Designed by the rich for the rich, the national and international rules of our world are stacked against the poor, and they are falling ever farther behind. Our politicians keep telling us that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the greatest concerted effort against poverty in the history of humankind and have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The truth is far less inspiring. Instead of taking pride in slight improvements, we should be ashamed of the massive persistence of severe poverty that is today so easily avoidable through small reductions in global inequality. The richest 1% of humanity now own 48.2% of global private wealth; the poorer half own just 0.7%, as much as the world’s 66 richest billionaires.
According to the World Bank, the success of the MDGs occurred mainly in China, where the number of those living on less per day than $2.50 could buy in the US in 2005 fell by 615 million even while it rose by 282 million in the rest of the world between 1990 and 2010. Moreover, the poorest 30% of humanity did far worse than they would have done if they had merely participated proportionately in global economic growth: their share of global household income fell from 1.52% in 1988 to 1.25% in 2008, while the share of the richest 5% increased from 42.9% to 45.8%.
The MDG top-line goal, to halve poverty by 2015, first came to prominence at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome. At that time, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) officially estimated the number of chronically undernourished people at 788 million, and the 186 assembled governments promised to reduce this number to 394 million by 2015.
Finding that this number had actually increased to 833 million by the year 2000, governments agreed to dilute the goal in their Millennium Declaration, promising to halve not the number of undernourished people but their proportion. Because the human population has increased by about 20% between 2000 and 2015, a 40%-reduction in the number of poor and undernourished is thereby deemed sufficient for success. This reformulation of the promise raised to 500 million the permissible number of undernourished people in 2015.
After its adoption by the UN General Assembly, the goals listed in the Millennium Declaration were diluted once more. A small group of UN bureaucrats formulated the first MDG so that it relates the number of poor and undernourished not to the world’s population but to the faster-growing population of the developing countries. They also back-dated the beginning of the MDG period from the year 2000 (when the Millennium Declaration was adopted) to a new base year of 1990. This back-dating further diluted the ambition in two ways. Firstly, it magnified the impact of population growth in the denominator. If the 2015 population of the developing countries grows to 146% of what it was in 1990, then a 27% reduction in the number of poor and undernourished (to 73% of their 1990 number) suffices to achieve the promise “halving”. Secondly, the back-dating also made it possible to count China’s remarkable poverty reduction during the 1990s toward the success of the MDGs – even though these goals were not formulated until 2000. By means of these clever cosmetics, the permissible number of chronically undernourished people in the year 2015 was raised once more: to 611 million.
Yet there was insufficient political will to achieve even this excessively modest target. The FAO’s annual estimate of the number of chronically undernourished people kept rising and – after a steep increase in food prices between 2006 and 2008 and the North Atlantic Financial Crisis of 2007-8 – broke above 1 billion for the first time in human history. This was doubly embarrassing because the world’s governments had promised great efforts toward eradicating hunger and because the World Bank was simultaneously reporting rapid declines in the number of poor people.
There remained only one way out. In 2012, the 22nd year of the 25-year MDG tracking period, the FAO had to alter its definition of chronic undernourishment and published a radically revised number series. A steady increase in the number of chronically undernourished people from 788 to 1023 million was turned into a steady decline of this number from 931 to 867 million (1996-2009). The increase in the FAO’s estimate of the 1990 number of undernourished people raised the permissible number of undernourished in 2015 yet again: to 724 million. And the decrease in the FAO’s estimates for later years ensures that this target will be reached by next year, at least approximately.
The small print of the FAO report reveals the new definition of chronic undernourishment. To be counted, one must be short of calories – other essential nutrient deficiencies such as vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc. no longer count. Moreover, the definition requires that “food energy availability is inadequate to cover even minimum needs for a sedentary lifestyle ... for over a year” (FAO, The State of Food Insecurity 2012, S. 50). This definition is absurd. Many among the global poor must do serious physical labour for their meagre incomes and therefore cannot survive on the minimum calories for a sedentary lifestyle. The definition makes an undernourished rickshaw driver biologically impossible; for if he really ingested only the minimal calories needed for a sedentary lifestyle, he would never survive the required full year.
For the sake of honesty, we must make two demands on the next, so-called Sustainable Development Goals. The targets and measurement methods should be precisely laid down at the start of the period in 2016 and not be revised until its end in 2030. And the tracking of progress should be assigned to an independent expert group rather than to politically exposed and vulnerable international agencies. The MDG exercise was a betrayal of the poor and a fraud upon the more affluent public, and it must not be allowed to happen again.
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