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The anti-poverty relay: a progress report

Andrew Shepherd
24 September 2008

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the most determined effort in history to galvanise international action around one set of development targets. The goals themselves are clearly desirable: basic rights for all by the year 2015, with clear targets to be reached along the way.


Andrew Shepherd is director of the rural policy and governance group (RPGG) at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

This article is adapted from the ODI’s annual report, 2008 edition.

In New York on 25 September 2008, the United Nations secretary-general and the president of the UN general assembly convene a meeting attended by global leaders "to renew commitments to achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and to set out concrete plans and practical steps for action". 

The "call to action" that the meeting represents marks the halfway point in the effort to achieve the MDGs; there are only seven years left. As the credit-crunch and rising prices threaten to distract leaders from their global commitments, now is the time to regroup around the MDGs, looking beyond 2015 and changing direction if necessary (see Simon Maxwell, "Development in a downturn", 4 July 2008). 

There has been some progress, particularly in countries where commitment from the top is backed by strong policies and public expenditure. Vietnam (a one-party state) and Ghana (amulti-party democracy) are among the examples. There has also been greater progress where efforts are made across a number of mutually reinforcing goals: improvements in girls' education, for example, can boost demand for reproductive-health services, and both can dent intergenerational poverty.

Moreover, economic growth helps, for it means more tax revenue and resources for public expenditure (if the domestic politics of public expenditure permit). This could put the world on track for the MDG target of halving the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day. 

Against these signs of advance, the challenges remain formidable. They include rising food and fuel prices; accelerating climate change; the continuing threats of chronic poverty and growing inequality; poor governance; and the extreme problems facing the most fragile states, where the necessary leadership - and the basics of development- are often lacking. 

The circle of protection 

There is less discussed series of issues around perceptions in the global south of who "owns" the MDGs. There, debate is relatively muted, partly because national priorities are made to comply with the MDGs and as a result the goals are often seen as "northern". 

If the southern debate is to be revived, this may require a shift in focus away from sweeping global targets towards strong local indicators that show the realities on the ground. Global goals have an important place, but countries need to be able to set their own targets. What is important is a vibrant public debate about progress, informed by indicators that are backed by solid data. 

Maternal mortality rates, for example, are scandalous. But their stubborn refusal to improve by more than a fraction in many countries shows that underlying and local issues are at play - emphasising the global rates cannot provide all the answers. In such cases, action research that examines how to boost the proportion of women in political representation may reveal more about gender discrimination and have a bigger impact. 

The challenge here is to work with, rather than against, the grain of reality in the south, in order to build a lasting social contract between donors, national governments, business and localcitizens, rooted in social protection. The Chronic Poverty Report 2008-09 shows why this is necessary, for it makes the point that chronic poverty goes beyond low income: it means deprivation across the board - lack of food, water, sanitation, healthcare, education, and prospects for a better life. 

If the physical insecurity experienced by the poorest in fragile states is added into the mix, it is easy to see why the poor cannot take risks - such as investing in their children's education - that might ease their poverty. Social protection is critical both to protect the poor from sudden shocks (such as food-price rises) and for their longer-term well-being; indeed, this should be added to the MDGs as a target under MDG1 (eradicating poverty and hunger). By 2010, there should be enough evidence to make a case for this addition, including targets that could be expressed in numbers of "protected people" (rather than, for example, percentage of expenditure or GDP). 

In addition to social protection, a long-term strategy for fragile states is needed to close the gap between humanitarian and development action. Fragile states often exist in a kind of international limbo - between the uncertain safety-nets provided by humanitarian action, and the reluctance of the international community to invest in a long-term development agenda (see Ashraf Ghani & Clare Lockhart, "The right and wrong fix: Afghan lessons for Zimbabwe", 27 June 2008). There is a need to ask what it might take to convert today's humanitarian system into a social-protection umbrella. Only a long-term, combined development and humanitarian approach willbe able to prevent insecurity and conflict from undermining and unravelling development efforts.

The finishing-line 

Also in openDemocracy on global development issues:

Paul Rogers, “The world’s food insecurity” (24 April 2008)

Kweku Ampiah, “Japan in Africa: a distant partnership” (6 June 2008)

Simon Maxwell, “Development in a downturn” (4 July 2008) There is also a need to look further ahead, towork on the MDG agenda for after 2015. This could include a new commitment to post-primary education, which fuels economic growth and adds to the attraction of primary education itself. For many countries this is an immediate priority that needs to be thought about well before 2015 (see Ehsan Masood, "Millennium Development Goals: back to school" 2 August 2006). 

In working towards 2015 and beyond, funding is a key element. The UN's Millennium Project estimates that meeting the MDGs will require a doubling of current ratios of overseas-development assistance (ODA) to gross national product (GNP). Donors should certainly aim to hit the promised target of 0.7% of GNP by 2015. More resources are necessary and welcome in lifting the poor out of poverty, even if money in itself can't guarantee results. In this respect, a wider "cast list" that includes new partners, particularly business, in building national social contracts around the MDGs is vital. 

It is likely that domestic priorities will become more important to achieving the MDGs than international aid. The rich north needs to continue to find other ways of assisting its southern counterparts to achieve the goals, such as pro-poor trade agreements and extended debt-relief. 

Dialogue is good. Summits such as the United Nations's call to action can be invaluable in reinforcing commitment. True, there is also the danger that big meetings generate little but dates for the next big meetings - even talk of batons being passed: from Japan to Italy, from Ghana to Qatar. Let us hope that we are not still circling the track in 2015. The point of a relay is that someone eventually wins.  

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