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The UN Millennium Development Goals: Obstacles and Opportunities

Posted on: Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Women's Health

A MADRE Position paper

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

All 191 United Nations Member States have pledged to achieve these Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. While this commitment appears to be an extraordinary step forward, when we scratch the surface of the MDGs, we find that their progress is determined 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 women's lives. The MDGs fail to address the root causes of the problems they describe and constitute a far less rigorous commitment to human rights than that put forward 10 years ago in the Beijing Platform for Action. Nevertheless, the adoption of the MDGs by governments and international development agencies creates opportunities for advancing women's human rights, but only if we are able to engage critically with the Millennium Development process.

The glaring absence of issues such as sexual rights and reproductive rights, violence against women, and women's labor rights in the MDGs is attributable to 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 Bush's first day in office, when he began defunding international family-planning programs and revamping US reproductive health policy to placate his religious fundamentalist base. Women's human rights advocates have rightly pointed out the centrality of sexual rights and reproductive rights 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, the indivisibility of human rights means that women's equality and empowerment are crucial to realizing all of the goals, and that, conversely, none of the goals can be realized without ensuring gender equality.

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 caused the crises that the goals are intended to address. These policies include cutting government spending, privatizing basic services, liberalizing trade, and producing primarily for export.

The methodology and assumptions of neoliberal economics infuse the MDGs, which rely heavily on the indicator of "absolute poverty" (which measures the proportion of the population surviving on less than a specified income each day). The MDGs use the World Bank standard of an income of USD $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.

The Beijing Platform is a useful yardstick for evaluating the MDGs. In concert with other international instruments, the Beijing Platform reveals that the MDGs are not a spontaneous expression of governmental goodwill, but, rather, constitute pre-existing international human rights obligations, some dating back more than 50 years. This shift in framework from "commitments" to legal duties can be used to strengthen calls for government accountability to the MDGs. Those of us seeking to advance women's human rights must pursue any possible gains offered by the MDGs, which are setting the current agenda for development policy. But we must do so while ensuring that the goals do not supplant the Beijing Platform and other, more progressive international instruments. In fact, Beijing and the MDGs should be conceived of as mutually reinforcing processes. The rights-based approach advocated by MADRE and other women's organizations internationally goes beyond improving statistical indicators to addressing root causes of human rights violations and changing the conditions that breed human rights abuses. Ultimately, for the MDGs to be a tool for advancing women's human rights, they must be treated not as a technical process, but as a political process.

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