There is universal consensus that global poverty is a major issue that must be addressed. There are those who wish to address the issue through private charitable contributions merely touching the surface of this problem on a world scale. There others who believe each individual state must address the issue, and only in cases of major natural disasters and serious epidemic outbreaks should the international community be involved.
There are those who see NGOs and churches as the solution, although both have their own self-serving agendas just as do billionaires in providing aid. Then there is the United Nations trying to coordinate a global effort under the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which has been around for fifteen years and declares itself a success in a number of domains. Finally, there is the segment of analysts who argues that poverty is a social justice issue and must be placed in its proper context as such. This means eliminating the root causes of poverty, inequality, and social injustice in general. In this very brief essay, I examine the UN-MDG program and its claims of success against the empirical evidence of chronic systemic poverty and absence of social justice.
In 2000, all members of the United Nations agreed to launch a program to combat global poverty and address related issues by setting goals I have delineated below. In its website, the UN makes the following sweeping claim of its goals.
The Millennium Development Goals, (MDGs), are the most successful global anti-poverty push in history. Governments, international organizations, and civil society groups around the world have helped to cut in half the world’s extreme poverty rate. More girls are in school. Fewer children are dying. The world continues to fight killer diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS. There are about 500 days to accelerate action on issues such as hunger, access to education, improved sanitation, maternal health and gender equality.
On 20-22 September 2010, the UN celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) program. This was with the intention of taking stock of the progress made thus far and to urge governments and the private sector to help meet the ambitious goals by the target date of 2015. When time came to implement the UN MDG goals, the wealthiest countries opted not for economic development that would alleviate the root causes of the problems as the member states agreed, but rather debt relief that would pay off the creditors mostly in the G-7, provide military aid because it entails G-7 defense contractors secure the contracts for weapons sales, and natural disaster relief that targets large commercial operations where foreign capital is involved. Despite this reality, the UN takes credit as its statement above indicates for progress in achieving stated goals.
The eight goals that 140 leaders from around the world came together to discuss in New York, include:
1) End poverty and hunger.
According to some studies, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day has been reduced from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. The World Bank estimate that the number of people living under $1.25 per day is 1.2 billion, while British-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) places the estimate at 1.5 billion and more than 2.5 billion live on $2 per day. In short, one-third of the world’s population lives below the poverty line. If the poverty line is set at $5 per day, then more than 4 billion people live under such conditions. The absolute value of the dollar amount is not as significant here because $5 dollars per day in sub-Sahara Africa has a much higher PPP value than it does in New York City. The issue is that the US anti-poverty program goals remain elusive, even by the most optimistic count. In the absence of addressing the structural impediments to social justice, the rich-poor gap will not be closed as the UN MDG goals promise.
2) Universal primary education.
Global out-of-school children stood at 100 million in 2000 while it is at 58 million in 2015. This is a remarkable achievement, although this is hardly the result of the UN MDG program. In fact, local and national government programs are largely responsible for this achievement, despite lingering endemic poverty. It is evident that there is a direct correlation between poverty and education, considering that the funds the international community devotes for universal primary education in the developing nations are hardly sufficient to address the problem.
3) Gender equality and empowering women.
90% of countries have more women in their representative bodies (parliament, assemblies) in 2015 than in 1995. In 1995, there were 11.3% women parliamentarians while in 2015 the percentage rose to 22. However, this is hardly because of the UN-MDG program and more a function of national politics, with northwest European countries having the best representation because of their cultural-political commitment to gender issues, while Europe, excluding Nordic countries, the Americas and sub-Sahara Africa have female representations in the mid-20s.
4) Reduce child mortality.
Global number of deaths under the age of five was at 12.7 million in 1990, while it stands at 6 million in 2015. According to the World Health Organization: “6.3 million children under the age of five died in 2013; More than half of these early child deaths are due to conditions that could be prevented or treated with access to simple, affordable interventions. Leading causes of death in under-five children are preterm birth complications, pneumonia, birth asphyxia, diarrhoea and malaria. About 45% of all child deaths are linked to malnutrition. Children in sub-Saharan Africa are more than 15 times more likely to die before the age of five than children in developed regions.” http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs178/en/
The UN-MDG program has asked member states to commit to strategies that would reduce child mortality, almost half of which takes place in the first month after birth. The level of success rests with the individual government and with the level of external aid in the worst cases.
5) Maternal health.
Global maternal mortality has dropped to about half in 2015 in comparison with 1990. Just as in the case of infant mortality that can be prevented assuming there is availability of immunization and other medication, maternal health is an area where inexpensive health care can make a difference. The UN-MDG goals show progress in this domain, but they do not show that the mortality rates are 14 times higher than in the advanced capitalist countries.
6) Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
HIV cases have also dropped from 3.5 million to 2.1 million. There has been a dramatic reduction of 35% in HIV from 2000 to 2014, largely because so many public, private and international resources have poured into this area in comparison with others.
7) Environmental sustainability.
There are empirical cases of improvement in this domain that includes everything from re-forestation to clean water and sanitation. Carbon-dioxide emission dropped by half between 1990 and 2012; 2.6 billion people gained access to clean water and 2.1 billion to sanitation. Many of the improvements resulted because China has been making considerable progress, but also India that enjoyed enormous GDP growth in the first decade of the 21st century. Despite such progress, there are close to one billion people living in slums in 2015, compared with 689 million in 1990. This is indicative of failure rather than progress, considering that slum conditions hardly contribute to “environmental sustainability”.
8) Global partnership for development.
This is a goal that has been successful from a business perspective though not necessarily always from the perspective of communities. Needless to say, the UN-MDG officials and the co-sponsors have a vested interest in accentuating the successes of the program rather than its shortcomings.The interested reader will be able to go to the webpages of the UN-MDG to see what they have to say about their program.
Assessing UN-MDG Goals
In all eight goals some progress has been made between 2000 and 2015, despite the global recession of 2008-2011. Guide, guardian and promoter of finance capital and neoliberal policies, the IMF proclaimed that the key in achieving MDG program targets is economic growth – always under the neo-liberal economic model whenever possible with minimal state intervention. In short, more capital concentration will somehow trickle down to the destitute masses. Former President Bill Clinton has been soliciting financial assistance from high-profile individuals in Hollywood, businesses and governments, always touring and making speeches for extraordinarily high fees on how to combat global poverty.
While any anti-poverty effort is better than watching more than 2 billion people go hungry and without medicine when there is more than enough food, water, and medicine to take care of their basic needs, the solution that the UN-MDG program and its advocates offer is in essence intended to perpetuate capitalism that creates and perpetuates poverty and social injustice on a world scale. It was as plausible in 2000 as it was in 2015 to provide basic needs for two-thirds of the world’s population, but it was simply not profitable. The pretext of the Malthusian theory, lack of logistical solutions in areas where the problems exist, corruption of local and national politicians in developing nations, and a host of other issues are real but the reality remains that the political economy causes and maintains structural inequality and poverty.
Billionaires and multi-millionaires prefer to give a part of the wealth to charity, wealth they have appropriated and accumulated by investing in corporations doing business in less developed and developing countries where labor values are low and account for uneven income distribution and endemic poverty. The UN-MDG program works within the existing political economy and herein rests the contradiction between its publicly stated goals of eliminating poverty and the reality of how the system operates to create greater inequality. Based on capital concentration and accumulation of capital, as well as social and geographic inequality, the market economy is not undergoing transformation from its neoliberal phase under globalization to an “enlightened capitalist phase”, as the UN-MDG advocates argue. This is merely an exercise in convincing world public opinion that capitalism can solve problems it creates from poverty and gender inequality to human rights.
The ultimate irony in this UN project is that the countries that MDG is designed to help possess most of the world’s natural resources. Nevertheless, the same are exploited directly or indirectly by the 20 richest nations mostly for the benefit of multinational corporations. Former UN secretary-general Koffi Annan, who led the initial MDG effort, accused the rich nations of failing to meet their obligations. Annan has indeed tried to work within the existing political economy to improve the masses, and one way is providing cheap energy to Africa as an integral part of development. Hardly an advocate of systemic change of capitalism, Annan has some support among some nations that heed his advice.
However, the North-South divide has not and will not be solved by MDG as Annan and others hope because MDG’s ambitious goal to eradicate poverty runs counter to the political economy of capital concentration on a world scale. Moreover, there is a new race between China, northwest Europe, US, and even some rich Arab countries to carve out Africa’s natural resources. Because China’s role is especially catalytic across the continent, the race to control the wealthier countries becomes more important for the Western countries with a historical role of imperialism in this continent.
Africa is the last frontier for the lowest asset values, which of course includes labor coasts, in the world. This means that the continent will attract massive foreign investment from multinational corporations in the 21st century. Are Shell Oil, Wal-Mart, General Electric, and other multinational corporations with considerable interest in the future of Africa interested in amassing profits by maintaining low labor costs or are they interested in actualizing UN-MDG goals? If none of these corporations have a history of promoting social justice even in their own countries, why would they do it for Africa?
Considering that the recession of 2008-2011 created greater poverty not only in the advanced capitalist countries but throughout the world, and considering that most countries even within the G-7 downgraded the social welfare state and strengthened corporate welfare, what is the best hope for MDG targets to be realized and for the poor countries not to have the problems that the UN has identified as chronic? Moreover, China’s economic slowdown in 2015 and currency devaluation that dragged along with it a global devaluation with depressed commodity prices falling across the board, what would this entail for UN-MDG in the next five to ten years in developing nations hardest hit by the commodity depression.
Roughly 80% of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the G-20 and within those countries the majority of wealth is in the hands of a small minority. Does such income distribution mean there is hope for UN-MDG program to be realized not in the next five years but in the next 100 years? Other obstacles to progress that go to the heart of contradictions of the market economy itself include the fact that the rich nations have inward-oriented economies catering first to the domestic market and selling the surplus to foreign markets, especially to semi- and less developed countries where labor values are low and profits high. By contrast, the economies of the semi-developed and less developed countries where poverty is widespread are outward-oriented, based on few exports from which most of the revenue emanates. Government, business, media, and academics’ rhetoric notwithstanding, there is no sustainable development other than a PR exercise to promote everything from “green loans” to “smart bottled water”. Sustainable development is a concept that has been co-opted by multinationals as a backdoor channel to appease the middle class consumers and continue with neoliberal policies on a world scale with the “dependency pattern” of underdeveloped countries falling farther behind the G-20.
Because the export sector in underdeveloped countries is invariably owned directly through local contractors by multinationals, national capitalism and the state as a support mechanism are very weak in comparison with the rich nations. This makes it easier for the multinationals to manipulate through bribery and legal methods using the World Bank, IMF, and the services of their government in the underdeveloped countries that need capital. The result is less stringent legislation (environmental, labor relations, health codes, etc.) affecting foreign companies, lower taxes than they pay in their own countries, and of course easy terms for repatriating profits. This situation entails perpetual movement of capital from the semi-developed and less developed countries to the core or rich nations. How the UN-MDG program can possibly be realized under such a global capitalist structure is a mystery in which very few believe while those supporting the program are using this as another vehicle to prove that capitalism is working well and addressing the worst cases of inequality.
Trade dependence is directly linked to deteriorating terms of trade at the expense of the less developed countries with low labor values and low consumption. Former Indian government official Shashi Tharoor, who took part in the initial MDG conference in 2000, commented:
“Many countries are prevented from trading their way out of poverty by the high tariff barriers, domestic subsidies, and other protections enjoyed by their rich-country competitors. The European Union’s agricultural subsidies, for example, are high enough to permit every cow in Europe to fly business class around the world. What African farmer, despite his lower initial costs, can compete?”
Another very significant area of structural weakness is what German Chancellor Angela Merkel identified when she blamed governance in the debtor nations as part of the problem. Indeed it is true that the state structure in a semi-developed and less developed nation is weak. This is especially the case with the fiscal system needed to support national capitalism, in comparison with the rich nations that enjoy a strong fiscal structure.
Why is the state structure weak in less developed nations, and do rich nations and international organizations like IMF and World Bank have any role in contributing to its chronic weakness? Less developed nations collect very low taxes from the multinational corporations and are in constant need of loans for monetary (currency stabilization) as well as development projects. Using the IMF as a vehicle of fiscal austerity that creates poverty and concentrates wealth – the opposite of what UN-MDG goals aim – the wealthy nations are able to prevail in imposing monetary, fiscal, trade, investment, social and labor policies on the debtor nations. Under such conditions it is simply impossible to make progress toward eliminating poverty and social injustice as the UN-MDG program professes to address.
To secure monetary and development loans, debtor nations must meet criteria designed to maintain a very strong market economy, namely, domestic and foreign capital enjoying the support and protection of the state because ‘national interest’ and economic development is equated with private capital, while the enemy is the public sector and workers. Financial dependence is invariably linked to trade, manufacturing, transportation, and service sectors dependence, which does not permit for the less developed nations to emerge from perpetual poverty that a substantial segment of their population is suffering. In the absence of addressing such structural causes of income inequality, the UN-MDG program cannot possibly succeed.
This does not mean that Merkel’s comment about political corruption is not to be taken seriously. Political corruption is a reality in developing nations. For example, India falsified maternal death reports to meet MDG targets. Local politicians and military officials have used foreign aid to enrich themselves in many developing nations not just recently but in the last seventy years. Indeed official corruption in semi-developed and less developed countries is part of the problem, but officials are on the receiving end, while domestic and foreign businesspeople are at “offering” end making bribery possible in return for favors. However, even if corruption were to disappear by magic in a single day, the chronic problems that UN-MDG has identified will remain for as long as the political economy is based on the principle of capital concentration and accumulation flowing from the bottom of the social pyramid and outward from the less developed nations to the rich nations, and from labor to business.
The larger question to ponder in the UN-MDG program is why the political and business establishment is behind this effort. Why is it that the same elites largely responsible for the calamities of chronic poverty are insisting they wish to eradicate it under the UN-MDG program? One answer is that MDG is morally correct and that governments, corporations, the IMF, World Bank, NGO’s and others that support MDG are motivated by humanitarianism, compassion for the poor, for abused women, for tens of thousands of children dying each day of hunger, for those suffering human rights abuses, etc. This is exactly the image that the UN-MDG supporters wish to project, but does it have anything to do with reality?
In some respects, there are interesting parallels between the British ending slavery and UN-MDG. Did the British end slavery out of consideration for the Africans; did they do it owing to pressure from ministers of the church; or was there motives rooted in the political economy and society undergoing rapid changes owing to industrialization? British policy to retain the population in their colonies as the economy was changing from commercial to industrial capitalism thus the slave trade (ACT OF 1807) followed by the Abolition Act of 1833 was based on the realistic need for labor in the colonies to supply the mother country with raw materials for global trade. Industrial capitalism was based on free labor as it was on free trade, therefore the institution of slavery was anachronistic, for it was the product of commercial capitalism that was overtaken by industrial and finance capitalism.
Fifteen years after the UN promulgated the MDG program, we have the evolution of globalization that needs a work force in the semi-developed and less developed countries where labor values are low. Otherwise the growth and expansion of capitalism cannot continue. Given its cyclical nature, capitalism constantly seeks new markets to exploit for greater profit and lowest labor costs. The UN is offering the forum and the means for governments of the rich nations serving large corporate interests to create a more viable work force in the semi-developed and less developed nations, and to continue the thorough geographic and economic integration of every inch on the planet in order to realize the goal of capital concentration.
While the only thing that matters in peoples’ lives is their improvement no matter how it comes about and no matter the intentions of those wishing to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, disease and gender inequality, the only proof remains in the results and not the lofty rhetoric. When the Ebola virus epidemic erupted in December 2013 in Guinea, spreading to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, Mali, and Nigeria, the only action that the UN, G-7 and the West took collectively was only after there were isolated cases in Spain, UK, and US. Even then, the manner by which the West collectively handled the outbreak was to protect its own borders rather than address the roots causes of the virus in Africa.
There is consensus among scientists that endemic poverty, the same that the UN MDG program was supposed to lessen if not eradicate, as it claimed in 2000, is a major reason we had an Ebola virus epidemic out of control that had many in the Western World seriously worried. Further evidence of the contradictions between rhetoric and empirical results can be found in what took place after the Ebola epidemic – one of the worst in Africa’s modern history according to the World Health Organization. The UN Development Group concluded in March 2015 that because of the Ebola outbreak the affected sub-Saharan regions suffered decreased trade, flight cancellations, closing of borders, and a drop in foreign investment, all conditions that sunk the already poor areas even deeper in poverty.
To support their case that the UN-MDG program is a success, its supporters point to the world statistical averages. Upon closer examination, we find that Asia has experienced improvements across the board from 2000 to 1015. The results in Asia are the product of national capitalism and not the UN-MDG program. In other words, the rapid GDP growth of China and India in the first decade of the 21st century resulted in derivative growth in many parts of the world that depend on commodity exports. Cyclical demand for minerals and agricultural products with derivate benefits for a segment of the masses has absolutely nothing to do with the UN-MDG program and its supporters cannot possibly claim that improvements in poverty reduction are directly linked to the UN program. Naturally, UN-MDG officials hailed China for its role in helping achieve the MDG goals, but this is a clear case where credit goes to China and not the UN.
The most significant goal, which pertains to social justice and equality that neoliberal policies under globalization have been spreading across the globe, has been completely absent from the UN agenda. Are there more or fewer human rights problems around the world in 2015 in comparison with 2000, including human rights abuses in the US and other advanced capitalist countries that exempt themselves and point the finger only at the poor countries and openly declared “enemies of the West”? The US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and US-NATO intervention and covert operations in Africa, Middle East, Ukraine and Central Asia have actually caused a rise in human rights violations. These conflicts have caused a rise in the massive problems of refugee population and guerrilla warfare that the US labels “terrorist” when it is linked with Muslims.
Sustainable Development and Human Rights
Although US-NATO policies have actually contributed to human rights abuses from 2000 to 2015, a period that the UN-MDG program aimed to lessen such abuses, there is still the claim of success in this area. Even more insulting to those people around the world who are honestly working to eradicate human rights abuses, the UN-MDG program have linked this issue to sustainable development. “Sustainable development” is a concept both in PR terms and in every other respect that the corporate world has totally co-opted and uses it selectively to further its agenda of maximizing profits without offending the more sensitive among the middle class investors and environmentalists throughout the globe. During the Rio de Janeiro UN meeting on human rights in April 2012, the UN High Commission on Human Rights proposed linking sustainable development to human rights. In practice, this meant that multinational corporations could not invest in the absence of taking into account the physical and human environment.
Is sustainable development taking place in developing nations owing to the efforts of multinational corporations? Are multinationals involved in agricultural chemicals and hybrid seeds interested in sustainable development that would eradicate poverty in Asia and Africa? About the only people who believe there is anything sustainable or development taking place in poor countries are the corporate salespeople, their lobbyists, well-paid consultants and academics, the corporate-owned media, politicians, and UN officials who want people to project the image that the future is no as bleak for the bottom two-thirds of the population in 2000 as it is in 2015.
If a multinational wanted to build an agrichemical plant in Indonesia, it would have to do so with the least damage to the environment, with rules about workers’ safety, due consideration for the local community. In short, the UN proposal asks the corporate world not to behave as though they were in the 18th century. Again, this satisfies the demands of the middle class investors who are sensitive about the environment, but there is nothing about social justice to address gross income inequality.
By focusing on the bourgeois PR issue of sustainable development and greater “gender equality” access, which means more opportunities for middle class women, UN-MDG officials are satisfied they have done enough for social justice in the world. Needless to say, because the UN MDG program enjoys corporate support, there is no criticism of the massive wealth concentration and the need for policies of income redistribution - the reality that 1% of the world’s richest people own about as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world people.
One could argue that it is better to have the UN coordinate an international effort aiming to reduce poverty, illiteracy and disease than no to have such a program even if the program is not achieving its stated goals and even if corporations and strongest governments in the world are using the MDG program for their goals. It could be argued that in the absence of such a program we may not have the same results, such as they are and for the reasons that they are. On the other hand, one must also see through UN MDG as an effort to camouflage the growing inequality capitalism is creating and the growing lack of social justice. One could also argue that the UN MDG program is a Trojan Horse of imperialism on the part of the richest countries laying the groundwork the largest corporations to penetrate the less developed regions where most natural resources are available for exploitation and where labor costs are the lowest on the planet.