We must tackle the structural factors that inhibit development and produce poverty

Opinion: Half of the world’s population in need, while one in eight suffers malnutrition

Brazilian archbishop Hélder Camara once famously noted, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

As Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore attends a United Nations special event today to discuss the future of aid and development, the archbishop's words still highlight an uncomfortable truth about the world's commitment to ending poverty: we make goodwill gestures to the world's poor without questioning the structural factors which contributed to their poverty.

Today's meeting, co-convened by Ireland and South Africa, marks an important step on the road towards agreeing the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a list of global poverty reduction targets set in 2000 and due to expire in two years.

The development goals set targets around eight key development areas, from hunger to education to health. There have been notable successes – particularly concerning issues such as HIV and child health. But, overall, progress when set against targets has been modest and many look unlikely to be met by the 2015 deadline. Even the development goals' greatest "success" – 700 million fewer people living in poverty – can, in reality, be attributed to the remarkable economic growth of China and India.


Half of the world’s population lives in poverty, with one person in every eight suffering from malnutrition. Poverty remains a global scandal, one which kills approximately 19 people around the world every minute of every day of every month. If a virus was discovered to be responsible for more than 25,000 deaths a day, the world would stop at nothing to find a cure. But poverty? We shrug our shoulders.

The idea of agreeing global targets to tackle poverty is a good one, but as the international community begins the debate on what comes after the development goals, the question has to be raised, why have efforts to date failed to deliver?

Underlying issues

The MDG project was flawed from the beginning. The targets focused on alleviating the symptoms of poverty: hunger, disease, death; but the causes – inequality, discrimination, poor governance – were ignored. While statistics showing reductions in poverty can look impressive, often they mask chronic underlying issues.

Trócaire recently carried out research in six developing countries to assess what issues people living in poverty wanted the world to focus on. Income, food and shelter were the three main issues identified by participants. Remarkably, nearly half of the issues identified by participants are not addressed in the development goals.

One of the most telling results was the sense of divide between governments and people living in poverty. There is a dearth of pro-poor governments. Many administrations in the developing world take the view that economic development should follow the western model, with all efforts made to facilitate inward investment to stimulate growth.

Where this is succeeding we are witnessing the division of society into those who can participate – the wealthy and the growing middle class – and a large under class who are excluded from the system.

People in the developing world want a new path, one which will guarantee their rights and ability to lift themselves out of poverty. The development goals missed the point that not only is extreme poverty – the absence of shelter, food and education – morally reprehensible, it is contrary to international law. Ensuring that people can live a dignified life is not merely the right thing to do if resources allow it, it is a legal obligation.

The MDG project has been a sticking plaster aimed at securing top-line statistical improvements without challenging the structures that cause poverty. We need global targets on issues such as land rights, citizen participation and government accountability.

Human rights and development

New targets must also focus on how richer countries contribute to poverty through carbon emissions, tax havens and a lack of corporate transparency. Such declarations would signal a shift in commitment to eradicating extreme poverty.

The development goals mistakenly defined development in terms of economic and social outcomes. The only way we can tackle the causes of poverty is to marry human rights with development. Human rights law must act as a starting point in the battle against poverty. Too often, development campaigners are warned of becoming “too political” when they speak out against injustice. The solution to the problems of poverty and hunger are largely political and without a resolution of the political issues, technical advances cannot deliver the desired outcomes.

If we continue to view development as the attainment of quantifiable top-line goals, we will never scrape beneath the visual effects of poverty to tackle the driving forces. As Archbishop Camara noted, there is a difference between handing bread to the poor and asking why the poor have no bread in the first place.

Justin Kilcullen is the executive director of Trócaire. Trócaire's new research is entitled My Rights Beyond 2015