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MDG failures prove need for a new rights-based development agenda


MADRID/NEW YORK, July 14, 2011—The slow pace of progress towards the Millennium Development Goals – revealed in a newly-released United Nations report – demonstrates the need for a more ambitious and rights-based agenda to end global poverty. The 2011 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Report, launched by the UN Secretary General on 7 July, is testament to the inadequacy of the international community’s efforts to meet commitments made a decade ago to fight poverty and other forms of deprivation such as hunger, disease and gender inequality.

With only four years remaining before the 2015 deadline, the latest update from the UN makes for disappointing reading. Although areas of significant progress are highlighted – such as a decline in global rates of extreme poverty and improvements in access to clean drinking water – the report’s affirmation that “the world has cause to celebrate” rings hollow in the face of the facts.

For example, what progress has been made in poverty reduction is largely thanks to pre-existing growth patterns in China and India, rather than policy efforts flowing from the MDGs per se. The statistics on extreme poverty – based on 2005 data– do not capture the full impact of the global economic crisis, estimated by the World Bank to have plunged an additional 64 million people into extreme poverty since 2007.

Furthermore, as the report itself acknowledges, progress has been inequitable, often bypassing the poorest and most disadvantaged sectors of the population. The widening disparities highlighted in the report point to a systematic failure to tackle inequalities based on gender, ethnicity, disability and geographical location, among others. Inequalities between regions have also deepened, with one in eight children in sub-Saharan Africa dying before the age of five - a figure now 18 times higher than the average for developed regions.

Most alarming of all is the failure to meet development targets even in areas considered an immediate human rights priority, such as achieving universal primary education. There has been no progress over the last decade in reducing the proportion of people in developing countries who are undernourished. Indeed the number of people who go hungry worldwide has risen to a historic high of one billion since the recent food crisis. The goal of reducing maternal mortality also remains a distant aspiration. In sub-Saharan Africa, the region with by far the highest maternal death rates, progress in increasing access to reproductive health care over the last two decades has been minimal.

So what explains such limited achievements? And why is progress failing to reach the most vulnerable?  Political leaders in both the North and South point to the global economic downturn and other issues they claim are beyond their control. Yet they have abdicated their responsibility to confront the underlying structural factors impeding progress on genuine human-centred development. Indeed, the failure of the international community to make more headway on the MDGs is a reflection of its continued reluctance to place human rights at the heart of development policies.

The emerging debate on what should replace the MDGs beyond 2015 presents a crucial opportunity to advance a more transformative approach to the eradication of poverty guided by human rights principles.  As recognized by the UN Secretary General and affirmed at last year´s MDG review summit, these principles should provide the foundation for engagement with the MDGs. Yet they have rarely done so in practice.

Any new set of goals must recognize the interdependence of all rights and go beyond the fragmented and overly-selective approach of the current MDGs. It must incorporate the broader range of critical human rights challenges which have emerged over the last decade, including the need to reinforce social protection and global financial regulation.  Targets should aim to achieve minimum essential levels of economic and social rights universally in the shortest possible time.   The new framework must also have a stronger focus on tackling inequality. This requires not only greater efforts to track disparities through disaggregated data, but a commitment to address the discriminatory policies and inequitable resource allocations which fuel these disparities.

The post-2015 framework should also confront a principal failing of the MDGs to date: the lack of institutional accountability for meeting the goals.  While there has been growing awareness of the need for accountability frameworks, efforts remain piecemeal and narrow in focus. National accountability mechanisms should scrutinize policy efforts and the resources allocated to them; indicators for assessing progress should take into account the range of human rights factors that shape development outcomes. Global accountability mechanisms are also needed to ensure that aid, trade and investment relations between states respect, protect and fulfil human rights. Wealthier states´ commitments regarding international cooperation should also be quantifiable and time-bound.

The full participation of developing countries, civil society organizations and other stakeholders in deciding a new framework of goals will be vital to ensure the broader ownership that has been lacking in the past. The new framework of commitments must be informed by the experiences and proposals of those most directly affected by poverty and the global civil society networks advocating on their behalf, such as Beyond 2015 and the Global Call to Action against Poverty.

The UN Secretary General has acknowledged the need to set a more ambitious development agenda beyond the current MDGs, and a UN summit is to be held in 2013 to agree the post-MDG agenda. A critical first step is for the UN to start a participatory process of broad consultations on what this agenda should include and how it can be more firmly grounded in human rights principles.

Reframing development goals in human rights terms is not only an ethical and legal imperative; it can serve to enhance the efficacy, enforceability and legitimacy of future development interventions through greater participation and inclusion of the world´s poorest and most vulnerable. If a transformed Millennium Agenda reflecting their rights and aspirations is to be agreed by 2013, the UN must ensure that such consultations begin now. Humanity cannot afford another decade of unfulfilled promises.