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Ending Poverty, Promoting Development: MADRE Critiques the UN Millennium Development Goals

Posted on: Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Keywords: UN, Human Rights Advocacy, MDG

In 2000, world leaders representing all 191 countries that belong to the United Nations pledged to achieve these eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Since then, the goals have become the main framework for development policy worldwide. They have even been adopted by many of the international agencies and banks that control the budgets of most poor countries, giving the MDGs real currency in the political economy of UN declarations. The MDGs create opportunities for advancing women’s human rights, but only if we are able to participate effectively in the process of realizing the goals.

Governments’ commitments to the MDGs appear to be an extraordinary step forward, but when we scratch the surface of the goals, we find that their progress is measured by a set of technocratic “targets” and “indicators” that are limited in scope, contradictory in approach, and more concerned with statistical change than with creating the structural change that is crucial to improving the lives of women and their families worldwide.

Take Goal 3, for example (promoting gender equality and empowering women): its “target” is to eliminate gender disparity in education. Yet it will take much more than girls’ education to combat the deeply entrenched violence, discrimination, stereotypes, laws, and customs that generate grave violations of women’s human rights in every country of the world. The indicators intended to measure progress towards this goal are equally problematic. They include:

   1. the ratio of girls to boys at all levels of schooling (with no regard for the quality or content of education and without addressing the social forces that keep girls out of school);
   2. the proportion of seats held by women in national parliament (without regard for the more crucial question of whether these women respect human rights);
   3. the share of women in non-agricultural sectors of the workforce (without recognition of the need for decent wages, working conditions, and public services such as day care, health care, clean water, and transportation that ease the time burden of women who are expected to work outside the home and fulfill their responsibilities within the family).

As we can see, the MDGs call for change, but not for creating the conditions to make real change possible. To address the root causes of the problems that the goals are supposed to rectify, we need to grapple with precisely those phenomena that the MDGs take for granted. These include policies that have increased poverty and inequality around the world (such as free-trade agreements, wage freezes, and hostility to worker organizing) and subordinated human rights to “national security” as defined by the Bush Administration. In fact, at a moment when the rights of both women and men have been badly eroded by such policies, we can see clearly the limitations of pursuing gender “equality.” To whom should women be equal? Should women in Colombia demand “equality” with male co-workers who are being killed for union organizing? Should Rwandan women who are HIV-positive seek “equality” with Rwandan men who are denied high-priced AIDS medications? The real goal is not equality, but justice; and one of the best ways we have of ensuring justice is the fulfillment of human rights.

But the MDGs fail to even mention sexual and reproductive rights, women’s labor and property rights, or one of the most fundamental obstacles to ensuring these rights, namely, violence against women. The glaring absence of these issues from the MDGs reflects the powerful role played by right-wing and fundamentalist governments such as the United States in their negotiation. Reproductive rights, in particular, have been under fire by the US since 2000, when Bush took office and began defunding international family planning programs and revamping US reproductive health policy to placate his religious fundamentalist base. Women’s human rights advocates have pointed out that sexual and reproductive rights are central to achieving at least four of the MDGs: women’s equality and empowerment (Goal 3); reducing child mortality (Goal 4); improving maternal health (Goal 5); and combating HIV/AIDS (Goal 6). Moreover, since human rights are indivisible, empowering women is crucial to realizing all of the goals. Conversely, none of the goals can be realized without ensuring that goal.

One way to gain insight into any policy is to look at its authors. The MDGs are sponsored jointly by the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While the United Nations operates within a human rights framework, the missions of the World Bank and IMF are to advance a set of economic policies that are often at odds with human rights. In fact, the MDGs infuse neoliberal priorities into development policy using the language of human rights. They seek to “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” (Goal 1), but rely on the discredited notion that economic growth at the national level (GNP) can eliminate poverty; and they assume that privatization of services is a strategy for— rather than an obstacle to—economic development. At the heart of the MDGs beats a fundamental contradiction: poor countries are expected to meet the MDGs by implementing the very neoliberal economic policies that have, in large measure, caused the crises that the goals are intended to address. These policies include cutting government spending, privatizing basic services, liberalizing trade, and producing goods primarily for export.

As we have seen, the methodology and assumptions of neoliberal economics inform the MDGs, which rely heavily on the indicator of “absolute poverty” (which measures the proportion of the population surviving on less than a certain amount of income each day). The MDGs use the World Bank standard of an income of US $1 per day to indicate extreme poverty. This income-based measurement of poverty obscures the experience of millions of people, for whom poverty is not primarily a function of income, but of their alienation from sustainable patterns of consumption and production. Indigenous women, for example, assert that their poverty and wealth are determined primarily by access to, and control of, their natural resources and traditional knowledge, which are the sources of Indigenous culture and livelihoods. In Indigenous communities, human rights (namely, governments’ recognition of collective Indigenous rights over land, natural resources, and traditional knowledge) are key to fighting poverty.

But the MDGs do not recognize that poverty is a function of human rights violations (such as the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to freedom from discrimination, and the right to development). Indeed, the MDGs posit housing, health care, and access to food and water not as non-negotiable and universal rights, but as “needs” to be met. By extension, the poor are not seen as autonomous subjects demanding that governments meet their legal obligations, but as a passive “target group” of policymaking. Sustainable development—which depends on broad civic participation, social justice, and a fundamental shift in the balance of power—is sidelined by this failure of the MDGs to operate within a human rights framework.

In fact, human rights standards are a useful yardstick for evaluating the MDGs. They reveal that the MDGs are not a spontaneous expression of governmental goodwill. Rather, the MDGs constitute pre-existing international obligations, some dating back more than 50 years. Ultimately, for the goals to be a tool for advancing women’s human rights, they must be treated not as a technical process, but as a political process. MADRE is working with our sister organizations and other women’s organizations internationally to push for a rights-based approach to the MDGs that goes beyond improving statistical indicators to addressing root causes of human rights violations.

By Yifat Susskind, Associate Director

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