The Millennium Development Goals – What next, Mr Cameron? – By Myles Wickstead

Prime Minister,

Congratulations on your appointment as Chair of the UN Panel on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  This reflects the progress of a decade and a half in which the UK has taken an increasingly forward position on international development issues, highlights of which included the establishment of the Commission for Africa and the Gleneagles Summit in 2005 – and the UK, unlike some of its G8 partners, has made a pretty good fist of delivering on its commitments.

But it is also a tribute to the personal political leadership which you have demonstrated in sticking with the commitment to reach the 0.7% oda/gni target next year, despite significant cuts in almost every other area of Government expenditure.  This is the right thing to do, both because it will make a significant difference to millions of lives and because it helps to cement our reputation as a country which negotiates hard but then does what it has said it will do.

The MDGs were put in place to encourage Governments to focus on pro-poor development and donors to support those efforts – and have been enormously influential.  But however successful we are in meeting the overall objective of halving the proportion of people living in absolute poverty by 2015, that still leaves us with the other half; and however successful we are in meeting the other objectives we are still left with too many mothers dying in child-birth; too many people dying of preventable illnesses; too many children not reaching their fifth birthday.

So I encourage you to set a target date of 2025 by which we should aim to get rid of absolute poverty, benefiting the poorest, most marginalised and most vulnerable people in the world.  It sounds and is ambitious, but is eminently possible on the basis of the progress made to date.  This has been in large part because of economic growth in India and China, which has pulled literally hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.  Many countries in Africa are also growing strongly and steadily.

Of course the MDGs themselves focus essentially on basic health and primary education, and have been criticised for being too narrow.  It is, though, clear that outcomes in these areas depend upon a broad range of inputs and conditions.  Progress won’t happen without reasonable standards of governance (which means having the capacity, as well as the will, to do things properly) and peace and security.  If you have those things, you can begin to build the health and education systems that you need to deliver the MDGs.  But you can’t sustain those systems unless you have strong economic growth; and you won’t have that strong economic growth without encouraging the private sector.  The private sector needs a strong infrastructure in place in order to thrive.  And so on…

Trying to capture all this complexity in a set of Goals, Targets and Indicators is impossible.  So an alternative approach could be for each country to set out clearly its own strategy for achieving the overall objective of eliminating absolute poverty by 2025 in a way which is consistent with the Millennium Declaration, which has important things to say about issues like rights which are not included explicitly within the MDGs and which – unlike the MDGs – was agreed by every single UN member state.  Indeed, a number of countries have already added or modified Goals to address specific areas of concern such as governance or specific national infections.

But this country focus is not, by itself, enough.  More than ever before, in a process given additional momentum by the global economic downturn, it has become evident that we are all in this together.  We face common challenges of – for example – creating decent jobs for a rapidly growing population; food security, agriculture and nutrition; and the risk of global pandemics which do not respect national boundaries and which require common regimes of diagnosis, information sharing and treatment.

In no area is this common challenge and need to work together more evident than in the environment and climate change.  We have only one planet; if we allow it to become unsustainable, it becomes so for every one of us.  We need to bring more closely together the parallel tracks of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘development’, and the Rio + 20 Conference in the middle of the year, as we begin to think about the post-MDG world, could hardly be more timely.

So there is a set of issues for poorer countries to address, around their country plans to eliminate absolute poverty at a national level.  There is a set of issues around global public goods, including the environment and climate change, which we must all address together.  And there is a third set of issues which the better off countries need to address, which is around their policies which have a direct, negative impact on developing countries.  This includes reforming the governance of the International Financial Institutions; persuading the US that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is much the best choice to lead the World Bank into the post-MDG era would be the best possible start to your Chairmanship.

But there are more direct ways in which we have a negative impact.  Cotton and cocoa farmers in West Africa remain poorer than they need be because of EU or US trade barriers and subsidies.  The weapons which continue to fuel conflict in developing countries are rarely produced there.   It is by addressing these sorts of issue that you could really help those countries that are determined to pursue the goal of poverty elimination.  It demands a whole-of-Government approach, and moving the UK in that direction would strengthen still further the moral authority with which you take on this mantle, and set an example for others to follow.  It is an opportunity I urge you to seize.

Myles Wickstead CBE is Visiting Professor (International Relations) Open University; Head of Secretariat, Commission for Africa.

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