Three things to remember as the world's new anti-poverty goals are decided

Thursday, July 10, 2014 - 12:03

As I've said before, 2015 will be a big year for those keeping an eye on development. Not only will the  Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire, they will be replaced by a new set of goals that are expected to be even more ambitious.

Although I've had my doubts about the usefulness of the MDGs, the process of choosing these new goals is worth watching. It will largely define the terms of debate for global issues such as inequality, women's rights, education, the eradication of hunger and international aid, and its funding. And, it could decide donors' funding priorities.

But it's tricky to keep up with (the original 'zero draft' document contained 17 goals, some with more than 40 sub-goals!) So what should we particularly look out for?

1) What about human rights? While there's some vague lip service paid to the importance of the Universal Declaration (UDHR) and other human rights treaties, we have to remember that those treaties mean that governments must deliver on most of these development goals. The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in particular guarantees labour rights, sexual and reproductive rights, the right to good quality health care and education, and a host of others. Put that with the right to freedom from all forms of discrimination in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and these mechanisms form a powerful tool against poverty. Or rather they would if they weren't consistently undermined - even by governments that have championed them. Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kilpatrick famously stated that the economic rights provisions in the UDHR were nothing more than a 'letter to Santa Claus'.

So a key question for the UN is: How are these goals going to be more effective than the internationally agreed human rights framework that has largely failed to deliver?  

2) If inequality is the problem, corporate engagement is not the solution. The zero draft contains some pretty strong language on inequality, including a distinct goal to “reduce inequality within and between countries”. It also mentions the need for companies to “incorporate sustainable development principles in their business practices” but it doesn't say much on how companies should be held to account or what regulation is needed to achieve this across the board. This is happening at a time when UN agencies like UNICEF and UN Women are actively courting big companies to help fill gaps in budgets that largely result from the ongoing global financial crisis and the failure of a few nations (well, one nation in particular - the US) to pay their bills.  

You get the feeling that there's a lack of intellectual clarity here, or perhaps that holes that originate in the UN's pocket book are ending up in its brain. Corporate greed - sometimes breaking national laws - is driving the inequality crisis. The problem is not going to be solved by timidly asking companies to act better and then offering them a seat at the decision-making table where they can drive the discussion to suit their bottom-line.  There is need for a stronger and binding framework to hold corporations accountable on human and environmental rights issues.

3) Show me the money. You could argue that these development targets will be more effective than the previous ones and from the rights framework, because the implementation will be funded. It's a difficult argument to make, especially in a world where the US doesn't pay its UN bill and only seven countries have ever met an unambitious foreign aid target set way back in 1970. Ending corporate tax avoidance and harmful tax incentives must account for much of the money. At the moment, developing countries lose billions in revenue as a result of these practices, far more than they receive in aid. These practices need to end and companies must pay the fair share of tax in the countries in which they do business. That would allow countries to invest in much needed health, education projects as well as better social protection schemes for those who most need it including women and youth.

What do you think are the key issues in the debate on the next set of development targets? Let me know @sameerdossani on Twitter!