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Social disparities

Not some kind of fashion thing

by Karin Slowing Umaña


“The MDGs helped to focus attention on basic things such as health care”: rural patients in Guatemalan clinic.

“The MDGs helped to focus attention on basic things such as health care”: rural patients in Guatemalan clinic.

Central America is one of the world regions where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be achieved in full. Development consultant Karin Slowing Umaña told Hans Dembowski of D+C/E+Z in an interview that the old goals must not be abandoned and that it would make sense to learn more from the experience of the more successful nations.

What difference did the MDGs make in Central America?
They were useful. When they were passed, our nations were emerging from decades of civil wars, and the MDGs helped to focus attention on basic things such as water, food, health care and education. The global agenda was important in this sense, but it was not powerful enough. Central American countries have not achieved many of the goals.

So the international community should have exerted more pressure?
No, that is not what I mean. My point is that these are issues of domestic politics. Pressure from the international institutions and donors can only help to some extent. Some forces in Central American countries have managed to prevent progress.

But why would governments want to keep their countries backwards?
That would be an exaggeration. They don't want to keep their countries backwards, and they do hope to see better development indicators over time. The problem is that they are not prepared to do as much as it is needed to make that happen. They want development to take place without changing anything. It isn't the same everywhere.  In El Salvador, politics has become more pro-active. After the war ended, they first had conservative governments for 15 years and then they elected a left-wing government, which they recently re-elected. In El Salvador, the political system has begun to revolve around the question of how to promote the common good. Honduras is the other extreme. The coup d'etat in 2009 was a tremendous setback. In Guatemala too, politics is somewhat dysfunctional. We aren't making much progress, and perhaps even sliding back. If you compare different Central American countries, in any case, there's no doubt that the national ownership of policies is essential.

If the MDGs helped to make national governments more aware of their responsibilities, then a new set of goals should probably prove helpful too.
Well, I don't think it is that simple. First of all, let me say that Central America has not achieved the old goals, which is what we should do before we set out to achieve new goals. More generally speaking, however, I think the global community should be discussing strategies rather than goals. There really has not been much serious evaluation to find out why some countries achieved the MDGs and others didn't. The UN is focusing on the success stories, but there is not much reflection about why they happened, where they did  and what went wrong in other places.

How do you want things to go ahead?
We need a stronger discussion on the culture of inequality, for instance. I find it surprising that everybody suddenly seems so excited about Thomas Piketty's best-selling book “Capital in the 21st century”. His basic message is that inequality is a problem – and we've been saying that in Latin America for many years. The UNDP, for example,  has been pointing that out repeatedly. In Latin America, inequality has often proved an obstacle to development and even growth itself, but in multilateral politics, this issue was simply not on the agenda for many years.

Isn't that changing now?
Well, mentioning inequality does seem to be becoming part of the standard rhetoric, but that is not reflected enough in actual policies yet. We need in-depth discussions on different approaches to economic policy, the role of the state and the strength of the state et cetera. I don't see that happening. Moreover, I think we should take a closer look at the different world regions. Central America and the Caribbean haven't performed that well on the MDGs, nor has sub-Saharan Africa. These world regions aren't ready for new goals just because the old goals have been around for many years. This is not some kind of fashion thing.

Well, the deadline for the MDGs is 2015 and the UN needs something to follow up.
Oh yes, the UN certainly needs a new agenda. It will be a breath of fresh air and provide new incentives for donors to grant funding. There is nothing wrong with that, but more needs to happen. We have simply not done enough to learn the lessons of the MDG experience. We need to understand better what worked and what didn't. And we certainly must not allow the new agenda to simply replace the old agenda. What isn't achieved by 2015 has to stay on the agenda and be achieved as soon as possible.

MDG 8 is basically to create a development-friendly multilateral environment. This is the area in which the least progress has been made. Have the donor governments done enough?
The last big multilateral event I took part in was the High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan in late 2011. What struck me back then was that the donors´ main interest was not so much on making  development cooperation more effective, but to get others on board to share the burden, especially big emerging economies,  such as China, India and Brazil, but also the private sector. In a similar sense, they kept re-iterating that developing countries should generate more development resources domestically, but less emphasis was done on addressing inequality inside our societies and between countries. I think it is important to realise  that the  international community does not only provide money; our countries also need their political support, presence and commitment to support the people that are standing for themselves and their families. To the extent that donnors are trying to cop out, they are setting the wrong example, and the constant emphasis on the private sector is becoming less and less convincing.

I think the private-sector discourse is very important, though perhaps a bit ambiguous. Civil-society organisations and left-of-centre activists tend to see it only as promoting multinational corporations etcetera. There is another, extremely important dimension however: in many developing countries, masses of people slave away in the informal sector which means that they have no rights and no security and are doomed to stay poor. Policies must be drafted in a way that changes the economic system in way that allows informal businesses to grow into formal private-sector companies. Otherwise, there will never be enough jobs and neither labour laws nor tax laws can be enforced.
Yes, that is true. Unemployment is a huge challenge, and the kind of private-sector development you are speaking of is indispensable. At the same time, there are serious problems that involve big private-sector companies and multinational corporations. We have conflicts in Guatemala in which huge mining corporations are involved. These companies are exploiting resources and people, and they neither care about welfare nor environmental sustainability. Land grabbing, in which poor people are displaced from the land they have lived on for a long time, is happening in many countries. My impression is that the debate is still essentially revolving around creating more wealth and more growth. If global leaders want to get serious about rising to global problems, however, they can make that evident in the new agenda, for instance by including goals on taxing transnational transactions and stemming illicit financial flows. I'm not very confident that will happen, but I guess it is a good sign that at least the OECD has begun publishing relevant documents on these matters.

Karin Slowing Umaña is a former planning minister of Guatemala and currently works as an adviser to the government of Honduras.