Fighting poverty

WindsorStar.com – business
December 26, 2011.   By Kate Heartfield, The Windsor Star

In 2000, the member states of the United Nations declared, “We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected.”

To that end, they agreed to the Millennium Development Goals – a set of eight goals and 21 targets dealing with health, education, hunger, gender equality and environmental sustainability.

So did the MDGs work? In the simplest sense, the answer will have to wait until the 2015 deadline or later.

The targets are, in theory, measurable – that’s part of their appeal. For example, either the mortality rate among children under five will be reduced by two-thirds, or it won’t. (It looks like the world will meet some of the goals, including halving extreme poverty.)

But a new working paper from the Center for Global Development points out that assessing the usefulness of the MDGs is not as simple as asking whether we’re going to meet the targets.

For one thing, the inadequacy of baseline data will make assessment difficult for some targets. (A lesson in the importance of good statistics.) And in a more fundamental sense, we must remember that correlation is not causation. If things get better, did that happen because the world leaders made grand statements a decade ago?

Or would it have happened without that exercise?

The question is important, and not just to development. It could shed light on what role, if any, the UN and its bureaucrats and conferences can play in confronting complex problems such as poverty and climate change, and whether grand statements of intent are worth the paper they’re written on.

That paper on the MDGs concludes the goals seem to have increased aid flows and improved some outcomes, but that it’s difficult to conclude with certainty that the “faster than expected progress in developing countries” is because of the MDGs. The authors say these uncertain results “should instil a sense of humility.”

Humility must never be confused with defeatism. Indeed, one of the authors of the paper, Charles Kenny, has a book out titled Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding – and How We Can Improve the World Even More.

There are many reasons to be proud of international achievements in recent decades, especially in health care. Kenny and his co-author, Andy Sumner, emphasize that the world looks better today than it did before the adoption of the goals.

We seem to be “80 per cent of the way to reducing income poverty by half over 1990-2015″ – which is amazing. There is progress in almost any field – gender equality in education, access to clean drinking water, maternal mortality.

Look at this progress within a single generation, against the backdrop of the long cruel slog of human history, and it’ll give you a reason to keep getting up in the mornings.

But it isn’t enough. Almost a billion extremely poor people (the 2015 projection) is better than 1.8 billion (in 1990), but it’s still almost a billion extremely poor people.

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