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Goals for our times

A little over five years ago, the world leaders who had assembled at the UN for a Millennium Summit agreed on a Millennium Declaration that ...

Written by Nitin Desai |
January 30, 2006

A little over five years ago, the world leaders who had assembled at the UN for a Millennium Summit agreed on a Millennium Declaration that was truly an expression of a global social democratic consensus. It covered a lot of ground. Beginning with a statement of shared values, it formulated a set of goals covering a spectrum of issues. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a part of this commitment. They set down eight broad objectives, the most important of which is the first one of halving absolute poverty by 2015. The other goals relate to universalising primary education, reducing infant/maternal mortality, combating AIDS, malaria and other diseases, promoting gender equality and environmental sustainability. To enable all this, there is a crucial eighth goal that seeks changes in trade, aid and debt policies to improve the ability of poor countries to reach these goals.

The ’90s were a period when the world shifted decisively from planned economies to free markets. But free enterprise capitalism at the global level lacked something that it had at the national level — a political consensus on the need to protect those who could be left behind by market-based growth. The UN conference was actually an exercise in opinion formation to address this issue. But there was an attention deficit disorder, particularly among the richer countries who were required to assist poor countries to attain the goals agreed upon. This is where the MDGs helped most.

Individually, they are not new. What was new was the aggregation of diverse goals in one framework and the clear connection between the development goals and the others on peace and security, human rights, and so on. In essence, the Millennium Declaration lays down an agreed minimum programme for social democracy on a global scale. But the MDGs and their counterpart goals at the national level should not be treated simply as sops to the poor. They must become part of a broader growth strategy. We now know the importance of human resource development for growth — many of the goals are focussed on that. We should also recognise that any serious dent in absolute poverty will bring many new consumers into the economy and thus fuel growth.

Looking beyond short term politics is particularly important for the MDGs that deal with environmental sustainability. The goals here were supplemented by those from the Johannesburg summit. In essence these sustainability goals connect with the social agenda in two ways. First, they deal with certain dimensions of deprivation, like lack of access to safe water, which connect directly with the social agenda. Second, they assert that sustained reductions in poverty, particularly in rural areas, cannot come without a better use of natural resources. We cannot make the world safer for liberal market democracies unless we make it better for the dispossessed. And we cannot make it better for them without addressing environmental problems. That in essence is the message of the Millennium Declaration.

The writer is distinguished fellow, TERI, and a former UN under-secretary general

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