Words and action on poverty


IN SETTING in 2000 ambitious targets/benchmarks for the reduction of poverty, of hunger, for fighting disease, for educating children by 2015, the world community came to a remarkable consensus. One hundred and eighty nine UN member states, and at least 23 international organisations, signed up at the Millennium Summit to eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

They agreed not just to deplore world want and hunger and to work to eradicate them, but to an insistence that it is entirely possible the poor need not always be with us. That we have the means, the wealth, the technology, to eliminate altogether extreme poverty (defined as life on less than $1.25 a day). Economist and adviser to the UN Jeffrey Sachs insists it is by no means utopian to say that can be done by 2025.

Critical to the challenge is not the global means but the political will. Aid promises were made but not kept, many were simply not prepared to dig deep enough. And the economic crisis has tested commitments to the UN’s target for developed countries to devote 0.7 per cent of GDP to aid, not least in Ireland. Only five countries have reached it, while the world continues yearly to spend 2.7 per cent of all it produces on weapons.

That political will will be tested again today as world leaders meet at the UN in New York to recommit themselves to the 2015 targets and, crucially, to come up with more cash. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is hoping for $45 billion in new commitments, particularly to combat child and maternal mortality rates which still fall far short of the MDG targets.

There has been progress, but much more is still to be done. The UN acknowledges that only two of the targets are actually likely to be met, the halving of both the numbers without access to safe drinking water, and of those in extreme poverty. But the important decline in the latter, for example, from 46 to 27 per cent of the world population since 1990, also conceals a reality of little progress and even regression in sub-Saharan countries, masked statistically by China’s rapid growth. In Nigeria the numbers in extreme poverty rose from half the population to over three-quarters in the same timeframe.

Ireland’s particular focus, in a welcome joint initiative with the US, is on hunger: the MDG aim is to halve both the numbers of undernourished – almost one billion go hungry every day – and the proportion of underweight children – in the developing world, one in four. On hunger the world has stood still since 1990. If China is again taken out of the equation, the real picture in south Asia and Africa is one of sharp decline in food security to the point where one in two in Africa will be short of food by 2020. In south Asia nearly one in two children is malnourished, the same as in 1990, despite a trebling of regional per capita income in the interim.

We will hear more fine words today, more promises and exhortations to action. But, as critics point out, without also agreeing a concrete plan of campaign to reach the MDGs and a genuine commitment to more aid, the danger is that it will be a talking shop. Fine words, they say, butter no parsnips.