The MDGs may seem minimal and inadequate, but meeting them by 2015, Mbogori reminds us, would be a major achievement.

Nor does the apparent modesty of the Goals mean that they are not worth pursuing in themselves. Take the example of moving from living on $1 a day to $2 a day – considered in the light of what would be an acceptable standard of living in the North, this aim is so modest as to be offensive. But, he feels, ‘these sorts of measures give you something to work with.’

He tells a story that he came across during a piece of research for the Commonwealth Foundation. A Malawian woman, asked if she thought she lived in a good society, replied: ‘It is better to be a dog in the North, in a place like America, than to be a person here.’ ‘It’s in that light,’ says Mbogori, ‘that I look at switching from living on $1 a day to $2 a day to $3 a day. There’s a starkness about it.’

Where do grantmakers come in?

What questions does this pose for grantmakers? Mbogori sees a challenge particularly for those grantmakers who work primarily in the area of social justice. The challenge for them will be to support efforts to achieve the MDGs while continuing to maintain ‘their interest and creativity around achieving structural changes’.

But there is a bigger challenge still implicit in this, because it is at this point, for Ezra Mbogori, that ‘one starts to make connections between, for instance, the wasteful lifestyles of the North and the ability of the planet to sustain these lifestyles. If people were to say that development equates to similar kinds of lifestyle for everyone, what would that mean for this world? It requires a certain amount of creativity to begin to act in ways that educate everybody on the planet to see that there is a need for major structural changes. I think that’s a challenge for grantmakers.’

So behind the MDGs are larger moral and intellectual implications for the North as well as the South. ‘I think that there definitely needs to be a change in lifestyles – I’m not saying a reduction in standards, I’m saying a change in lifestyles. We have to recognize that, for instance, fossil fuel supplies are not infinite. They will run out at some point. So how do we ensure that our lifestyles are informed by basic principles of sustainability and social justice?’

A beginning, not an end

As already stressed, it’s important to keep in mind that while the MDGs can play an important part in development, they are still a minimum. There will be no occasion for complacency on the part of the international community if and when they are met. ‘I think grantmakers have a role here too. It’s like watching a fairly emotional movie, when the end is one that you feel good about. Now the challenge I see for grantmakers is to bring everybody’s attention to the fact that, even if the MDGs are achieved, it’s not going to be happy ever after. There are still major challenges around sustainability. We live in one world, one planet, and we have to make certain adjustments in order for it to really be a happy ever after situation.’

The role of southern NGOs

According to Mbogori, many southern organizations will already have been through a good deal of soul-searching before deciding to support the MDGs, and they will often have done so from a pragmatic conviction that, while deficient in many respects, the MDGs are ‘what there is’.

But he raises a final point in this connection. In spite of their willingness to throw their weight behind the MDGs, the contribution southern NGOs can make towards the formulation and achievement of development objectives is limited because they are on the wrong end of the power equation. ‘I always go back to the question of mutual respect and trying to create a platform on which we can debate these things as equals, which is almost impossible because of the power games that we’re playing all the time.’

In any case, he stresses, it is almost impossible for NGOs to provide any real support for the MDGs in a situation where they are struggling to survive. ‘I just came back from a meeting in South Africa where even as we tried to gear up the MDGs campaign, a lot of NGOs are on their deathbeds simply because they don’t have the resources to meet their basic operational needs on a day-to-day basis. One NGO leader I spoke to hadn’t been paid for three months.’

This is partly a matter of donors’ well-known reluctance to fund core costs. ‘Donors continue to exercise this strange control, where sometimes they agree to fund a programme but won’t fund any core costs. We are just going to have to keep pushing donors,’ he says, ‘and telling them, look, for goodness sake, begin to see our point of view, and start to support some of these basic things. Even if it means getting out of your current mode and taking risks and actually helping to build an infrastructure of civil society organizations.’

This is something that’s ‘at the top of my mind right now’, says Mbogori. ‘I’ve been looking at how much time I spend simply worrying about whether I can meet my basic operating requirements and how much more I could do if I didn’t need to worry about that. I wonder if our northern partners ever really think about this. And I constantly wonder, how can we get them to a table where we can talk about it?’

A question of balance

The discussion has taken us a long way beyond the MDGs but for Ezra Mbogori the progression is a logical one. His final message seems to be that there is a balance to be struck in any view of the MDGs. While they represent a very modest advance in some respects, in other ways they are significant. Materially, limited though they are, achieving them will constitute a great advance for people in developing countries. Morally, they imply a rethinking of values and lifestyles for the world in general.

In any case, we should guard against the danger of thinking that their achievement – whether it happens sooner or later, and most current forecasts seem to suggest that it will be later – is anything more than a beginning. Development is a continuing process, not an event or series of events. And it’s not just a matter of poor people in poor countries. It concerns us all.

1 MWENGO is one of the focal points for the MDGs campaign in Southern Africa, supporting the building of national coalitions in several countries in the region.

Ezra Mbogori is Executive Director of Mwelekeo wa NGO (MWENGO) in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted at ezra@mwengo.org.zw

Postcript: after the G8 Summit – did terrorism rob us of an opportunity?
I could not help but watch from a safe distance as the battle raged in my mind between the now hardened cynic and the eternal optimist immediately after the final G8 Summit communiqué was read out. The cynic felt that the South had been grossly short-changed. That the decisions reached did not get even close to the expectations that had built up. Now all there is to speak of is some symbolic gestures in terms of debt write-offs for a few countries (and these, so far as can be made out, remain subject to the whims and fancies of the Bretton Woods institutions); an additional sum of aid – to become available only in 2010 (in other words, five years from now and another five from the MDGs target moment); and a loosely stated promise to ‘do something’ about trade, some time in the future.

The cynic in me is also unhappy that African leaders actually thanked and praised the G8 for these decisions. One can only credit this to the typical African spirit – always accommodating, ever polite, understanding and appreciative. Undoubtedly, African leaders have their work cut out for them. Perhaps we should blame the horrendous bomb blasts in London for disrupting what the cynic thinks would otherwise have been an impossible position to wiggle out of, without losing face.

The optimist, on the other hand, is eager to name those aspects that amount to history having been made. Let us not dismiss the achievements so far, modest as they may be. Fine, poverty has not been made history, but the mobilization has undoubtedly had a phenomenal educational effect. Politicians have been put on notice that things have to change. Perhaps it is time to consolidate all forces and make another push. If we do not remain determined, millions of lives could well be history. So now we get back to the drawing board, look at the next phase of the effort and draw up a sound plan. What else can the optimist say, but that we still want – no, have – to make poverty history!
Ezra Mbogori, July 2005


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