UN fails to achieve global millennium development goals
Fifteen years ago, from Sept. 6 – 8, 2000, leaders from around the world convened at the United Nations Millennium Summit to create guidelines for what has since become the biggest global anti-poverty push in history. The resulting eight UN Millennium Development Goals have been touted for the last decade and a half, as globally recognized benchmarks for progress, with a deadline set for 2015. While almost none of the eight MDGs have fully achieved their tangible goals, significant progress has been made in each area. The one MDG that is considered a concretely measurable success by the UN is Goal 1: To eradicate poverty and hunger.
According to the most recent annual MDG Report for 2015: “Extreme poverty has declined significantly over the last two decades. In 1990, nearly half of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day (and) that proportion dropped to 14 percent in 2015. Globally, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half, falling from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015.”
It’s true that progress is being made. The Millennium Summit marked the first time in history that progress in national development could be measured by gains in human well being, and that it is the collective responsibility of governments to uphold dignity, equality and respect particularly for the world’s most vulnerable. But we have more than a long way to go.
The World Bank’s definition of “extreme poverty” includes those living on less than $1.25 per day, so yes — statistically speaking, there is a proportionally smaller number of people living within these parameters of extreme poverty today than there was in 1990. But the definition of “moderate poverty” includes those are living on anywhere from $1.25 to $2.00 per day. And we still pat ourselves on the back. “We have a long way to go, but we’ve made vast improvements and if we stay on this trajectory, together, we can end world hunger by (insert arbitrary year in the near-distant future).” So we can applaud a marginally improved situation (and by the way, these are global averages that do not account for severe regional disparities) and promise to continue or even double our efforts, but how far can that really take us? We can keep donating to the World Food Programme to deliver food supplies on an emergency basis all over the world, but that’s not going to fundamentally reduce hunger.
We get a lot of things wrong about poverty: our perceptions of economic inequality, how we treat poor people, how we think we should treat poor people and many of our proposed solutions. We have very fixed ideas of what poverty is supposed to look like. An image of a starving child in Africa (“Africa,” of course, that monolithic country) garners far more sympathy from college students than do the homeless of New Brunswick who visit Alexander Library right here on College Avenue. A service trip to teach kids English in Nicaragua is seen as somehow more important than tutoring children at Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen down the road from Douglass campus.
Volunteer work and charitable giving is often drowned by self-congratulatory rhetoric and unarguably always benefits the philanthropists — socially, economically or however else — much more than those they are helping. It doesn’t cost us that much, relatively, to donate to a cause or volunteer time on a service trip. What does take a lot more effort is to stand up to the institutions that create systems of inequality and injustice in the first place. For example, at Rutgers, that could mean challenging a discriminatory University policy introduced last year that intentionally targets homeless people by requiring library patrons to show their University ID after 10 p.m., or it could mean addressing the severe lack of affordable housing or adequate shelter alternatives in the ever-increasingly gentrified city of New Brunswick.
Conditions of poverty are extremely political. Humanitarian organizations often have to emphasize that they are apolitical to ensure continued support from donors (because appeasing donors is more important, in philanthropic work, than the recipients of charity themselves). But there’s a political reason that Palestinian children need and have no access to adequate medical care in Gaza, there’s a political reason for the Syrian refugee crisis, there’s a political reason that inner city kids in America are dealing with a broken public school system. You can donate to UNICEF or write to your government to accept refugees or work for Teach for America — and these are all admirable things — but at the end of the day, it’s not sustainable to keep working on bandage solutions.
Putting aside our differences and recognizing that we are all human is the central rationale for altruistic philanthropy. But that’s not enough if it selectively ignores the complexities of ongoing conflicts that require direct action. The world could get behind the Millennium Development Goals. Eradicating poverty and hunger, reducing child and maternal mortality, improving access to health care and sanitation — these are impressive issues to be tackling. But the world is also standing by while nations’ infrastructures are completed destroyed by the “War on Terror” and while billions of people are killed, injured and displaced by political conflict and systems of oppression — all of which are conditions to which global poverty is inextricably linked. I’m not saying I have all the answers, but upholding this kind of hypocritical double standard doesn’t seem like a particularly promising route.
Sabah Abbasi is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and public health with a minor in Arabic. Her column, “Midweek Crisis,” runs on alternate Wednesdays. She is the former Opinions Editor of The Daily Targum.