The Millennium Development Goals

Dec 7th 2005, Jayati Ghosh
In the year 2000, the UN General assembly adopted the Millennium Declaration, in which world leaders committed to achieving a set of 8 goals by 2015. Since then, these Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, have become the latest buzzword at different levels of the international development aid industry, and have spawned substantial employment generation for what are now called ''development practitioners''.

The MDGs are certainly worthy and well-intentioned, stating goals that no sane person could really object to. They are: to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; to achieve universal primary education; to promote gender equality and empowerment of women; to reduce child mortality; to improve maternal health; to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; to ensure environment sustainability; and to develop a global partnership for development.

All this was supposed to happen through a combination of more international aid and policy changes within developing countries. The trouble is that the policies that were suggested typically involved more of the free-market-obsessed deregulation that has already created employment stagnation and greater income inequalities in most of the world. But while there have been several critiques of the polcy orientation implicit in the entire exercise (for example by Focus in the Global South) there has been relatively little in terms of either assessments on the ground or presentation of the perceptions of the people who are supposed to be benefited by it.

That is why a new report by ActionAid International, entitled ''Whose Freedom?'' (published in September 2005) is quite an eye-opener. This report is based on interviews with more than 350,000 people from 5,000 villages in 19 poor developing countries over the months of June, July and ugust this year. It presents a stark and graphic picture of the continuing hardship faced by ordinary people in these countries, more than 5 years after the MDGs were first adopted. The countries are: Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Senegal, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Burundi, Brazil and Guatemala.

The agrarian crisis afflicting most of the developing world is reflected in the evidence especially from small and marginal farmers in the survey. With small and marginal farmers unable to eke out a livelihood from their plots, there was a widespread pattern to recourse to casual and insecure wage labour to make ends meet. Yet there are simply not enough jobs to meet this growing demand – people in 87 per cent of the villages reported that work was not available regularly when needed, and in 50 per cent of the villages paid work was available for only half the month the most.

This has affected food intake. Hunger deaths were reported from 24 per cent of the villages, and people from 64 per cent of the villages said they were forced to skip meals, either regularly or in particular seasons. Public systems of social protection were found to be minimal: people in 47 per cent of the villages had no access to any public service in any season. In fact only 21 per cent of the villages offered a public distribution system for food. In periods of drought or shortage, only 15 per cent of villages reported any form of drought relief, such as food for work, cash or other transfers.

Aagainst this already depressing background, women apparently face increasing discrimination and denial of rights. In nearly half of the villages, no women owned any land, in villages where they did, they were recorded as owning land in less than 30 per cent of cases, mostly, as co-owners with men. Work availability and wages were found to be substantially lower than for men. In 77 per cent of villages, there was no government support for female-headed households, while there they did get some, coverage was limited to less than 30 per cent of such households. All the villages in all the countries reported a high incidence of violence against women.

Better education and health form an important part of the MDGs. But in half of the villages, people said they were dissatisfied with the education services, and parents from 56 per cent of villages reported that education was not affordable at all, given the user fees and loss of children’s earnings. A shocking finding was that people from 71 per cent of the villages reported that local children worked for wages instead of attending school. Around 87 per cent of villages had girls of school-going age who had not enrolled. The general discrimination faced by girls was reflected in the fact that schools in 60 per cent of the villages did not toilets for girls.

Health services were even worse. 80 per cent of the people interviewed said that health services were too costly for them to access. 77 per cent of the villages did not have health centres, and in half the villages people had to walk more than 3 kilometres to reach health posts. In any case, even at these health posts, 76 of respondents reported that medicines were not available. Access to clean drinking water was found to be limited, with reports ranging from scant availability to drought-like conditions.

Clearly, the MDGs are failing. Almost all of the respondents to this survey felt that over the past five years, they have either remained where they were or are worse off in terms of access to food and basic services and fulfilment of fundamental human rights.

While these results are shocking at one level, they are not entirely unexpected for those who have been observing the working out of the mechanisms unleashed by the processes of national and international deregulation and withdrawal of governments from fulfilling their basic social responsibilities. Unfortunately, while the official aid industry makes much of the MDGs, they still continue to promote policies that will prevent their ever being achieved. Until there is dramatic shift in the policies imposed by most multilateral institutions and followed by governments, this sorry state of affairs will continue and even deteriorate further.

Obviously policies of privatisation of public services must be discontinued, and there has to be substantial increase in spending to provide public services, including for nutrition, health, sanitation and education. Public spending for agriculture has to be greatly enhanced, and employment generation schemes must be given top priority. Most important of all, ordinary people must be given greater voice in affecting the decisions hat affect their conditions of life.


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