Launch of the 2005 Report
A summit that is too important to fail
Martin Luther King likened the American constitution to a 'promissory note' pledging social justice and equal opportunity for all. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC forty-two years ago this week, he accused successive governments of failing to redeem the pledge. For African Americans, he declared, the promissory note had turned into a "bad check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds', adding: "but we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
"Next week in New York the largest ever gathering political leaders from around the world will meet at the UN to discuss another promissory note. That note is the Millennium Declaration.
Signed five years ago, the Declaration holds out the promise of international action to tackle global poverty - and the promise is backed by time-bound targets set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs include halving world poverty,cutting child deaths by two-thirds, and getting every child into school, among other goals. And we are now at the start of the ten year countdown to the 2015 target date for achieving the goals.
Some people question the value of international summits. Others challenge the claim that the MDGs represent a useful guide for international cooperation. These views are profoundly - even dangerously - mistaken. The twin scourges of mass poverty and deep inequality represent the great ethical challenge of our age. In an interdependent world,they also pose a grave threat to our collective security and shared prosperity. Moral imperative and enlightened self-interest both dictate that the UN summit is too important to fail - and that the MDG pledge is too important to dilute.
As governments prepare the final outcome document for the UN summit it is important that they stand back from the clause-by-clause negotiations pause to reflect on what is at stake. In this year's Human Development Report, published earlier this week (September9), we assess where a simple continuation of current trends will leave us in 2015. The results are not encouraging.
Take the case of child mortality. In 2015 the world will fall short of the MDG target by around 4 million deaths - a population equivalent in size to the combined under-five population of New York, Tokyo and London. On current trends, Sub-Saharan Africa will reach the target not by 20 15, but by 2 1 15 - a century too late.
Superficially, prospects for halving income poverty are more positive, largely because of the performance of India and China. Beyond the global aggregates, country-by-country assessment paints a more sobering picture: the MDG missed by some 400million people.And while progress towards the Goal of universal primary education is encouraging,current trends will leave 46 million children out of school in 2015.
These projections are based on trends. Thankfully, trend is not destiny - and there is still time to put in place the policies and the financing needed to achieve the MDGs. But the clock is ticking and time is running out. What is clear is that another decade of business as-usual will leave the world far short of the MDG targets, with attendant implications for human suffering.
Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect an international meeting of this nature to provide a blueprint for accelerated progress towards the MDGs. But it is important that the summit seizes the opportunity for carrying forward the a anti-poverty agenda. A bold summit statement could signal the start of a 'decade for development' to 2015, bringing the MDGs within reach.
Conversely, if a meeting of world leaders produces a stripped down communique devoid of substantive content would send the wrong signal. Such an outcome would leave governments swimming against the tide of the huge public campaign to Make Poverty History'.
So, what can the UN summit do to get the world back on track? Building on the momentum created at the Group of Eight is an obvious starting point. At the Gleneagles summit in July summit the world's richest countries joined leaders from Africa to outline bold measures to increase aid and debt relief by $50bn by 2010. The summit provides theG8 with an opportunity to confirm serious intent. They could set out the public expenditure plans that will translate promises into practical action, while at the same time agreeing measure to improve aid effectiveness.
Trade poses a bigger challenge. After four years of negotiations, the Doha 'development round' of WTO talks is going nowhere fast. Negotiations are deadlocked on virtually every front. The problem: rich countries are asking for too much and giving too little.Some of the world's poorest countries continue face the rich world's highest trade barriers, agricultural subsidies are rising, and developing countries are being pressed to implement agreements on investment, intellectual property, and liberalization that could compromise poverty reduction efforts.
Unless this picture changes in short order the ministerial meeting planned for December will fail - an outcome that would have devastating consequences for the legitimacy of the rules-based multilateral system. The UN summit could help to pull the sound out of the quicksand, helping to spread the benefits of trade to some of the world's poorest countries in the process.
Agriculture is a priority. Currently, northern governments spend $1 bn a year aiding rural development in poor countries, and $1 bn a day subsidizing their own producers. These subsidies, reinforced by high tariffs on imports, are indefensible. They systematically undermine small farmers in developing countries in global and even local markets,driving down prices, closing off opportunities, and reinforcing poverty.
As the world's 'subsidy superpowers' the European Union and the United States could use the summit to send a clear signal on the Doha Round. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has already called for a prohibition on export subsidies within five years.Supplemented by a commitment to make deep cuts in overall support and tariffs, this could change the increasingly funereal mood music at the WTO and help unlock progress in other areas.
Security is another area for action. Violent conflict remains one of the most potent barriers to MDGs, yet the world lacks an institutional structure capable of integrating conflict prevention, peace-keeping, and post-conflict reconstruction. That is why the Secretary has prioritized the establishment of a new Peace Building Commission, and why the summit should unambiguously endorse the principle of 'responsibility to protect' vulnerable populations.
Ultimately, next week's summit is about something more than the MDGs and reform of the UN itself. Five year's ago, the world's governments made a promise to their most vulnerable citizens. If, as a global community, we cannot work together to keep that promise, what hope is there that we can tackle the grave threats posed by climate change,the proliferation of nuclear weapons, health epidemics, and international terrorism?
Unilateralism and 'going-it-alone' is not a real alternative, even for the most powerful countries. There is no alternative to rules-based international cooperation if we are to achieve a more stable, more secure, and less divided world. The UN summit provides a litmus test for commitment to international cooperation. That is why it is too important to fail.
That is why we need to make sure that the MDG promissory note does not come backmarked 'insufficient funds'.
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