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Not in it alone

With five years to go till the Millennium Development Goals’ deadline, it’s time to improve the delivery of aid and remove trade barriers, writes Shashi Tharoor.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2011 13:12 IST
Shashi Tharoor

D-Day is five years away. The target date for the fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is 2015. There’s only one catch: the world knows it is not on course to meet those goals. So leaders from around the globe are about to gather at the United Nations to undertake a comprehensive review of the progress made (and not made) so far, with the aim of agreeing on a roadmap and a plan of action to get to the MDG finishing line by 2015.

I was at the UN in September 2000, when world leaders met at the UN Millennium Summit and made a number of historic commitments now known as the MDGs. It’s an impressive and ambitious list, but its capstone is what the experts know as Goal 8, which calls for a “global partnership for development”. This includes four specific targets: “an open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system, special attention to the needs of least developed countries such as export tariffs and enhanced development assistance, helping landlocked developing countries and small island developing States with the problems arising from their geographical bad luck, and taking national and international measures to deal with the debt problems of developing countries.”

Basically, it all boils down to a grand bargain. When countries agreed that the MDGs be achieved by 2015, a deal was struck: while developing nations would obviously have the primary responsibility for achieving them in their own countries, developed countries would have the obligation to finance and support a global partnership for development.

This hasn’t really happened. Take aid, for instance. Last year, the official development assistance (ODA) amounted to $119.6 billion, or 0.31 per cent of the combined national income of the world's developed countries. Not only is this not even half of the age-old target of 0.7 per cent of GDP for ODA, but measured in current US dollars, ODA actually fell by over 2 per cent in 2008. Indeed, only five countries have met the UN target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income: Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Dare one point out that at the G-8 Summit at Gleneagles and the UN World Summit in 2005, donors had actually committed to increasing their aid substantially (by some $50 billion at 2004 prices)? Or to double their aid to Africa from 2004 levels by 2010? (No, they haven’t done that either).

The plain truth is that unmet commitments by the developed world, inadequate resources for the developing world, lack of focus on the part of donors and accountability on the part of implementers, and insufficient dedication have meant that many of the MDGs are not close to being met.

The UN admits that though some progress has been made, it is uneven, and that many of the MDG targets are likely to be missed in most regions. Trade is an area where much progress had been hoped for. And yet, developed countries’ tariffs on the imports of agricultural products, textiles and clothing — the principal exports of most developing countries — remained between 5 and 8 per cent in 2008, just 2-3 percentage points lower than in 1998. Some deficiencies have been made worse by the continuing economic crisis; and the food and energy crises. But the shortfalls are clear.

With just five years left to meet targets, Goal 8 must be reinforced in two fundamental ways. Developed countries must make commitments to increase the quantity of aid to developing countries, and to improve its quality. Aid must help developing countries to improve the welfare of their poorest populations according to their development priorities. The developed countries need to recognise that the rich countries do not develop the poor ones — developing countries develop themselves, with the solidarity and help of those more prosperous and more fortunate than themselves.

Mine is not merely an argument for more aid, but for more wisely-directed aid. Not all aid works as intended, and not all aid is well-directed. Donors often feel obliged to do what they can to make their contributions ‘visible’ to their constituencies and stakeholders, rather than prioritising local participation. Also, donor agencies snaffle up the best available talent, usually at salaries that distort the local market. Meanwhile, the sheer clout that comes with the purchasing power of aid money dilutes the necessary accountability of officials and elected representatives in developing countries, whose governments spend more time and energy being accountable to donors than to their own people.

It’s time to change the way the world goes about the business of development. Donor-driven and donor-directed aid won’t be sustainable once the donors leave or run out of steam. The answer lies in helping create capacity through training citizens of developing countries. Indeed, building human resource capacity is itself a useful way of fulfilling Goal 8. Donors themselves have an interest in doing this. It’s the best way of ensuring their assistance is well used. Aligning their assistance with national development strategies, and helping countries devise such strategies where none exist, is smart from the donors’ point of view too. Using national structures, or helping create them, ensures their aid is usefully spent, and guarantees the sustainability of their effort.

Trade is the other key area. In contrast to aid, greater access to the markets of the developed world creates incentives and fosters institutions in the developing world that are self-sustaining, collectively-policed and inevitably with greater consequences for human welfare. In other words, the average tariff levels in the developed world would mean more over the long run than generous aid packages alone. Many countries wish to trade their way out of poverty, but are prevented from doing so by high tariff barriers, domestic subsidies and other protections enjoyed by their competitors in the rich countries. Such practices have to change.

Nor should the onus be placed on developed countries alone. After all, the Millennium Declaration was signed onto by developing countries as well. They too have made serious commitments to their own people, and the first responsibility for fulfilling those commitments is theirs. But Goal 8 assured them they wouldn’t be alone in this effort. The next five years calls for one thing above all: solidarity.

Shashi Tharoor is a Lok Sabha MP. The views expressed by the author are personal