The UN’s High-Level Panel has now issued its detailed recommendations for global poverty alleviation efforts to replace the Millennium Development Goals project, which expires in 2015. The panel, headed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and including political leaders, diplomats and poverty experts from around the world, has called for the eradication of severe poverty by 2030 and vigorously addressing climate change, among numerous other proposals . The recommendations will form the basis for dialogue between UN member states over the next two years about a new global agreement on poverty and development.
ASAP is interviewing experts on global poverty about the new recommendations, and the progress and likely legacy of the MDGs. In this second piece in the series, contributing writer Robaiya Nusrat speaks to Professor David Hulme, Executive Director of the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. He is a leading researcher and commentator on rural development, microfinance and the Millennium Development Goals.
Q: It is now mid-2013, and the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015. At this point, what is your assessment of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the MDG effort?
Hulme: From a broader perspective I think, the MDGs have been useful and contributed certainly to reducing poverty in some parts of the world, but one just has to accept that most of the poverty reduction has been only weakly associated with MDGs, particularly in China and India. If we look at Africa, particularly the improvements in child mortality, than we see it was partly related to poor countries in Africa placing higher priority on reducing child mortality and partly related to development funds that were beneficial to meet the goals in relation to MDGs. I think what’s happening in China and India — say nice things about MDGs, but they basically followed their national strategies, both of which included human development and both of which included economic growth. Henceforth, it is not only MDGs that impacted on those. You will have to look at the smaller countries and aid dependent countries in Africa, then it can probably be tracked on some impacts that Africa has [seen] a reduction in child mortality, and part of that is due to MDGs, indeed with significant focus on child mortality there.
Q: Can you cite examples from your practical experience in smaller countries in Africa or in the South of Asia, like Bangladesh, of the impacts there from the weaknesses of the MDGs?
Hulme: The main weaknesses of MDGs has been, they were sort of handed down from the international system — the UN to developing countries, and particularly aid-dependent countries. With the wisdom of hindsight, in the 2000s a better process might have been to engage countries individually to say “how can we help defining setting your national goals” or “how can we help set you your national target?” I think it would have been better to strengthen national planning and implementation of development programs other than saying what goals have to be achieved. Obviously particularly in Africa the MDGs were never likely to be achieved, given the tasks of achieving the goals were so high. The level of change would have been so great if the goals were achieved — but rather than setting such high goals it could have been particularly important if national policies were better managed. In accordance to that, some may say that by the end of 2015 Africa has not benefited at all from the MDGs. However, one needs to acknowledge that Africa hasn’t failed, rather the targets were too high to be achieved.
It’s very hard to track the MDGs’ impact, because there are also all sorts of other things going on. MDGs have [helped promote] education for all. One must recognize that such goals existed before as national development goals, but the MDGs helped accelerate that. In Bangladesh, maternal mortality has come down. They were probably on the way to achieving that through women’s empowerment in the garment industries and NGOs in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s very hard to separate out those things. Clearly one of the biggest things was that the MDGs did have a growth strategy; then again, growth strategies need to be conducive to human development strategy.
Q: Are you saying MDGs were not supporting sustainable development, but were directed more towards an economic growth strategy, and that is what is now suggested by the panel as a replacement of the MDGs?
Hulme: No, if anything the MDGs did, it was not thinking about growth efficiently and sufficiently. Too much focus on aid, not enough focus on growth and domestic taxation. Also, [they needed] a way to look at how countries improve the lives of their population. Usually that is associated with economic growth and somehow governments getting control over the possibilities of wealth or development funds to invest in schools, health and other infrastructure facilities.
Q: One recommendation from the High-Level Panel on the MDG replacements is to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. How would you define extreme poverty and to what extent is the elimination of extreme poverty possible?
Hulme: Whether it should be a goal or there should be a vision of the world without extreme poverty — I think that’s probably the right sort of goal to set, but I would be inclined much more to argue that this needs to be done by helping countries that have a high concentration of extremely poor people, particularly in helping them work out how nationally there may be a plan to help eradicate poverty, where the resources would come from, what the implementation and agency will be. At the moment there’s this danger that we are in. Well, there are two dangers when we look at extreme poverty. First, there is a lot of extreme poverty in India, and to a lesser degree in China, and it’s unlikely that the post-2015 development agenda will particularly influence India or China. So, in a way it’s a work-out with them how you get them focused on the extreme poverty. Second, outside of these countries it would be much more appropriate to focus on the modality — on how to get a national plan and national resources so, in a way, it looks away from aid as a major source of funding, rather using taxation to fund domestic spending.
Q: Well then, what according to you is a Sustainable Development approach to eliminate extreme poverty?
Hulme: When you look at the idea of sustainable development and the sustainable-development goals idea, and eradicating poverty, then there are two main points to make which may move in different directions. First of all, if you have to eradicate extreme poverty, then you have got to think about the sustainability of the environment and the environment that the poor people are in. Particularly when poor [countries] are urbanizing now, it’s a big problem for them. I can reflect on my experience regularly in Dhaka, [Bangladesh], where it’s just polluted air! The air they breathe now is so polluted, which is absolutely incompatible with good health and further economic progress. In order to have that, you need to have sustainability, not to mention access to clean water and sanitation, and to not be exposed to polluted water and improper sanitation. However, we need economic growth in a way to find the resources, either through the private or public, to help these people. Then the problem we’ve got is really we don’t know what this “green growth” or “sustainable growth” is. It’s written about, but almost all the growth we know about means you burn more carbon, and in the early stages it is very carbon intensive, so it is very hard to see whether sustainability would fit into that. But I suppose it would be trying to work out how we reduce poverty and give extremely poor people a better environment to live in, while trying to reduce the consumption of rich people. [I will be] interested to see whether the 2015 goals will actually not just talk about poverty reduction and sustainability — “the nice things”, but actually mean that rich people around the globe would actually reduce their consumption levels, drive less, buy less clothing, have less air conditioning. I think that would be rather quite difficult.
Q: Is it “Inclusive Growth” that you are suggesting, in line with one of the recommendations from the High-Level Panel for the post-MDG era?
Hulme: Green growth, sustainable growth and inclusive growth are these terms being used, but I am never sure whether in they have managed to get any real purchase on actual policies. It’s a nice idea that people talk about them, but actually looking at what they mean — for example, David Cameron has said to the population in the UK that they will have to reduce their consumption levels. I see him saying a lot of good things, but I don’t see him saying that, yes we will have to not buy big cars, drive less, fly less, be more efficient in eating and restrict your spending.
Q: Is that a very ambitious goal suggested by the panel? If so, in your opinion how can “Inclusive Growth” can be addressed?
Hulme: Well that is a very ambitious goal, because in a way one of the things that has been detached from the MDGs 2000 and 2015 is that in a way poverty reduction and sustainable development or inclusive growth means not just for the poor, but also for the rich people. That may mean a number of things. If you are looking at green growth, they have got to change from using carbons and the sort of energy profligacy which is part of life style for one to two billion people — the group of people that probably I am in and you are in. And, [we need] also to say some of the things which were discussed in the G8 meeting [in Northern Ireland] this week about taxation, about the fact that in a world where we are creating so much more wealth, that needs to be re-distributed either nationally or in the international system so that wealth doesn’t get concentrated in fewer hands.
Obviously one of the greatest disappointments in the 2000 to 2015 period will be that, whatever poverty reduction goals have been achieved, there is a contrasting increase in inequality. So, we may be making progress for some of the poorest people at the bottom end, but when we look in a way at the opportunity of people to have a good life in the world, then that’s not spreading to the bottom half of humanity. The way it’s managed may be to help the bottom billion or whatever, but obviously a socially just world or fair world is going to be giving everybody a reasonable quality of life. It’s not just going to get people just $2 a day and stop their babies from dying as much. Rather, there has to be more for them.
Q: At this point, are you referring to the international poverty line followed by the World Bank in calculating extreme poverty level? It is said there are a lot of people coming out of extreme poverty, as measured at $1.25 a day. Then there is another poverty line, at $2.50 a day, where we see significant achievements being made. At $2.50 per day, are people coming out of poverty? If not, what is your recommendation for the post MDG era?
Hulme: Well, if you look at the poverty lines, a lot of people will come out of $1.25 poverty but there is a trap between $1.25 to $2.50. If we only focus on extreme poverty then we will say “oh it’s ok,” these people are just poor, they are not extremely poor. And, in a way there is a priority in helping the extreme poor, but functionally they look abandoned — the people who are trapped between $1.25 to $2.50. Obviously when some of the analysis had been done, it was suggested that poverty lines could be done with $10 a day to $20 a day, which is possible if you look at global incomes. But there are a lot of implications for the reallocation of funding from people who are very wealthy to people who are not extremely poor.
Q: How do you think reallocation of wealth can be done at its best? Is it through involving the private sector in providing sustainable livelihoods through employment opportunities, or there are other means?
Hulme: The key thing is that, it is going to be very difficult involving the private sector and using the private sector to act within the social system and continue to create wealth so that it becomes more environmentally sustainable and at the same time socially responsible, and so that it pays taxes at least at the national level. Or, it may need international action to try and work out on how companies can do this, because of all of the transfers involving MNCs [multi-national corporations]. I think it’s necessary for companies to take on their social responsibilities as well as the economic responsibilities. That’s going to be rather difficult. Since the early 1980s and 1990s, when capitalism has been encouraged, it has not been a socialist capitalism. It was “Casino” capitalism. So, we [need to] move away from this short term-ist being very individualistic to a longer term and more socially conscious approach. I don’t think that’s impossible but strictly speaking very difficult and challenging.
Q: The issue of Global Partnership has emerged over the last 15 years, and the High Level Panel seems to have placed high expectations on its success in the 2030 agenda. What are your thoughts about Global Partnership, in terms of helping developing countries achieve their targets in the 2015 agenda, and thereafter in the new agenda?
Hulme: Obviously you got the original global partnerships in the MDGs, which were added very late on, and which clearly have not worked very well, because they were identified with a trade deal and had to progress with [the stalled Doha Round of World Trade Organization negotiations]. It identified in a way recognizing climate change dealing with the issues of sustainability, which we haven’t got any closer on, and arguably certainly North America will come backwards on that in terms of what happened with the hydrocarbon and oil industries in the 2000s. Now [in the new recommendations] it will depend upon whether the behaviors have changed or whether countries in particular are prepared to treat global partnership more seriously than they have done in the past. This will depend to a high degree on how one sees, I suppose, the international political economy emerging. Some people are beginning to be a bit more optimistic because they think that China may find the idea of global partnership — particularly with regards to climate change and then environmental sustainability — is actually reasonably close to its medium-term interests. Certainly some recent work has argued that the Chinese are getting more interested in climate change and therefore more interested in engaging more cooperatively in global negotiations. China initially was insisting on their right to industrialize and create wealth, but at the cost of CO2 emissions. They now understand that they are going to be one of the countries which loses because of global climate change, in terms of having problems with supplies of water and in terms flooding or adding problems for large coastal cities, and so there is some optimism that China might actually become a forceful player, would like to see some sort of agreement. Then they may encourage the US to come in, because it wouldn’t want to be seem not to be big player when one talks about these issues. Brazil is already taking active part in sustainability and negotiations. So in a way, we have to hope that China’s problems in the future mean that they come to the table and that brings others to the table.
But one would have to say, certainly that given the experience of Doha and the experience of climate change, particularly in Copenhagen, things didn’t seem to have changed markedly. Whether Obama’s speech at Georgetown University, where he warned Americans of the deep and disastrous effects of climate change, urging them to take action before it’s too late. Other aspects of his speech were, his administration’s plan to boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures. All these certainly indicate that the US will move in a different direction. It was very good to hear what Obama said about engaging with climate change much more effectively, but in a way it needs to be said that it is in the political interest of the US to ignore climate change or claim against almost all of the scientific evidence that is not happening. However, clearly this could be a key element of the future 2015 development agenda. I see the high level panel as particularly emphasizing that, whatever happens this time, the global partnership should be treated with goals and targets so there should be concrete objectives with specific deadlines. Last time this was included as MDG-8, but not with concrete targets or specific dates.
Q: In the new recommendations, we see in place of the Peace and Conflict goals of the MDGs an emphasis on Peace and Good Governance. How significant is this change?
Hulme: It is interesting where they put those two things together. That’s because, certainly in the past the UN’s [resolution of] conflicts were seen as discrete goal to be achieved, and then democracy and human rights would have been seen as a different one. So, whether it is progress that is being put together or not would be interesting to think through. We know the richest countries in the world with low levels of poverty are functioning democratically, but when you look at the countries that in more recent times have managed to reduce poverty, and massively, particularly the East Asian countries, then there have been major achievements attributable to their authoritarian regimes. If we see what’s been achieved in China at the moment particularly, they are not functioning that democratically, but it has had the greatest break though of poverty reduction and the biggest growth in economic terms that we have seen. So it does create a dilemma as to a way to have win-win scenarios in which you can have economic growth and have poverty reduction, and have sustainability and have good governance, and have all good things come together, or whether there are different sequences in which these things happened.
Again, if we look somewhere like South Korea then we can see it achieved its growth and its initial poverty reduction without what we call good governance. But yes, then creating growth and reducing poverty created a large middle class which then negotiated a transition to democracy. Hence, one needs to recognize “democracy” and different contexts may not all come together. We may need to see it as sequenced depending upon the national specificities and obviously global partnership, if it comes up with one form of good governance as such that needs to be practiced. It is unlikely that China is going to sign something like this that says everybody must operate democratically from tomorrow. It will be interesting to see whether that has to be fudged because agreement can’t be reached on this.
Q: Can the Global Partnership influence good governance?
Hulme: Well, I think these things are all interacting in different ways. Those countries that see themselves as being well governed are in fact the rich democracies which are pushing for a global partnership in which good governance is seen as the key. When you get all the members of the UN together, 193 member countries, then in a way that is not a global partnership, that’s only agreeing to these common principles in negotiating them and I suppose what 2015 creates is an opportunity to reaffirm human rights to see where one could make progress in terms of the binding agreements that countries are committed to or whether global partnership can’t come together because the pressure to have good governance as an element of a global partnership means all the countries in a way don’t agree to something new. It’s in a way to continue to meet UN’s general assembly but they wouldn’t agree to some greater degree of similarity.
Q: Gender and women’s issues are coming up in the new agenda. At the same time, a recent report by the World Food Program stated that the poorer economies in Africa are losing 5.6% of their annual GDP growth due to the cost of hunger. Which do you think is more important, reducing gender inequality or fitting woman within the cost of hunger issue?
Hulme: Very good question indeed but very difficult for an easy answer! In a way we’ve got to do both, because gender is related to food insecurity, and food insecurity is related to gender in particular. The example you give is Africa, but obviously I work on Bangladesh. In Bangladesh women eat after men, and when food prices go up, women eat less, so we know the burden or the cost of hunger is borne by the women. If a woman is pregnant and she eats less, that reflects a negativity on the newborn and carries on to the next generation, because she has an undernourished child who tends to have a whole set of economic problems. In a way the gender issue becomes an inter-generation problem. We need to deal with both of these issues. I mean, looking at gender, certainly any agreement is likely quite positive about making progress on reducing gender inequality, and in a way real progress has been made in terms of access to education for girls. But obviously it’s going beyond that, particularly when you start to look at employment. The wage rate and these sorts of things need changes in many countries where paying women less [is the norm] and everybody’s aware of it. Economies should be able to think through that — no, this is unjust and not right.
In terms of food then, obviously they would like to have a target of 2030 that hunger should be eradicated, halved by 2015. I expect the issue will be — there wouldn’t be any clarity about how hunger is to be reduced, and so some countries and some regions might need government intervention, while in other parts of the world it would mean liberalizing agriculture. In a way the inter-play between these will be beneficial for the future, particularly when I look at food — which is absolutely horrifying – to prevent malnutrition in South Asia mostly in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where one has income levels which, when compared to other parts of the world, should have produced improvements in child nutrition and they haven’t apparently. That posits a major global question in that region: how can South Asia have had a good 10 or 15 years, entered growth and poverty reduction on a number of indicators, but when looking at nutrition it’s just not making any progress? These are the real priority issues of the future.
Q: Any last thoughts about the High Level Panel’s recommendations, including whether they would be an improvement on the Millennium Development Goals?
Hulme: I have so many different thoughts about it. It could be that gender is emerging, and this creates an opportunity to change social norms to reform and focus priorities to get people to think differently about the welfare of their people and community in their country and the welfare of people in the other countries. However, I can’t be too optimistic about it, because we have a history of having these opportunities and coming up with what have appeared to be grand statements of our progress, but then we are not implementing or honoring them. I suspect that in 2015 we will probably come up with a very good document which is approved by the UN but disagree to the extent which it will change behaviors of countries and of individuals. I am not yet convinced that it will contribute to as much as it should do, but I wouldn’t write it off at the moment. Clearly there is an opportunity in 2015 in trying to get the message across to the people, but if you want to live in a sort of world which most people think is a good world to live in, then you have got to eradicate poverty and you have got to make the world sustainable. If you don’t eradicate poverty then you are going to live behind bars and fences, you are not going to be able to relax and be proud, as a country, in the location where you live. We are not going to be able to let your children wander around, and you will have to manage and control their lives because you don’t live in a settled and secured place.
Again, if you don’t achieve sustainability then your children may have a future, but your grandchildren’s future is looking pretty difficult. When one has conversations, say particularly with people in India, they seem to be very proud of growth, very proud of poverty reduction that’s occurring. But they don’t like to look out the windows of their cars, because they see poor people and they see pollution and they see inequality. It’s trying to get them to realize that it needs paying some taxes to the Government of India, and they need to be pushing the government of India both to perform better domestically and also to think about its global position. In China it’s more difficult for people to do that since they haven’t got that democratic independence that people have in India. But 2015 — it’s a great opportunity. Let’s see if it’s taken!