Two very important meetings are being held in New York from 22-25 September 2008. Both are convened by UN Secretary General Mr Ban Ki-moon and the President of the General Assembly. The first, with the support of African leaders, has a focus on Africa’s development needs. The second, sponsored by the British Prime Minister Mr Gordon Brown, is a Global Summit, Call to Action on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Africa and the MDGs have become synonymous since Africa is the only continent that risks not meeting all goals by 2015. Even though countries like India and China may meet the goals, a significant proportion of their population (more than the population of many African countries combined!) may still be trapped in poverty.
It is against this background that we need to consider the UN report on the MDGs that was released on 12 September. The report is very timely because it analyses what works, what does not and identifies what actions and interventions are needed to accelerate the achievement of MDGs by 2015.
The report indicates that on the whole, we are not on track to achieve the MDGs. This is the general global picture, but a disaggregation of this reveals that there are remarkable differences between different regions of the world. Even within the same region there are sectoral, sub-regional and national differences in terms of pace and impact. For instance, Asia is doing better than Africa, and within, Asia, India and China are becoming better off than their neighbours, but within India the untouchables and some religious minorities are trapped in poverty that is even worse than in many sub-Saharan African countries.
Within Africa itself there is a difference between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. And within Sub Sahara Africa there are qualitative differences between states that are showing leadership and vision and those that are in a deep slumber. Tanzania, Rwanda, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Ghana and many others, have taken concrete and responsible actions to put them on track to achieve many of the Goals. There is a raft of African countries including Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Angola, DRC and others that are middle income countries whose resources and potential should allow them to achieve and even surpass the MDGs. Achieving the MDGs is no longer an issue in countries like Botswana and Mauritius.
However, the more positive outlook that one gets from a disaggregated analysis of the global and regional statistics should not make one complacent that at the current pace, the MDGs could be achieved by 2015. In a reaction to the report Salil Shetty, the Director of the UN Millennium Campaign stated that the “report indicates that the world is lagging in progress to reduce extreme poverty and improve basic health and education for our fellow citizens”. He further identified other challenges and where responsibility falls: “The global food, financial and climate crises have exacerbated the situation, and much of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of the few financial speculators, emitters of pollutants and oil consumers. Seven years from the 2015 deadline by which world leaders have promised to eradicate extreme poverty, it is critical that the rich now rally to meet these commitments.”
Yet it is not just rich countries that can act or have responsibility to do so. Oil producers must reduce prices which have a direct impact on the cost of food and transport. The poor bear a disproportionate burden for exorbitant prices that drive up the cost of food, fuel and other energy sources. According to the UNMC press statement, “the financial industry must stop reckless speculation, a practice whose fallout sends shockwaves through the global economy. That a few individuals, corporations and countries can rake massive profits on the backs of the world’s poorest people and countries is not just bad ethics, but bad economics as well’.
The current economic doctrine of triumphalist neo-liberalism that puts all emphasis on growth without development is making it impossible for the more than 1.4 billion people across the world in desperate poverty, to lift themselves out of it. It is a system that is producing fabulous wealth for the few and pauperization for the majority. A growing economy that tolerates the ever widening gap between the rich and poor is not sustainable. The MDGs represent a minimal compact to guarantee that the poorest are not left behind or their conditions made even worse. It requires strong leadership to look down to lift them up instead of dancing on their graveyards of misery.
As leaders converge in New York next week for both meetings, the UN report should be a clarion call for decisive concrete action, not another expensive jamboree to renew old promises and make new pledges. Action to fulfil those already made is what the poorest peoples of the world demand in order to regain their humanity with dignity.
“Forward ever, backward never”… Kwame Nkrumah (1909 – 1972)