UN efforts to enhance MDGs must include issue of equality

Jim Clarken
Jim Clarken

Tomorrow a special meeting at the UN General Assembly will discuss the maturation and future of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2000 and set to be replaced in 2015. Ireland and South Africa will co-host the meeting.

Described as unrealistic and unattainable, the MDGs were first dismissed as requiring too much progress too fast. Yet, since their adoption, the goal of cutting in half the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been met. Malaria deaths have fallen by a third, the number of people with access to safe water has doubled and 90 per cent of children now attend primary school, up from 82 per cent in 1999.

The MDGs were effective, both in their simplicity and in focusing the strength of solidarity within the international community. However, while the goals addressed the symptoms of poverty and underdevelopment, they ignored their deeper causes.

A plan for reducing inequality was a major omission in the original MDGs. The most recent communication from the UN about the MDGs signals that we may be set to make the same mistake again; focusing on poverty without addressing the deeper problem of income inequality.

We know that global poverty is declining, but income inequality is soaring, and billions of people are being left behind by economic growth. The world’s 100 richest people amassed $240bn last year - enough to make a huge contribution to ending extreme poverty more than three times over.

Without a roadmap for closing extreme income inequality gaps within and between countries, the next set of global goals is almost certain to be unachievable.

Ignoring inequality again will undermine the struggle to eliminate poverty and injustice both at home and in developing countries.

870 million people go to bed hungry every night. But there is enough food in the world to feed all of them.

Over a billion people live on less than $1.25 a day. Yet the rich dodge £102bn tax on hidden assets, enough to end global poverty twice over.

And while 10 per cent of Europeans live in households where no one has a job, the combined wealth of Europe’s 10 richest people, £183 billion, exceeds the total cost of stimulus measures across the EU in 2008-10, according to Oxfam research.

Europe alone will face up to 25 million new poor by 2025 if harsh austerity measures continue to be implemented. Without targeted efforts to reduce inequality, the social and economic progress that has characterised western society since the industrial revolution will continue to be undermined.

The failure to include inequality in the original set of MDG targets has led to a deepening of poverty and vulnerability among a range of excluded groups in all societies in all countries.

A UN High Level Panel has already recommended an overarching aim of ending extreme poverty altogether by 2030. For that to happen, Oxfam strongly advocates establishing a single, stand-alone MDG goal on income inequality.

The UN Human Rights Council has echoed these concerns, baldly stating that there can be no set of goals to replace the MDGs without a separate goal on inequality.

If we are to live in a world in which everyone can enjoy their human rights, live equitably and free from the injustice of poverty, on a planet that has the natural resources to sustain them, this is critical. We cannot hope to end extreme poverty if we don’t tackle the economic, political and social inequalities that are adversely affecting the poor at home and abroad.

The UK and Irish governments can help build consensus on how we tackle these challenges at the United Nations in New York this week. Without a roadmap for closing extreme income inequality gaps within and between countries, the next set of global goals is almost certain to be unachievable.

For more information visit www.oxfamireland.org

Jim Clarken is CEO of Oxfam Ireland