Reducing poverty is not just about income, it's giving people a voice

The number one objective of the global Sustainable Development Goals is to alleviate absolute poverty by 2030. The commitments in these goals hold governments to account, helping people to feel more empowered.

Myles Wickstead
13 June 2016

A homeless street child wears a shirt as another sleeps on a pavement in Kolkata, India. Credit: Bikas Das/AP/Press Associatio

A homeless street child wears a shirt as another sleeps on a pavement in Kolkata, India. Credit: Bikas Das/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. In May 1997, a new Labour Government was elected in the UK. One of its first ‘machinery of government’ changes was to create a new Department for International Development (DFID), headed by then Secretary of State for International Development – Clare Short – who would be in the Cabinet. It was also decided to write a White Paper on International Development, which was published in November of that year: ‘Eliminating World Poverty: A Challenge for the 21st Century’.

The focus of paper, in which I was closely involved, was a new paradigm for international development, determined no longer by the politics of the Cold War but by a desire to see development benefit the poorest people in the poorest countries. This new framework for development – the International Development Targets (which were a few years later to be transformed into the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs) – had as their overarching goal the halving of absolute poverty by 2015, with a number of supporting targets focusing on primary education and primary health.

It quickly became evident that bringing about improved health and education outcomes could not be achieved simply by making better health and education interventions. We said this very clearly in the White Paper, not least in relation to governance and accountability. “Sound and accountable government…is the foundation of economic growth and poverty elimination, allowing poor and disadvantaged people to achieve their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights”. 
It quickly became evident that bringing about improved health and education outcomes could not be achieved simply by making better health and education interventions.
Of course better governance and development are not synonymous, any more than economic growth and development are synonymous. But we can perhaps at least say that the prospects for development are significantly increased if there are certain conditions in place. This is a theme which we developed in a further initiative in which I was involved, which was the Commission for Africa established in 2004 by then Prime Minister Tony Blair to produce recommendations to be considered by G8 leaders at the Gleneagles Summit in the summer of 2005.  The Commission’s Report ‘Our Common Interest’ was issued in March that year.

The argument ran something like this. In order to deliver development, and in particular the Millennium Development Goals, it was necessary to have minimum standards of peace, security and governance in place. Under those conditions, it was possible to build the health and education systems required to deliver on the MDGs. But it was not possible to sustain those systems without economic growth. Economic growth would not happen without a significant involvement from the private sector. The private sector would not invest or flourish unless there were reasonable levels of peace, security and governance. And so on…

Those arguments remain valid, but the international framework now looks rather different from 1997 or 2005. Whilst the ideological differences which had divided the world into east and west had disappeared or were fast disappearing, the north/south divide (albeit bridged by a number of ‘emerging economies’) remained solid. Development was perceived essentially as a compact: policy changes (including those addressing governance and corruption) were to be delivered by the poor south with financial and technical support from the rich north.

That all changed with the global financial crisis (or what the Chinese refer to as ‘the North Atlantic financial crisis’) in 2008/2009. Many countries in the ‘south’ – notably China and India, but many others in Asia and Africa too – were posting growth in excess of 7% per annum regularly (and in some cases as high as 10%), whilst after the crisis the ‘north’ struggled to avoid recession and to post any positive growth at all. The G8 leaked power as the G20 absorbed it. Questions (as yet largely unanswered) began being raised about global governance structures which had been put in place at the end of the Second World War and which continued to reflect the international power dynamic of 1945 rather than the early 21st Century. 

So the world in which discussions began in 2012/2013 about a new set of goals to succeed the Millennium Development Goals was a very different one from the late 1990s. In the overall scheme of things, aid mattered less than it had fifteen years earlier, albeit remaining very important for a number of countries. And there was a growing recognition of a number of issues, known as ‘global public goods’, which could only be addressed by the world acting as a whole. Climate change is perhaps the most obvious, but others like environmental pollution and diseases that cross national boundaries loom increasingly large.

A new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was agreed in New York in September 2015. The key objective (Goal 1) is to eliminate absolute poverty, everywhere, in all its forms, by 2030. There are 17 Goals and 169 Targets – a challenge for the most photographic of memories. But the document within which they are enshrined Transforming Our World: The Sustainable Development Agenda for 2030 helpfully summarises the key points into five ‘P’s. These are:

- Prosperity. Continuing inclusive economic growth is essential;

- People. Everyone must benefit from the SDGs, and no-one must be left behind;

- Planet. We must nurture and respect the environment, dealing with issues such as climate change;

- Peace. Conflict, insecurity and bad governance are the enemies of development and progress;

- Partnerships. Governments, civil society and the private sector all have important roles to play.

‘Leaving no-one behind’ is not just a function of economics and financial well-being; it is also a function of justice and governance.

What, then, is the role of governance in delivering this comprehensive agenda? The answer is significant – and not just in delivering the agenda, but being a part of the agenda itself. Goal 16 is: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. Targets include those related to reducing violence and related deaths; promoting the rule of law and access to justice; addressing corruption and bribery and increasing transparency; and ensuring responsive, inclusive and representative decision-making at all levels. 

It is important to understand that these goals are universal; they apply as much to the UK as they do to Ethiopia or Bolivia. Every country will need to set out its own national strategy for how it plans to deliver on the SDGs. Not all of the goals will be equally relevant in all countries of course – but the SDGs set out a series of commitments on the basis of which governments can be held accountable. Doing so in practice has become a much more dynamic process over the past 15 years, with much wider access to information technology in general and mobile phones in particular. People feel increasingly empowered as a result – and that matters. 

It matters because we need to remember that poverty is not just about levels of income. It is also about voice, and people being able to have some control over their lives through understanding their rights – precisely as set out in the 1997 White Paper, and one of a key set of preconditions for development as set out in the Commission for Africa Report. Prime Minister David Cameron, who was part of a High Level Panel reporting in 2013 which helped set the framework for the new set of goals has referred to these conditions as a ‘golden thread’. The summit which he hosted in May 2016 clearly recognised that corruption and bad governance had to be addressed by the global community working as a whole.

‘Leaving no-one behind’ is not just a function of economics and financial well-being; it is also a function of justice and governance. Being poor is not just about having no resources; it is also about having no voice. As we recognised back in 1997: ‘Raising standards of governance is central to the elimination of poverty’.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

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