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Down to Earth No. 67, November 2005

Millennium Development Goals: shared hopes or hallucination?

A couple of months after the September World Summit 2005, the dust has settled at the UN Headquarters in New York. World leaders have long returned to their capitals, supposedly to do their homework. Meanwhile, activists the world over share their discontent over the outcome of the meeting: their hopes for change have been dashed.

This was the summit that was going to make poverty history. Originally billed the 'UN Millennium +5 Summit', the objective of the gathering of world leaders at the United Nations was to review progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Mimin Dwi Hartono1 , coordinator of Wana Mandhira, a Yogyakarta-based NGO, was among hundreds of activists from all over the world attending informal interactive hearings at the UN on 23rd-24th June 2005. Representatives of civil society organisations, NGOs and the private sector were invited to give inputs to the UN Secretary General's report In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security, and Human Rights for All, which would then be presented to the General Assembly in September. The hearings covered the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), financing for development and reform of the UN.

Hartono reported that the discussion that attracted the highest participation was entitled Freedom from Want, concerning the livelihoods of poor people in the Majority World. Apart from China and India, which are exceptional among the developing countries in managing to reduce poverty, most countries are still struggling to achieve improvements in poverty levels. In a dozen African countries poverty has even got worse.

The lukewarm commitments of the developed countries, particularly the wealthy and powerful G8, towards achieving the MDGs were a matter of concern to participants attending the hearings. Not all these countries have made the effort to fulfil a long-standing commitment to contribute 0.7% of GDP to support developing and poor countries. Rich countries are also seen as hypocritical by championing free trade while, at the same time, resorting to protectionism to defend their own interests - for example, subsidies for farmers in the US, New Zealand and the EU.

In terms of environmental sustainability, Millennium Development Goal number 7, most countries have yet to integrate sustainable development principles into their development policies and programmes. Here, short-termism and the economic orientation of development policy still predominate.

The private sector, however, is optimistic about its role in promoting sustainable development principles through responsible behaviour by companies and by providing funding and investments to meet MDGs targets. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become the private sector's favourite buzzword in order to earn 'good practice' credentials. This kind of corporate bragging inevitably became a target of mockery for NGO and CSO representatives at the hearings, given the wide gap between CSR principles and practice. CSOs highlight the fact that CSR has been voluntary, with no means of holding companies to account for their operations. Furthermore, they doubt whether companies would ever be willing to compromise profits for the sake of sustainability.

In the case of Indonesia, allowing companies to mine in protected forests and being too lenient with polluter companies are indications of how the state, together with the private sector, is undermining its commitment to the MDGs.

The informal hearings also heard an all-encompassing message from civil society: the need for "a human rights-based approach to development, peace and security and to elevate human rights within the United Nations". Another major message was the inclusion of particular and marginalised groups such as women, indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, people subjected to racial discrimination, children, youth and the elderly, as a prerequisite for achieving the MDGs.

What happens to the voice of civil society?

The informal meeting was historic because it was the first time there had been an opportunity for interaction between Member States, representatives of civil society and private sector. It was attended by 230 representatives of NGOs which hold consultative status with the Economic and Social Council, other CSOs and the private sector, of which more than half were from developing countries.

However, the high hopes raised by the participatory hearings had a crash landing at September's World Summit. This resulted in little more than a confirmation of the pro-market agenda and a repetition of the old promises. The lack of commitments prompted Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), an international CSO alliance committed to getting world leaders to fulfil their promises, to dub the MDGS the 'Minimalist Development Goals'.

INFID, the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development, pointed out several weaknesses in the Summit document. The resolution to encourage private and foreign investment in public services which are vital to meet basic needs of the population may not fulfil the aim "to protect vulnerable and disadvantaged sections of society". INFID said there was no clear monitoring mechanism to ensure services were not merely being subjected to a profit-driven strategy.

The participation of civil society was highly restricted in the Summit, even for groups with accredited EcoSoc status, despite the invitation by the Secretariat to contribute prior to the Summit. GCAP noted that inputs made through the hearings were not taken seriously.

The largest gathering of world leaders has let down the poor and the Majority World by not accounting for their failure to make progress, let alone bring about a substantial change of direction. It is urgent to make the process for achieving the MDGs more democratic, which includes democratisation of global institutions. Along the same lines, the governments should not just give efforts to achieve the MDGs token attention while they get on with business as usual, focusing on economic growth and the liberalisation agenda. Otherwise, we risk facing the same rhetoric - commitment with lax compliance - at the next global meeting.

Summary of the informal interactive hearings of the General Assembly with representatives of non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations and the private sector,; GCAP, Reflections on the United Nations Summit,; INFID's position paper to the draft declaration for the UN MDGs Summit,; INFID press release: 2005 World Summit Outcome Document to weaken developing countries.

For more on The Millennium Development Goals, see DTE IFIs Factsheet, No 36.

1 The first part of this article is adapted from articles by Mimin D Hartono entitled Tujuan Pembangunan Millenium dan Tantangannya.

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