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Democratizing the Millennium Development Goals

PARIS – On September 20-22, world leaders gather in New York to encourage progress towards meeting the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals – a set of eight objectives, ranging from eradicating extreme poverty and hunger to reducing child mortality and achieving universal primary education that are to be achieved by 2015.

The summit’s purpose is to take stock of successes and failures, and to move towards “concrete strategies for action.” But this summit would do the entire world a great service by acknowledging what has gone so wrong with the MDGs, and choosing a radically different approach.

The MDGs, as they are currently conceived, address the symptoms of poverty and underdevelopment, but mostly ignore the deeper causes. They draw attention to 18 targets in total – those for which data are most easily compiled. But the result is that the MDGs may divert attention from the mechanisms that produce underdevelopment – rather like the drunken man searching for his keys under the lone streetlamp because the light is better there.

Instead of vowing to support humanitarian objectives and throwing money at poverty’s symptoms, the rich countries must recognize the urgency of removing the obstacles to development that they have the power to address. Each year, for example, developing countries miss out on $124 billion in revenue from offshore assets held in tax havens. By not closing down such tax havens, we actively encourage corrupt elites in these countries to continue cheating their populations.

Moreover, the current system of international trade is deeply inequitable: it exposes developing countries to unfair competition, and discourages diversification of their economies. These countries face a burden of foreign debt – estimated at $500 billion for poor countries – that is simply incompatible with the pursuit of development goals.

Addressing these issues is vital for development objectives to have any chance to succeed. Yet, although Goal 8 is to achieve a global partnership for development, and although some progress has been made on the debt issue, too little in fact has been done to give this initiative concrete meaning.

Another major deficiency of the MDGs is their failure to recognize human rights as essential to any sustainable development strategy. But human rights are not just symbols; they are also tools. They are valuable because they are operational.

The world’s one billion hungry people do not deserve charity: they have a human right to adequate food, and governments have corresponding duties, which are enshrined in international human rights law. Governments that are serious about making progress on development objectives should be asked to adopt a legislative framework for the realization of economic and social rights such as the right to food or the right to health care.

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That framework should be designed through a participatory process involving civil society. It should define which actions should be taken, by whom, within which timeframe, and with which resources. The intended beneficiaries of these actions should be defined as rights-holders.

Accountability mechanisms should be established, allowing victims to hold governments responsible for their failure to take action. This removes the stigma of charity, and it is empowering for victims. Instead of being helped because they have unsatisfied needs, they are granted remedies because their rights are being violated.

The framework also should include a non-discrimination requirement, ensuring that we focus our attention on the most vulnerable groups – not just the well-connected, the literate, and the favorites of the regime, and not just groups for which quick wins can be achieved.

Because participation should be ensured in the process, the people whom we seek to support will co-design and co-improve the systems that are meant to serve them. They become actors rather than passive recipients of aid, and aid is more effective as a result.

All democratic revolutions begin with human rights. The MDG summit is missing an opportunity to begin this much-needed revolution in our understanding of economic development as well.

Olivier De Schutter is the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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