World affairs

Urgent issues

The general public of rich nations tends to think that the Millennium Development Goals apply only to Africa, Asia and Latin America. In contrast, the Global Policy Forum believes that humankind needs worldwide policy goals. As Jens Martens, the chief executive of the Forum’s European division argued in our interview, climate change and the arms race are crucial issues. The Forum recently launched an international Reflection Group with allies like the Third World Network, Social Watch and the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation to reconsider development goals and draw policy conclusions.

[ Interview with Jens Martens ]

Doesn’t fighting poverty first and foremost depend on economic growth?
Economic growth is a necessary but insufficient condition to successfully fight poverty. Typically, only a select few benefit from economic growth, not the majority of people. Therefore, economic growth must go hand in hand with economic justice.

Will it do to fight poverty with social policies, or do we need to promote economic growth?
Both are important. Economic growth and government revenues are needed to mobilise resources to fight poverty. It is crucial to pursue an active economic and jobs policy. One would be misguided to think that fighting poverty and meeting the MDGs only depend on a country’s welfare schemes. Rather, success depends on the creation of jobs, so there is need for an effective industrial and eco­nomic policy. That is frequently ignored.

The MDG agenda equally fails to address peace or democracy, which are also important preconditions for development.
That’s not entirely true. The UN Millennium Declaration of 2000 took account of these issues. It would certainly have been desirable to agree on quantitative goals in regard to issues like peace, democracy, disarmament or security, but consensus proved to be impossible. It is noteworthy that these issues do not only concern the countries of the Global South. Goals for disarming would basically apply to the major military powers. Perhaps that was the reason why there was no agreement.

What do you have in mind when you blame rich nations for not being peaceful?
Issues of peace and security primarily relate to disarmament. It is an ongoing scandal that rich countries spend billions of dollars on weapons every year and refuse to cut such expenditure. The international arms race implicitly puts peace at risk. Moreover, it wastes resources that would better be used otherwise, for example for achieving the MDGs.

The greatest shortcoming in MDG agenda concern MDG 7, sustainable development, and MDG 8, the global partnership for development. Would quantitative goals have made a difference in these fields?
There certainly is a huge gap. MDGs 1 to 6 contain clear and timebound targets, whereas MDG 7 and 8 remain vague. And these are the goals that apply to the Global North. The EU improved matters by passing a plan to step up official development assistance (ODA) gradually until 2015. It certainly boosts accountability when goals are stated in quantitative terms. But even that isn’t enough to ensure the goal is reached. Just consider the case of Germany. The Federal Government, as is well known, currently fails to live up to the EU’s ODA plan.

EU diplomats tend to say they would like to do more concerning trade, but that developing countries are not fully cooperating in negotiations on Economic Partnership Agreements.
Their partners in the EPA talks would say it is the other way round and argue that fair trade should take account of a country’s level of development. Instead, the EU is pushing countries in the Global South to open their markets – which mostly benefits the economies of the Global North. The international trade system still fails to serve the interests of developing countries. That is why so little progress has been made.

To what extent has the global economic and financial crisis hurt the MDG agenda?
We’re seeing substantial setbacks on several indices and in areas such as education and health. For ­example, the number of those who go hungry has risen to more than one billion people worldwide in 2009. According to the World Bank, up to 250 million more people will be living in extreme poverty in 2015 than if there had not been a crisis. The whole impact of the crisis, moreover, has yet to become clear. Governments in developing countries have been forced to cut their budgets and slash education and health spending; and such action obviously is thwarting progress on the MDGs.

Could the global crisis yet prove to be an opportunity?
Yes, if we were to learn our lessons and rethink our policies. We need effective regulations for the international finance system. We must not allow financial centres to operate below the radar. It is un­acceptable that hundreds of billions of dollars are funnelled into tax havens. If that was not the case, developing countries would have more funds. So far, the G20 has failed to rise to the opportunity to change these matters.

How do you view the role of the major ­emerging nations? Should big and economically powerful countries like Brazil or India not deal with their social problems on their own?
Brazil has evidently enforced targeted social policies with success, and poverty there has fallen significantly. In China, the share of those who live in extreme poverty has also dropped. But that doesn’t mean that the task is done. Economic growth has also led to more economic inequality – which needs to be overcome.

Given that the MDGs won’t be reached by 2015, what is the outlook beyond that deadline?
I see three options as to how things could continue after 2015:
– First, the goals are maintained and a few indicators are added. “The future of the MDGs are the MDGs,” is what Evelyn Herfkens, the former UN coordinator of the MDG campaign, said recently. Of course, it does not make sense to simply shelve a goal when one doesn’t reach it. But it would be insufficient to simply extend the MDGs by another 15 years.
– Second, the old goals are combined with new ones. Thus, some of the gaps on the MDG list would be filled. They concern areas like social security, education, environmental protection and the responsibility of the Global North. But even that would not be sufficient.
– Third, the international community reconsiders the conventional approaches to development and agrees on new goals to tackle fundamental challenges. We need global development goals that apply equally to the North and South. They have to match countries’ different economic and social situation. We need goals that are agreed at the international level, but are nonetheless tailored to regional and national conditions. Such an agenda would go far beyond the current MDGs.

Regarding your second point: What do you mean by “social security” and “education”?
I’m referring to the ILO concept of Global Social Protection Floors. It has four pillars: affordable public health care, guaranteed state allowances for children, basic pensions for senior citizens and disabled persons and guaranteed unemployment benefits. These things could be incorporated into MDG 1. As for education, I am thinking of the UNESCO campaign Education for All. It states six goals that incorporate all aspects of learning from preschool to adult education. Primary education is currently the only aspect that MDG 2 takes into account. None of this is new, of course, but already approved by the ILO or UNESCO.

But you don’t think that would do. Why do you want fundamentally new goals?
I’m thinking of climate change, for instance. The tough negotiation process shows how difficult it is to reach an agreement. But climate change is crucially important. It also shows just how anachronistic it has become to distinguish so-called developing countries from so-called industrialised ones. It is simply not true that the developing countries are the only ones that need change. Quite the opposite. Rich countries are distorting the global climate at the expense of everyone – and the poor are particularly vulnerable.

It would probably be worth more than the entire MDG agenda if the international community finally committed to limiting global temperature rises to at most two degrees Celsius on average.
I think that should be part of a new set of global development goals. MDG 7 addresses climate change, but it fails to state a figure. That is what we need. We need goals for issues concerning humanity as a whole; goals the international community can agree on and that would then apply worldwide.

The general public in rich nations generally views the MDGs as something of relevance for Africa, Asia and Latin America – but not one of worldwide consequences.
We’ve even moved backwards in that regard: in the 1990s, the general understanding of development was wider. We were even discussing what sustainable development in Germany would have to look like. The MDGs led to a narrowing of the development discourse. We must return to a more holistic understanding. The Rio Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 will be a good opportunity for doing so.

How do you plan to contribute?
We have just established the Reflection Group on Global Development Perspectives. And by “we” I’m not just referring to the Global Policy Forum but also to partners like the Third World Network, Social Watch, terre des hommes, the Dag-HammarskjöldFoundation and the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation. The Reflection Group will deal with issues like the ones we’re discussing in this interview and make proposals for a post-MDG agenda based on new concepts of social progress and well-being. We will present a report in time for the Rio conference 2012 in which we will make the link between the sustainability discourse and the MDG agenda.

Hans Dembowski and Cathrine Schweikardt conducted the interview.

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