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Editorial

Lasting challenge

by Hans Dembowski
Drinking-water pump in Bangladesh

Drinking-water pump in Bangladesh

The Millennium Development Goals have already been a tremendous success – no matter to what extent they will be achieved by 2015. Never before did any international agenda to fight poverty have such a lasting impact on public debate around the world. The UN has a history of pledges to provide healthcare, primary education or safe water to everyone. But they were never taken seriously enough to remember them ten years later.

The strongest point of the MDGs is that they address poverty in a comprehensive manner. They tackle vital issues such as healthcare, education, food, environmental sustainability and work. To rise to the challenges in all different fields, policymakers need a coherent approach. The MDG agenda cannot be reached merely by throwing money at the problems in sector programmes.

The MDG’s weak point thus corresponds to its strong one. They are ultimately about symptoms of poverty. They do not provide leaders with the keys to flourishing markets and prospering communities. No doubt, policies must still be drafted in national ownership, and international aid cannot compensate for shortcomings of governance.

The first decade of the new Millennium started promisingly. Spectacular economic growth in Asia led to fast rising commodity demand. As prices for mineral and agricultural raw materials rose, the economies of many developing countries in all parts of the world began to expand. For several years, things looked bright. New business opportunities arose, companies were making solid profits and, small wonder, poverty was in decline.

It didn’t stay that way. First, a severe food crisis struck in early 2008. Cereal prices were driven up by demand from rich nations that started to invest in biofuels and from emerging-market countries, where many people became able to afford fancier food, including meat, the production of which depends on feedstuff. Suddenly, staple food became unaffordable for masses of people in developing countries. This trend showed that poverty is sometimes exacer­bated in spite of economic growth.

Next came the global financial crisis. Though the group of – by now 20 – leading economies managed to coordinate their action and prevent a global depression, the crisis is far from over. This year, it flared up in Greece’s and Ireland’s sovereign debt problems and in an international debate on “currency wars” with irritating, protectionist undertones. It remains to be seen how the international community will eventually disentangle itself from the massive failure of the financial sector in 2008.

The most depressing story, however, is that there is hardly any progress on mitigating climate change. This human-made phenomenon is a fact of physics. Scientists understand that the impact will be tremendous – without being able to tell just how bad things will be. Pakistan’s floods and Russia’s forest fires in summer were harsh omens – and only the most spectacular cases of extreme weather hurting peoples’ livelihoods this year.

Progress in achieving the MDGs is welcome, indicating a decline in the symptoms of poverty. But progress on climate protection would be at least as important, because otherwise targets will only become more difficult to achieve in future. Let’s hope that world leaders move ahead in Cancún. The run up to that summit, however, was less than promising.

Hans Dembowski