Since its adoption in December 1992, United Nations General Assembly resolution 47/196 has designated October 17 as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (IDEP). To learn more about how the global community could help developed and developing countries achieve such a proposal, particularly through the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), we speak to CIGI Senior Fellow Barry Carin, co-director of the Toward a Post-2015 Development Paradigm project.
CIGI: The theme for this year’s IDEP — From Poverty to Sustainability: People at the Centre of Inclusive Development — is closely linked to global attention on sustainable development through the upcoming Rio+20 conference. Goal 7 of the MDGs currently focuses on ensuring environmental sustainability, but what obstacles do you think are holding back progress in this area? What new conclusions has your project reached about the challenges and feasibility of this goal?
Barry Carin: Progress with regard to an environmental sustainability goal is stalled by a wide variety of factors. In the developing world, incentive structures for resource use are perverse. The conversion of forests to other uses (firewood, fuel, lumber and land), use of marine resources (overfishing) and water use (irrigation) do not promote sustainability. In the developed world, it’s a question of political will and lifestyle. Moreover, inefficient fossil fuel subsidies continue to plague all countries. The long-term concern is that the Earth’s carrying capacity cannot accommodate the desired standard of living combined with the forecast of population growth.
The focus of our project is what should succeed the MDGs in 2015. The environmental sustainability goal has been criticized as a collection of unconnected targets, some general, some precise, lacking integration with other MDGs. It’s quite a challenge to formulate a sustainability goal. The goal should, amongst other criteria, motivate commitment and action, be measurable and embed equality of opportunity. The goal should include intermediate outcomes and interim targets. In any case, the intended beneficiaries must be included in the process of setting post-2015 MDGs. Accountability of governments to these goals is problematic without awareness and community ownership.
We reframed Goal 7 as “sustainable management of the biosphere for enabling people and the planet to thrive together.” We recommended that targets and indicators be devised on climate change, biodiversity, agriculture and food security, and water resources (fisheries and oceans).
Future development goals should apply to both developed and developing countries, with globally agreed minimum goals, norms and standards. The international community has to leave space for individual nations to set their own developmental targets, based on their own needs and aspirations and taking their own contexts into account. Countries are more likely to remain committed to targets if they select them themselves.
CIGI: A new report issued by the UN early this month noted that “Africa’s overall progress towards achieving the internationally agreed targets to eradicate extreme poverty and accelerate social development has been slow and generally insufficient to meet the 2015 deadline.” Based on conversations you have had with international development experts, do you think the problem is a lack of support and commitment to fulfilling the MDGs (from both donor and recipient countries), or is it that MDGs are simply not properly articulated or conducive to addressing certain realities about development targets in Africa?
Carin: The MDGs are not properly articulated. They are measures and hence the aphorism about statistics applies: “statistics are like sausages — you like them better if you do not know what’s in them.” As economist William Easterly has pointed out, MDG targets have been arbitrarily defined in a biased manner that makes Africa look worse than it actually is. For example, changes in the percentage of the population living in poverty hides considerable progress when measured in absolute numbers; some targets penalize Africa because it starts from relatively low levels compared to other regions; base years are chosen inappropriately; and expressing targets as “people without” rather than measuring the degree of positive improvements is problematic.
The problem is certainly not a lack of support and commitment, but there is a displaced focus on Africa. The MDGs were the result of a top-down exercise. The new development paradigm and goals should be bottom-up. People in each country must determine what is needed to enable development. In addition, a new mode of accountability is needed to accompany the new development approach, placing the poor, vulnerable and marginalized at the centre of the policy and practice considerations that shape their lives. We need improved transparency and trust in our institutions, both nationally and internationally.
Our approach avoids a one-size-fits-all dilemma, where targets are too general and abstract — either too ambitious or not ambitious enough. With respect to Africa, some goals were unrealistic, so that in several cases good progress was labelled as failure. Indicators must be developed to assess results objectively. We argue that attention should be given to disaggregating indicators and results based on gender, urban and rural, identity groups, and income bands, in order to unmask inequalities that hide behind more generalized statistics.
In any case, development must be redefined as something other than a set of donor country principles. We need economic growth for development. Goals should provide the ingredients for development — education, infrastructure, capacity building, and better governance arrangements to stimulate growth. We have to discard the current prevailing paradigm of “get the institutions right and get out of the way.” The key is defining goals that will support the realization of green growth that supports equity.
CIGI: As you note in your report, the MDGs helped rally the world behind a moral purpose by providing direction and investment. With that said, global economic uncertainty is now a continuous cause of concern among leading governments that provide foreign aid. What do you think such uncertainty will do to any progress with MDGs?
Carin: Foreign aid is only one of several determinants for development. We must look beyond aid to trade restrictions and domestic subsidies, education, infrastructure and governance. So the risk that the economic uncertainty will lead to decreased aid budgets can be overemphasized. We have to hope that the current economic slowdown and unacceptable unemployment are reversed, that the financial turbulence is resolved. The risk, if the uncertainty continues, is that countries and leaders are more likely to be inward-looking and defensive, when what is needed is international cooperation and collective action. Global issues like climate change and international trade rules are more likely to be effectively addressed if countries are enjoying political calm, low unemployment and budget surpluses. All the more reason to formulate goals that motivate and inspire.