The future of MDGs

gerhard-hoffstaeder-thumb Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter

Dr. Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a research fellow with La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security, which will host a Wheeler Centre event on ‘Changing the Architecture of Global Governance’ on October 24th 2010 in Melbourne.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 October, 2010.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Summit in New York at the UN head quarters has seen nations reaffirm the importance of the goals, but there was also acknowledgment that they are no closer to their achievement. UN Secretary-general Ban-Ki Moon was adamant that they remain achievable, if everyone works together and more aid is forthcoming.

However, major donors such as Germany have voiced concern over simply adding more aid to a system that is not yet accountable enough. German chancellor Merkel noted that developing nations must be more effective with the aid they get.

This shift in tone is surely due to the global financial crisis and the political pressure on government spending cuts for overseas aid. Only three years ago developed nations reaffirmed the pledge to raise international development to 0.7 % of GNI (gross national income), a goal first pledged in the 1970s. Australia’s target remains pegged at only 0.5 % for official development assistance. Currently the figure stands at 0.31 % due to rise to 0.33 by next year, but well short of the target.

The mining boom and Australia’s relative good weathering of the global financial crisis mean that AusAID is getting over $AUS 500 million more in next year’s budget. And if the department keeps growing to its goal of 0.5 % of GNI by 2015 its projected budget will dwarf that of the foreign and trade department. Yet AusAID remains without a ministerial portfolio to take charge of these major shifts in budget and thus power in the years to come.

Foreign Minister Rudd has now for all intents and purposes taken over the overseas development portfolio and with good reason. It presents him with a powerful ministry that oversees international affairs with added money to spend on development assistance, especially for countries still deciding who they will vote into the Security Council for a non-permanent seat in 2012.

It has been Rudd’s ambition and previous election promise that Australia would make it into the most powerful UN body. But the Security Council bid has its price and observers are wary at the Foreign Minister using the considerable sway of international development aid and the MDGs to influence votes.

New aid investments have been announced in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, whilst most aid remains earmarked for the Asia-Pacific region to bolster Australia’s middle power ambitions there.

At the same time AusAID and its partners have had major development success stories in the region which may be overshadowed by the reframing of development into the MDG prism. Much progress that has been achieved in malnutrition, child mortality and hunger, but it is not clear how much the MDG project in itself has helped.

Aid organisations like AusAID have essentially rebranded their aid efforts in line with the MDGs, making international development aid recognisable as part of the MDG effort. Yet, aid would have been delivered in any case, with or without MDG labels. Thus it is not clear how much the MDGs have actually contributed.

The least known and understood MDG, that of developing a global partnership for development, has not materialised. Development work remains a patchwork of international and national organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, applying themselves to specific programmes and projects. The UN, Rudd reminded the UN Millennium Summit last week, was failing to live up to its own charter.

Improving mechanisms of and for global governance is a perennial talking point at these meetings, but little has changed. Global problems are still addressed on a national level or at executive meetings of the most powerful G8/G20 meetings. For real change to happen, Rudd said, we must do what we say. Powerful words, if they are followed by action. History has shown that states are fast with the former and particularly slow with the latter.

However, more important than the political will and money is arguably that citizens here and the rest of the developed world understand why achieving the MDGs is so important. MDGs have no broad appeal amongst the people of both developed and developing countries. ActionAID’s recent poll found only 6 % of Australians know what the MDGs are. That is too little and this is where new technology can help. One of the facebook co-founders Chris Hughes has entered the fray saying he’s developing a virtual development network that will link people to relevant NGOs.

Already people can read about specific small scale development projects online and donate directly via the net or with mobile telephones. Webprojects such as global giving allow people to choose where, to whom and even what purpose their donations go to.

A more involved citizenry and active participation in the process of international development aid makes the MDGs real and achievable. At the same time citizens must ask for greater accountability of the national aid projects. Buying two goats online for HIV-positive women in Kenya may sound far fetched and odd, but connects me directly to those who need help urgently. Pushing government to address the global issues at a local level with compassion rather than power politics is the next step.