Note: This post was first posted in May 2015 on my other blog, but it just doesn’t seem to fit there very well, so I decided to move it over here, where I think it will feel more at home.
Yesterday [which was in May 2015, when the blog was initially written] I went to an event, organized by a Dutch organization called Young & Fair where people came together in a cafe in Utrecht to talk about the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), past, present and future. I used to attend debates like these quite regularly and even organized a couple myself, back in the days when the millennium goals were fresh and cool, hot and happening. Or could it have been me that was still fresh, young and, – as we call it in Dutch,- “green behind the ears”?
You see, I had a bit of a hard time at this debate and I’m so glad I went because it made me realize I am might be heading down cynic-avenue and I think I might be just in time to turn this vehicle around.
But let’s stay on topic; the millennium goals, what were they, how did they fare and what will happen now that their expiration date is upon us?
How it started
In 2000 a bunch of men (and maybe a lady or two) in suits got together and called their get together the MDG summit. You can imagine how these things go; they discussed a bit, ate a bit, shook hands and at the end of the event we were presented the results: a list of important matters that should be addressed in the years to come. Money was made available, governments agreed to cooperate on these topics and everybody vowed to get it all done before 2015.
We all knew the plans were ambitious and I don’t think anyone really believed we would really check all the boxes by 2015, but this wave of optimism was definitely a good start.
It must have been some task, back in 2000, getting all the members to agree on these goals. So what did they get right?
- The MDGs were limited in number and therefore clear and easy to oversee and categorize
- They were successful as a lobby tool, helping to keep important issues on the political agenda
- They were concrete, with clear deadlines in both time and scale
- They were created in a joined effort by all members of the assembly
- Simple icons, easy to explain without complicated policybabble
And well, as Taylor Swift might say: haters gonna hate (hate hate hate hate), so yes there is plenty of critique as well. Here’s a couple of them:
- They were undemocratically chosen, and strongly influenced by the richer countries
- There is no clear or cohesive vision behind them
- They are incomplete
- Focus on improvement in numbers in stead of quality
- The goals are generic, without taking into account specific needs of specific areas or people
- Unfair to countries with a much lower starting point than others
Now, I must admit that I was never good with numbers. I still get chills thinking about my math teacher’s uninspired linear thinking his tired “this is just the way it is”-rhetoric. No room for what if’s and why’s. Not only was his attempt to kill our inquisitiveness spiteful, he was also wrong. You see, there is so much room for interpretation when it comes to numbers that it is really quite exasperating. I know, I know, it’s not the numbers’ fault; it is ours as we are the ones doing the interpreting.
For example, let’s take goal numero uno: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. When Rosalie de Bruijn, project manager at One World and promoter of the MDGs at the Dutch Ministry of External Affairs, introduced the 8 MDGs at yesterday’s debate, people objected as soon as she pulled out her stats. She mentioned 1 in 8 people in the world deals with “chronic hunger” adding up to over 840 million people in 2013.
But when is someone really officially hungry? And when is it chronic? And when is someone poor? Did anyone ever try to live below the poverty line for a while and then just above it to check if it was really that much better? Do chronically-hungry-by-choice Westerners on vegan/raw/juice-diets count? And how do you measure how much and what a farmer needs to eat to compensate for his heavy labor?
And as if just deciding where to lay the line wasn’t complicated enough, people are saying that the UN played with the scales halfway through to paint a prettier picture and show there is some progress being made, even though the previous method may have said otherwise…
Dominic Nahr summarized it in the New York Times in September 2014 as follows:
It’s a long story. At the World Food Conference in Rome, in 1974, when Henry A. Kissinger famously stated that “within a decade, no child will go to bed hungry,” F.A.O. experts estimated that the number of hungry people in developing regions was close to 460 million, and that in 10 years it could reach 800 million. That prediction was close: In a 1992 report, the F.A.O. stated that there were 786 million hungry people in 1988-90. It was a dramatic increase, a serious blow.
In that report, the F.A.O. revised its previous calculations, saying that its statistical method had been wrong. Now, the F.A.O.’s experts said, they believed that in 1970 there weren’t 460 million hungry people in the developing world, but more than twice that number, 941 million. This, in turn, allowed them to say that the 1989 figure of 786 million did not represent a dramatic increase but, in fact, a decrease of 155 million: quite an achievement.
The changes kept coming. In 2004, the F.A.O. said that the number of undernourished people in developing regions had reached 815 million. This would have seemed like a disappointing increase from the 786 million figure. But in that same report, the F.A.O. revised its 1990 numbers once again, and stated that in 1990 there hadn’t been 786 million but rather 823 million hungry people. So hunger had gone down after all.
Luckily, Pietro Gennari, statistician for the FAO took the time to react to Nahr’s critical piece and did so in October 2014 in the following way:
The undernourishment methodology is peer-reviewed and has been improved over the decades, accounting for the major revisions […]. Inevitably, this also means that the estimates are changing. In fact, they have to change precisely because the underlying data are updated and corrected, and methods are improved. The sources of possible adjustments include frequent revisions of population size and food availability. Such revisions are normal practice among national and international statistical agencies.
Oh, alright then. I do believe people at large institutions as the FAO do have good intentions deep down and that you can’t hold on to old scales when all the variables are changing. So, while I push the pesky cynic back a little further into the back of my mind I will try to visualize the bigger picture and what my part is in this puzzle.
How much food have I thrown away over the years? Have I bought enough fair trade products? How can I do this more consciously? How selfless am I willing to be?
And this is just the first development goal we’ve been discussing here… So you can imagine yesterday’s event wasn’t nearly long enough to do all of them justice and I am not really prepared to deal with all of them in this blog either.
So, I’m thinking maybe I could dedicate a blog to each of them before the year ends because as one of the debaters put it: “No one with the head screwed on can be against these goals”, but there is a lot to say about each of them and the challenges they have faced.
And now in recent weeks, we have been introduced to the new goals for the next fifteen years; the sustainable development goals (SDGs).There are 17 of them, subdivided into 169 targets… O.o
Aaaah there is so much to say about them it is completely paralyzing my writing flow… So I’m going to keep it sweet and simple.
The Guardian wrote a piece titled “Sustainable development goals: all you need to know” that I recommend you read to fill in the gaps.
What are the proposed 17 goals?
1) End poverty in all its forms everywhere
2) End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
3) Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages
4) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
5) Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
6) Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
7) Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
8) Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all
9) Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation
10) Reduce inequality within and among countries
11) Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
12) Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
13) Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (taking note of agreements made by the UNFCCC forum)
14) Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
15) Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss
16) Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
17) Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development
The fact that these new goals were chosen in a more democratic fashion, after long and complex discussions in both public and private fora, may partly explain why there are so bloody many of them… But yay for democracy! Wait, which goal is that anyway?