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An irony of poverty reduction

by Hans Dembowski


At the UN summit to assess progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in September, all governments will be under pressure to justify their actions. Once more, it is becoming obvious that economic success in some places can aggravate problems in others. [ By Hans Dembowski ]

When the world's political leaders meet at the MDG summit in September, they will find it easy to discuss goals two to seven. In areas like children's health, basic education, HIV control or water provision progress is clearly visible. Representatives of developing countries will certainly have to explain why progress on maternal mortality is lagging behind more promising school enrolment data, for instance, but the trends in many sectors are healthy.

That cannot be said of MDG 8 – the global partnership for development. This is where the rich and emerging-market nations must act. The fact that many OECD members have not yet raised their official development assistance as promised is not even the main point. Their refusal to make concessions for a more development-friendly global trading system is more serious – and so is the fact that climate policy (admittedly not an explicit part of the MDG agenda) is making virtually no headway.

The hottest topic, however, should be MDG 1 – eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. The number of people affected by hunger has risen, not fallen, around the world in the past few years. There are several reasons, including crop failures, slow progress on raising agricultural productivity and sharply increased demand for meat in emerging economies. Grain used to fatten livestock does not serve to feed people.

No country has reduced absolute poverty with more spectacular success than China in recent years. Nearly all Chinese today enjoy a higher standard of living than 20 years ago. Recent strikes have led to pay rises for many workers and were yet more evidence of this trend. The irony of successful poverty reduction in China and other emerging nations, however, is that their rising demand for agricultural commodities is pushing up prices and thus undermining food security in poorer parts of the world.

Of course, Asian and Latin American consumers are not less entitled to eat meat than their European and North American counterparts. To an ever larger extent, they command the purchasing power to do so – and thus contribute to shortages elsewhere. This trend shows that the West’s consumption model is plainly unviable on the global scale.