The fight against poverty and the millennium development goals

Human Rights Commission

Item 10: Economic, social and cultural rights. Joint written statement by CETIM and AAJ.


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It has been almost fifteen years since the fight against poverty was put on the international political agenda. And it has been ten years now- since the UN Social Summit in Copenhagen- that it has been the subject of world consensus. During the last UN summit in New York in September 2005, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) were solemnly upheld. By 2015 extreme poverty was to be reduced by half.1

But in fact what do we see? Has cooperation for development been adapted to the new goals? Has aid to development increased? Have the international organizations of finance and commerce (The IMF, The World Bank, the WTO) changed their policies and modified their structures? Are the Millennium Goals an adequate response to the social situation of today’s world? With more than half the world’s population living in poverty, aren’t these objectives an admission of failure after fifty years of “cooperation”? Has market liberalization kept its promise of “growth for all” or rather has it accentuated inequalities? Is the ambition of the wealthy countries up to the challenges? What has happened to social and economical development? What has happened to social, economical and cultural rights and the right to development?

These are the questions that spark off an examination of today’s reality and bring us to develop ten critical arguments against MDG.

First: It must be said that the Millennium Development Goals are extremely modest, given the fact that they aim to reduce only half the number of poor people in fifteen years, thus sacrificing without consultation the other half. Here we are talking about 1,2 billion people according to the estimations- arbitrary as they may be- of the World Bank that fixes the level of poverty at less than one American dollar per day. As if the three billion people (practically half of humanity) who live with two American dollars per day cope better?2 Moreover, isn’t it pernicious to establish categories of poverty and extreme poverty that obscures the huge scale of world poverty?

Second: The MDG totally ignores the structural causes of poverty. If the totality of aid to development were devoted to the MDG, poverty would nevertheless continue to increase. The world context in which poverty emerges is completely ignored.

Third: The MDG were imposed from top to bottom, in spite of all the speeches in favour of “ownership” by the poor countries. These countries were not given the opportunity to gain acceptance for their own choices. This is why it is urgent that they acquire the necessary political autonomy in order to define their own priorities-such as the UNCTAD recommends.

Fourth: The Millennium Development Goals have nothing to do with development. In countries where the level of poverty is superior to 50%, it is impossible to reduce poverty without social and economic development in order to increase productive capacities, to develop a domestic market, to reduce inequalities and to produce inequalities and to introduce programs for social protection. Today the poor countries produce above all for exportation, without having the possibility to protect their production from cheap importations coming from the wealthy countries.

Fifth: The battle against poverty laid down by the Bretton Woods institutions continue to prone privatization and deregulation. These policies have yet to produce growth and even less to reduce poverty. After twenty years of the structural adjustment programme, the economic and social balance sheet is quite negative.3

Sixth: If the MDG predict the creation of “decent and productive job for the “young people”, they do not speak about the right to work. And yet the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that: “everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment (…) everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection” (art. 23). And in the International Covenant on social, economic and cultural rights, it states that: “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.” (art. 6.1)
Furthermore, the recent ILO report notes that “economic growth doesn’t generate job creation” and that the newly created jobs are well “below that could be qualified as productive and satisfying work.” 4

Seventh: It has been said that the poor countries lack “good governance”. This is quite true and it is inevitable after twenty years of policies that have weakened these countries and reduced their resources. But can one really speak of “good governance” without denouncing the overall bad governance, in particular that of the G8, the WMF, the World Bank, and the most powerful rich countries in general?

Eighth: The MDG won’t be met because of lack of means. According to Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the United Nation’s millennium program, the rich countries are going to be spending between 0,45 and 0.54% of the GDP for aid to development. In spite of the objective of 0,7%, set by the UN thirty years ago, aid gets smaller each year. In 2003, the donor countries gave scarcely 0,25%. And more than 60% of this aid never reached the beneficiaries. The G7 countries only give 0,07% of the GDP to international aid5. Of course whatever the sum, financial contributions alone will not suffice to wipe out poverty if they are not accompanied by development policies that respect the wishes of the people concerned and that break with the neoliberal path on an economic level.

Ninth: The rich countries promises are not quantified whereas the obligations of poor nations are.

Tenth: The “fight against poverty” in the south hides the increase in unemployment and extreme poverty in the northern countries. The effects of neoliberal policies are being felt more and more in these countries as well. Knowing that the world’s economy is dominated by the North and that these harmful policies originate in these countries, how can we hope that they “will lead the fight” against poverty?

Poverty: a social problem and the political causes6

What do the Millennium Development Goals mean to thousand of workers who have lost income because of the liberalization of the textile market? What can Niger’s population do when the price of food soars? What does the Mexican farmer do when he can longer sell his corn because of the importation of cheap corn from the United States? The MDG could help these people to learn to read and write. If, at the same time, they loose their income, there are only the statistics concerning “human” development that improve. More and more poverty is seen as a “multidimensional problem” and the question of income is forgotten. Yet the inequalities with regards to income are becoming alarming.

Is poverty a problem only concerning poor people or is it a problem for the society as a whole or the international community? Aren’t rich countries responsible for policies imposed on poor countries? The foreign debt, the WTO rules, Intellectual Property, the free flow of capital, and the deterioration of the environment, aren’t they also the cause of extreme poverty and the growing inequalities. How can on justify the fact that 10% of the world population owns almost 80% of the wealth?

Each year, the poor countries pay more than 200 billions American dollars under external debt payments to the rich countries, which means five times more than they receive themselves under the form of aid .

Fewer and fewer rights, more and more philanthropy

Bono, the voice in “the fight against poverty” in Africa, was chosen “Man of the Year” by Time magazine. Bill Gates finances the fight against AIDS. Sharon Stone buys mosquito nets in the fight against malaria. The multinational companies say they are all in favour of “social responsibility”. Private donations are on the rise.

At the same time, established rights are being dismantled. An indifference towards the respect of human rights is becoming established. We have all the necessary intellectual, legal, institutional and material means to put an end to poverty. Right must not be replaced by charity.

Given the technological progress and the enormous capacities of production that have accumulated in the past decades, poverty is, in fact, an unspeakable scandal. It could be totally eliminated while respecting in a genuine fashion the principle of sustainable development. But in order to do so, the satisfaction of the elementary human needs for each human being, in an equal fashion, must become the core of the world development policy. This objective must become the absolute priority instead of the requirements of the alleged “growth” that the transnational corporations impose on the world for their own profits.


The Commission on Human Rights, in its resolution E/CN.4/RES/1998/25, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenants on Human Rights, reminded people of the fact that “ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can be achieved only if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights.”

Neither the United Nation’s proclamation of the United Nations Decade for the Elimination of poverty (1997-2006), nor the Commission on Human Rights’ nomination of an independent expert, since 1998, on matters of human rights and extreme poverty have helped to eradicate poverty. This is no surprise given the fact that the fundamental source of poverty stems from the present organization and direction of production. While this production becomes more and more abundant, it also becomes more and more unfair in the distribution of its growth. As long as there is no change in policies, the Commission on Human Rights’ assertion that: “Extreme poverty and exclusion from society constitute a violation of human dignity and that urgent national and international action is therefore required to eliminate them” will go unheeded. It is time to put an end to the incoherency of the international system. Politics must regain control over economics and countries must take on their responsibilities. The latter cannot, on one hand, pretend to support human rights while, on the other hand, implement economic policies that go against these same rights.

1 This declaration was drawn up with Ms Francine Mestrum, PhD in social sciences at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.
2 La mondialisation, et après… Quel développement au 21ème siècle ? Peter Niggli, published by La Communauté de travail, Bern, November 2004.
3 Weisbrot, M and al. « The Scoreboard on Development : 25 years of diminished progress, Washington, Center for Economic and Policy Research, September 2005.
4 See ILO press release “Globalization fails to create new quality jobs and to reduce poverty” December 9th 2005,
5 Action Aid, Real Aid. An Agenda for Making Aid Work (
6 Refer to the written statement of the CETIM and the AAJ that was presented at the 61nd session of the Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/2005/NGO/281 (see
7 Cf. La finance contre les peuples. La bourse ou la vie, Eric Toussaint, published by CADTM, CETIM and SYLLEPSE, February 2004.
8 See Resolution E/CN.4/RES/1998/25.

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