Promoting sustainable development

It is difficult, watching the news, to believe that the world is getting better. Since 2001, the world has seen global financial ruin, accelerating climate change, famine, war and conflict; there are 18 wars going on in the world right now. Despite this, economic and social advances have been made in many of the world’s poorest regions, which has been attributed by many politicians to the apparent success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a UN initiative focused on eight key policies – eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combatting HIV/ AIDs, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.

Many of the Millennium Development Goals have been at least partially achieved. Foreign aid from richer countries has risen considerably from the meagre 0.2 per cent UN average in 2002. Extreme poverty has halved between 1990 and 2010. Between 2000 and 2011, child mortality fell from 9.4 million to 6.8 million, and the number of people receiving treatment for HIV/AIDs rose from 10,000 to 8 million globally. We should be proud that an organisation as broad and complex as the UN managed to pull together and achieve so much.

Criticisms of the MDGs are broad and cutting. They perpetuated top-down development, leading to a ‘one size fits all’ approach, whereby limited local research was conducted before imposing development strategies. Western states had undue influence – for example, a goal regarding reproductive health was vetoed by the Vatican and other conservative UN states. The goals were often simplified excessively in order to seem more attainable, meaning that the interrelationships between the eight MDGs and further development goals were eclipsed. In particular, there was no mention in the MDGs of human rights, good governance or climate change.

With the MDGs, the poorest countries, who had the most work to do to meet the targets, were then perceived as failing when they did not manage to do so. As Malawi’s former President, Joyce Banda, asked, “We are all racing towards achieving education for all by 2015. But did we have classrooms in Malawi? Did we have desks? Did we have teachers? The MDG demands that we get as many children as possible into school – but what about quality?”

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Some, but not all, of these criticisms have been taken on board in the new goals for sustainable development, which came into effect at the end of September. In the 17 new goals – which include promoting health and wellbeing, providing access to water and sanitation for all, building infrastructure, developing sustainable land use, and reducing inequality within and among countries – a much more holistic approach to development and aid is taken. It is good to see that the relationships between issues, such as childhood mortality and safe settlements, or improving education and gender equality,will be acknowledged to a far greater extent in development work based on the new goals.

Part of the reason for this newer approach is that the UN member states involved finally started to listen to their counterparts in the Global South. A coalition of African leaders formed a Common African Position, and negotiated, often successfully, for many of their own aims at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) conferences. It was African leaders, for example, who lobbied for mentions of security issues in the development context. The voices of those in the Global South need to be heard, and to be listened to by western governments.

The problem is that the UN has little interest in moving power from the West to the Global South. This has led to frustration and a sense of disenfranchisement both on the parts of those in the Global South and residents of the richer countries, who see only bureaucracy and corruption in the UN. While the UN may have a part to play in development, if the SDGs are to be achieved, a combination of systemic change and effective, grassroots intervention is necessary.

So what can we personally do to advance these admirable but problematic goals? One option is to donate to the most effective charities working in the developing world right now. GiveWell is a foundation which identifies the most cost-effective charities that we can donate to, with Against Malaria Foundation and Deworm the World coming top of their list.

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Instead of writing off development work as inevitably bureaucratic or inefficient, or simply waiting for global political change to happen, we as individuals can make a significant impact on healthcare, schooling, and sanitation by donating to the right charities. A combination of involving world leaders more fairly in decisions and promoting effective, inclusive interventions could still improve the lives of millions.