A Decent Life for All

July 13, 2003

By Michael Jessen

It is a picture that is hard to imagine during the heat of a North American summer. Billions of people in the world living in extreme poverty, without enough food to eat, clean water to drink, or access to health care and education.

Statistics tell the shameful story. Every minute of every day a woman dies during pregnancy and childbirth, more than half a million a year. More than 800 million women suffer from malnutrition. Every year more than 10 million children die of preventable illnesses -- 30,000 a day. Around the world, 42 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, 39 million of them in developing countries.

Despite the promises of the world's richest to help the poorest, the gap in income inequality is widening. More than 1.2 billion people -- one in every five on Earth -- survive on less than $1 a day. 54 developing nations suffered average income declines in the 1990s.

The "haves" have promised to aid the "have-nots" and have even set targets to reduce poverty and improve living conditions for the world's poor by 2015. However, unless the richest nations change course and adopt far more ambitious plans for development, this improvement will elude many of the world's poorest.

This is the picture painted by the Human Development Report 2003 (www.undp.org/hdr2003) released by the United Nations Development Programme on July 8th. It offers a unique analysis of the world's progress in meeting the ambitious Millennium Development Goals.

The goals, arising from the Millennium Declaration which was endorsed by world leaders at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000, were reaffirmed by the Group of Eight leaders last month in France.

Ranging from reversing and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases to achieving universal primary education, the goals aim to lift hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty by 2015.

This year's report introduces a detailed new plan of action to meet the goal -- the Millennium Development Compact. Among its main recommendations are the adoption of wide-ranging policy reforms in developing countries, which must be accompanied by improved trade access and greater aid commitments by wealthy nations.

As in previous years, the report ranks 173 countries according to their level of human development. It also identifies 59 "priority" countries, which require intensified effort if the Millennium Development Goals are to be met. In 31 of these countries, progress towards the goals has either stalled or, worse, has begun to reverse.

Most of the countries that were poorer in 2000 than in 1990 are in sub-Saharan Africa. At their current rate, it will take 20 sub-Saharan African nations almost 130 years to attain primary education and 150 years to cut extreme poverty in half, says the report. Arab, Latin American and Caribbean countries should reach those goals by 2015.

The report calls for $100 billion annually in foreign aid -- more than double the current amount. It makes clear that this money should be easy to find. Only five cents from every $100 US consumer spending in developed countries would provide a more than adequate fund. Annual consumer spending in the US alone topped $7 trillion in 2002. Annual consumer spending on tobacco in the world is $204 billion. The report also points out that too much aid has been squandered because it has gone to countries with rampant corruption and misguided policies.

The idea that rich countries should give 0.7% of their gross national product for global development was first proposed in 1969 in the Report on International Development, led by former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson. This figure has been widely accepted as a reference target for official development assistance. Endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 1970, it was part of the international development strategy for that decade.

Flash forward 30 years to Monterrey, Mexico and the 2002 International Conference on Financing for Development. It marked the first pledged increase in aid in 20 years. However, only Belgium (0.7% of gross national income by 2010), Ireland (0.7% by 2007), Luxembourg (1.0% by 2005), The Netherlands (1.0% by 2005), Norway (1.0% by 2005), and Sweden (1.0% by 2006) will meet or exceed Lester Pearson's target.

The former Prime Minister would probably turn over in his grave if he knew Canada's pitiful aid commitment. Current Prime Minister Jean Chretien has pledged to increase aid by 8% a year, or by about $1.7 billion by 2010. That target will be equivalent to 0.28% of the country's gross national income, not even half of Pearson's benchmark.

Worse still is the fact more than half of Canada's non-technical cooperation aid often comes with strings attached. This is called tied aid and is costly for recipient countries because it limits choices in making the most economical use of resources. For instance, aid is commonly contingent on buying a product or service from a Canadian company. A recent World Bank (www.worldbank.org) study (What Rich Countries Can Do: The Global Social Contract by Nancy Birdsall and Michael Clemens, 2003) estimates that tied aid is 25% less effective than untied aid.

The UNDP report also highlights the large subsidies rich countries pay their domestic food producers and other agricultural sectors. The European Union's annual dairy subsidy is $913 per cow, almost double the average income in Sub-Saharan Africa. The European Union gives $8 per African person in annual aid to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Even more shocking are Japanese subsidies and levels of aid. The annual dairy subsidy in Japan is $2,700 per cow, while annual aid to Sub-Saharan Africa is only $1.47 per African person.

In the United States, the government gives a domestic subsidy to the cotton industry of $10.7 million per day, more than three times the $3.1 million per day in aid to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Former Slocan Valley resident Jim Merkel is the author of a new book entitled Radical Simplicity to be published in September by New Society Publishers. In her foreword (www.newsociety.com/News/radsim_for.html) to the book, Vicki Robin writes: "The "have-nots" can be out of sight and even out of mind, but they breathe the same air, drink from the same scant supply of fresh water, and birth children who will grow up to work with our children to finish the job we've barely started. They will have to find a way for all of us to live well within the Earth's means."

The UNDP report explains that many of the solutions to hunger, disease, poverty and lack of education are well known. "What is needed is for efforts to be properly resourced, and for services to be distributed more fairly and efficiently," concludes the report. "None of this will happen unless every country, rich and poor, assumes its responsibilities to the billions of poor people around the world."

Future generations may have to finish the job of eliminating "have-nots," but the current generation can -- and must -- make a better start.

RESOURCES - Information on consumer spending and all things relevant to the American economy is available at www.bea.gov, the web site of the US Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis. Africa Action (www.africaaction.org) is an organization working for political, economic, and social justice in Africa. Global Policy Forum (www.globalpolicy.org) monitors policy making at the United Nations and promotes accountability of global decisions. The Center for Global Development (www.cgdev.org) is a non-profit think tank dedicated to reducing global poverty and inequality.

Michael Jessen in a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at Michael@zerowaste.ca. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.

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