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BBC Green Room article September 2008 Sacrificing Millennium Goals would be a real crisis

Sacrificing Millennium Goals would be a real crisis


As the U.N. prepares to assess the Millennium Development Goals,

will tension between the consumption of the North and the development of the South

doom both to a future of crises and scarcity ?


by Felix Dodds and Michael Strauss


This article appeared on the BBC Webb site on the 22nd of September 2008

"God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the west. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [UK] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."

– Mahatma Gandhi, 1928

More than half a century before anyone had even considered the term ‘sustainable development’, Mahatma Gandhi warned of the dangers facing a rapidly developing world. Almost eighty years later, the population of India has quadrupled and the U.S. – the world’s greatest over-consumer –has a population of 300 million. The risks prophesized by Gandhi have started to come true.

Eight years ago this week, in September 2000, more than 100 Presidents, Prime Ministers and leaders of all the world’s nations met in New York and unanimously agreed upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These goals focused predominantly on providing nutrition, energy, water, education, healthcare and environmental protection for one half of the world’s one billion poorest citizens, by 2015.

Having now passed the halfway point to 2015, the world’s Heads of Government will again meet in the General Assembly in New York [on 25 September] to assess progress towards achieving those Goals.

A reality check is definitely in order. It is estimated, for example, that none of the targets will be met in sub-Saharan Africa if current trends continues, and this is before account is taken of the real effects of the recent crises in food and energy, the rapid increase in impacts of climate change, and the major implications of a global economic slowdown.



‘A Tale of Two Crises’

[or Three, or Four, or…]

In the past year – each in only a matter of months – two parallel environmental and economic crises have seized global attention. In late 2007, prices of food began to soar, fueled by increased consumption in rapidly developing countries, by extreme weather that damaged harvests in numerous in agricultural regions, and by global financial speculation.

At almost the same time, the cost of a barrel of oil started to spiral upward. It too was fed by increased developing country consumption and global commodity speculation, but also by political threats to production and by the breathtaking failure of the biggest oil-consuming nation to implement any meaningful energy reduction policies.

Much in the way that Hurricane Katrina woke up Americans to the fact that global warming had real impacts and that they could happen here, the present food crisis has made clear that we could be only one drought, one rice failure, or one crop infestation away from provoking paradigm-shifting reactions in developed countries. Whatever form that reaction might take [a riot over food prices in an American inner city?; government rationing of rice in Japan?; mass arrests of striking farmers in France?], it would irrevocably and drastically shift the global political reality.

The unanticipated emergence of these crises symbolizes how quickly events thought to be under control can spin out of it. How issues that seem to be independent of each other can set off mutually restricting limits on action. And how much closer than we’d realized the world might be to series of ‘tipping points’ beyond which there are few constructive ways to avoid global catastrophe.

A specific example of those impacts – and there could be many – is the rise in the price of rice, a basic food crop, from $425 a ton in January 2008 to $1,080 by April 2008. Calling it the ‘silent tsunami’, Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme, described the impact of the food and energy crises:

"Those people living on less than US $2 a day, cut out health and education, and kill or sell their livestock. Those living on less than US $1 a day cut out protein and vegetables from their diet. Those living on less than 50 cents a day cut out whole meals, and sometimes go days without meals."

Exacerbating the situation has been the international financial crisis that has pushed most nations’ economies towards or into economic recession. That recession is helping to intensify the very food and energy crises that helped bring it about.

As the challenges for the poor continue to escalate, what has been the response of the developed countries?

Development assistance has dropped from a high of $107.1 billion in 2005, to $104.4 billion in 2006 – and recent OECD / DAC figures show a further fall by 8.4% to $103.7 billion in 2007. This represents a decline in assistance of 0.28% of GDP by the industrialized countries, who – as recently as 2002 in Monterrey [U.N. Conference on Financing for Development ] – had committed to providing ODA at the rate of 0.7% of GDP.

Meanwhile, according to Euromonitor International, worldwide retail sales of dog and cat food topped US $45 billion in 2007, which signifies a growth of nearly 43% in five years.

The ‘big question’ therefore remains: What would the world’s economy have to look like to allow it to resolve these emerging crises and achieve the MDGs?

Our planet will clearly need to practice a different type of development, one that is sustainable. Such a model was agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit, in Rio. Governments there recognized "common, but differentiated, responsibilities." In other words, that rich countries need to reduce consumption, , while poorer countries have a right to develop – but must do so sustainably.

Climate change provides a critical example of the need for such integration. Part of the increase of food prices has been caused by the negative impact of growing corn to provide biofuels for energy – a linkage that had been overlooked by policymakers. This failure illustrates the importance and difficulty of cooperating between sectoral areas and specialties. It shows why development, environment, trade, and economics must all be incorporated in order to formulate effective policies.

There has been significant progress in moving some previously-controversial environmental proposals into the political mainstream. A promising idea has emerged of using of individual carbon budgets. The goal of reducing ‘carbon footprints’ is already accepted by many corporations and leading politicians.

The important point is that any successful strategy must move towards reducing total consumption – especially among the affluent populations that have been guilty of the greatest excess. Contrary to the campaign pledge proudly proclaimed in 1992 by then-U.S. President, George Herman Walker Bush, on the eve of the Rio Summit, the consumption-driven ‘American’ lifestyle must indeed be negotiable.

The failure to implement the agreements of the Earth Summits in Rio and Johannesburg has facilitated the emergence of multiple environmental, economic and development threats. Will the industrialized nations now cite their weakening economies as an excuse not to fulfill their commitments to the MDGs, thinking that might help bolster their own economies?

They will be very tempted to; but it would be disastrously self-defeating. Reverting to a policy of economic nationalism and self-interest could quite likely make worse – not better – the crises in energy and food and the global economy. It was, after all, the failure of the U.S. and the EU to drop their agricultural trade barriers that kept developing country farmers from expanding production – and significantly contributed to the food crisis in the first place.

On the other hand, adequately funding the MDGs could provide precisely the kind of global economic stimulus [given its investment in energy, food and water infrastructure, and its infusion of income to the poorest consumers] that could help lift all economies out of economic recession – including the developed countries.

In his quote, above, Gandhi described human beings as behaving like locusts – but he did so in order to encourage humans to turn in a different direction. We, as a species, no longer have eighty, fifty or even twenty years to take that turn. It is time for all individuals to reconsider their attitudes regarding their consumption patterns. It is time for political parties to be honest about the options the world faces. It is time for governments and the U.N. to take action necessary to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and to pioneer a development path on which all the world’s billions can survive sustainably on this one planet.


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