New Delhi: Rising food prices, new poverty estimates, and dipping levels of economic assistance appear to have thrown multiple spanners into the works of the Millennium Development Goals, or MDG, according to a report released by the United Nations (UN) this week.
At the release, Maxine Olson, the UN resident coordinator, called the present prospects for the goals “serious but achievable” for the world as a whole. However, she marked a number of goals that India was not on track to reach, given its recent record.
In 2000, the UN set out the Millennium Development Goals as targets that developing nations were to work towards over the next 15 years, in benchmark fields such as poverty, nutrition and disease.
Since then, there has been only sporadic progress, and even that now appears to be imperilled. In the foreword to this year’s report, Ban Ki-Moon, UN secretary general, wrote: “The largely benign development environment that has prevailed since the early years of this decade, and that has contributed to the successes to date, is now threatened.”
The UN report does go on to note certain steps forward—an improvement in access to safe drinking water, “small victories” in the fight against AIDS, and gradual gender parity, for instance.
These have been overshadowed by the spectres of poverty and malnutrition, which have only been exacerbated by global economic trends over the last 12 months.
New benchmarks may change assessment of poverty
Target: “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 (Rs45.4 at present) a day.”
In 2008: Two new definitions of the poverty line—$1.25 a day, by the World Bank, and $1.35 a day, by the Asian Development Bank—have brought into question the worth of the poverty target.
“These new measures are likely to change the assessment of the extent and distribution of global poverty, but the rate of decrease in poverty is expected to be similar to, or faster than, previously estimated,” the UN report said.
Changing Perceptions (Graphic)
An example of this reassessment can be seen in the case of India. According to the more modest World Bank level, India is home to about 460 million people living below the poverty line, as opposed to 270 million according to the old benchmark.
“This is a good time to ask this question, and it’s a very legitimate concern,” says Minar Pimple, deputy director-Asia of the UN Millennium Campaign.
He admits that the new poverty benchmarks are in danger of devaluing the worth of the poverty goal, even if it is achieved. “It’s the right time now for governments to reflect on their own poverty estimates in real terms.”
The UN’s line, Pimple says, is that at the aggregate level, on the $1 benchmark, the developing world can still attain its poverty goal.
The World Bank also noted, in a statement, that “the developing world is still on track to halve extreme poverty from its 1990 levels by 2015”.
But it followed that up with a cautionary remark, from one of its chief economists: “The sobering news—that poverty is more pervasive than we thought—means that we must redouble our efforts, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Global fight against hunger stumbles on rising food prices
Target: “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.”
In 2008: “Progress in reducing hunger is now being eroded by the worldwide increase in food prices… Rising food prices threaten limited gains in alleviating child malnutrition.”
“Food prices have risen most sharply since January, and we don’t as yet have nutrition data for that time period,” says Prema Ramachandran, of the New Delhi-based Nutrition Foundation of India. “But it is a logical consequence that the poorest will be the hardest hit by these recent increases.”
Price Pinch (Graphic)
In 2006, South Asia reported 46% of its children as underweight, down only eight points from 1990. In India, the third National Family Health Survey, which measures nutritional status till the age of three, reported in 2005-06 that 46% of those children were underweight, down only from 51.5% in the first survey in 1992-93.
To achieve its Millennium Development Goal India would have to slash that figure to around 26% in the next seven years—a formidable enough task without the spectre of more expensive food. From January to August, the prices of food in the Wholesale Price Index inflated by 8.4%.
“We should remember, though, that in India, food cost increases have been the least in the region,” says Ramachandran. “The public distribution system (PDS) has been bashed a lot, but it is still there. As a protective mechanism, it hasn’t disappeared.” If India could only use that kind of system better, she indicated, it should be able to tackle undernutrition more effectively, price rises notwithstanding.
One researcher, wishing to remain anonymous, said that even the initial nutrition goal was unrealistic.
“A 50% drop in hunger levels, in 15 years? The question doesn’t even arise,” he said. “We have to keep in mind that there are problems with the attainability of some of these goals, even in normal economic circumstances.”
Developed countries falter on aid, jeopardize commitments
Target: “Develop a global partnership for development.”
In 2008: “Development aid falls for the second year, jeopardizing commitments for 2010.”
Shrinking Air (Graphic)
The UN noted a drop in assistance from developed countries, from $107.1 billion (Rs4.86 trillion at present) in 2005 to $103.7 billion in 2007, and an 8.4% drop in aid disbursement from 2006 to 2007.
“Even a sudden escalation of aid flows will not compensate for the failure to provide the continuous and predictable build-up in official development assistance that was implicit in their 2005 commitments,” the report said.
Those trends did not leave India unscathed. A March 2008 position paper by the department of economic affairs in the finance ministry observed that total bilateral assistance from major donors had decreased from Rs6,446 crore in 2004-05 to Rs5,531 crore in 2006-07.
“This is partly because of India’s own policies, to restrict the sources of aid,” says Kumar Sanjay Krishna, joint secretary (bilateral cooperation) in the finance ministry. “But globally, the amount of assistance is still far short of the commitments that were made a few years ago.”
This may be in part, Krishna points out, because of a globally troubled economy.
“But to achieve these UN goals, the developed countries have to stick to their aid commitments,” he says. “In a country like Vietnam, where aid is around 18% of the gross domestic product, or in certain African countries where it is closer to 50%, this assistance becomes vital.”