Ask someone from the government or a United Nations-supported NGO to name any event in history that took place a millennium ago. You could draw a blank. Ask someone outside the governments and UN-supported NGOs what Millennium Development Goals are, you could get: “Millennium? Isn’t that the name of a park near the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata?”
Few remember, fewer even know, that 10 years ago something extraordinary took place: heads of 189 countries left their shores eager to find in the turn of the millennium the magic of a new spirit. That these persons deliberated on poverty, peace and justice for three days and spoke at the plenary for just five minutes each so as to give every delegation a chance to participate was equally extraordinary. But the most extraordinary achievement of that summit was unveiling of the Millennium Declaration. Crafted with care as well as spontaneity, with wisdom as well as compassion, it is a masterpiece of intention and accomplishment.
If the deeply introspective U. Thant had been UN Secretary General in 2000, he would have found the Millennium Summit and the Millennium Declaration deeply fulfilling. U. Thant was a just man and would have liked to see the scope of justice in the world enhanced.
Each of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be achieved by 2015 begins with a transitive verb: eradicate, achieve, promote, reduce, improve, combat, ensure and develop. Did they come from unhurried understanding, from unagitated thoughtfulness, measured speaking and deliberated action about the millennial concerns shared by those in and beyond the apparatuses of State?
Fast forward the scene five years for the answer. By the time of the 2005 summit, when the MDGs’ first five-year review took place, the dramatis personae had changed. Presidents and PMs had changed, including the US’s, Britain’s and India’s. Secretary General Kofi Annan represented continuity but he too was in the twilight of office himself. At the Second Millennium Summit, he naturally reflects anxiety more than confidence when he says that this second Millennium gathering represents the “best, perhaps the only chance,” for a just world.
Annan’s fears were more than justified. At that 2005 summit, the US stunned the gathering by asking for the very words Millennium Development Goals to be dropped. Quite a change, that, within five years of the resounding adoption of the MDGs and with ten packed years of promise opening up ahead for reaching the target year, 2015.
The situation was to become even more complex. Seven years after the first summit and two years after that second, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, battling dissension within his ranks, recession in the economy, and progression in Tory prospects, said with terminal honesty about the MDGs: “… we are not on track… We have just seven years to go… We need urgent action… we now need an international effort that harnesses the power of everyone: the private sector, individuals, consumer groups, civil society, faith groups… as well as governments… to work together”.
Speaking at the 60th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said with characteristic restraint: “The international community is generous in setting goals but parsimonious in pursuing them. We must make greater efforts to mobilise the resources necessary to meet the MDGs”. A lag, a slide, was, therefore, admitted at the highest levels.
Fast forward again to now.
On the eve of the Third Millennium Summit in September, another honest statement came from the present UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon. “It is clear that the improvements in the lives of the poor have been unacceptably slow and some hard-won gains are being eroded by the climate, food and economic crises”. All three, climate, food and the economy are inextricably intertwined.
Will the Third Millennium Summit do no more than follow the first two? Who are the MDGs ultimately for? Are they for the end-of-term report cards of governments? “Climate, food and economic crises,” the three culprits identified by the UN Secretary General are triplets born of the same parentage, the blind and blinding avarice of the resource-rich.
With the experience of two decades of self-admitted failures behind us, we should own that more of the same would not work any longer. We need something new. Can we consider not in substitution, certainly not in competition, but in co-extensive mutuality with the eight MDGs the following eight millennium aspirations, in a Buddhist sequence, for the urgent needs of today’s world but with specific salience to India:
* Understand that the expropriating of our scarce resources will leave us nowhere;
* Think about the whys and wherefores of food insecurity to see how different the determinants of food security are today from those of the past;
* Speak to farmers, herders, fishers, who are going to face a worsening of soil degradation and sharp water scarcities, in order to learn from them about as much as to suggest to them ways of coping with those that will be ecologically intelligent;
* Act with speed to check the loss of plant and animal diversity that work as a natural bio-shield;
* Retrieve livelihoods from manipulators and monopolists, including from those trade unions and NGOs who by their creation of dependence bring trade unionism and voluntarism into disrepute;
* Set in motion efforts by those NGOs and trade unions or ‘faith groups’ to ensure that bulk users of energy and water cut waste and callous extravagance, and are not able to hide behind the ‘per capita’ principle;
* Be mindful of how rapidly villages are becoming towns, towns turning into cities and cities morphing into metropolises, see if we are not consigning ourselves to a future where we will all have to wear masks before venturing outdoors;
* Contemplate that the good intent of all those at the third summit, hope against fears that India which can stop a Vedanta in its tracks, and make the Lower Subansiri Project answer the world’s questions on its advisability, can also give us that gift of seeing, as U. Thant might have done, the practical wisdom of the Tathagata, or (adaptively) the ‘One Who Walked That Other Way’.
(This is an abridged version of the author’s UN Millennium Development Goals Campaign Lecture, New Delhi, September 11, 2010)
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal