Kofi Annan spoke for many when he wrote in the last issue of Europe’s World that the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) must not be postponed. The goals are ambitious, but last year’s UN summit confirmed that the international community’s leaders are still committed to meeting them. None of us would like to see a summit in 2015 that has to say that “we failed, and so have to postpone the deadline. But hopefully we will reach them eventually.”
And even when the MDGs are reached, we will still be only half way to eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. Infant and maternal mortality rates will still be unnecessarily high, preventable diseases will continue to kill people by the millions and we will still have the huge challenge of keeping all enrolled children in school and ensuring that their education is of an acceptable quality. That means we need to start the debate on what kind of international common agenda we’ll have to agree on for 2015-2030. And we mustn't fool ourselves that even the giant effort needed to reach the MDGs by 2015 will pale beside those needed to reach the remaining half of the world’s poorest. The majority of these live not only in poverty but also war-ravaged areas, so money alone can never solve their problems.
In other words, poverty is not only about not having enough money, it is about exploitation and oppression. Poverty is about armed conflicts and wars that make it impossible to run a business, visit the doctor or send the children to school because the road there is mined. Foreign investors who are vital to economic growth flee from conflict areas. Poverty is about politics, and we politicians need to create political solutions to the underlying causes of poverty, something that is even more difficult than providing enough money.
The world has changed greatly since 2000 when the Millennium Declaration was agreed. There has been a major shift in geopolitical power so that countries previously regarded as poor enough to be the recipients of aid have been re-named as emerging markets to become drivers of the world economy. Power has also shifted in the global political arena with the formation of G20 and in the responses to the global financial crisis. We can also see this in the reorganisation inside the World Bank as well as in the most important international forum of today, the climate negotiations.
The Environment and development are crucial and inter-dependent issues. Fighting climate change is about reducing CO2 emissions, while fighting poverty through economic growth has generally been led to increased CO2 emissions. Unless the two problems are solved in close co-operation we will lose both of them.
If the fight against poverty is to be based on our traditional carbon-heavy growth path, the climate consequences will be devastating, even if the richer parts of the world were to get rid of all emissions today. The result would be floods, drought, dramatically reduced food production and a great loss of our precious biodiversity. All of this would obviously lead to a dramatic increase in poverty around the whole world, but as always the poorer countries would be the hardest hit.
Yet not to fight poverty is perhaps a worse option still. Not providing proper access to energy means that more wood will be chopped down for firewood, with deforestation and desertification the result.
Expensive and polluting diesel generators are sources of electrical power for companies and better-off households, while older cars pollute much more than new ones. Poverty is closely linked to high birth rates, but we also know that the only way to reduce population growth is through economic growth.
The rich world’s engagement in the fight against global poverty has always been based on justice and a moral imperative. But our experience during this first decade of the 21st century has made it clear that it is also a necessity if we are to make own future secure. As Norway’s minister since 2007 for both the environment and development, I meet with both groups of ministers from other countries, and I have to admit it came as a shock to see how the two groups lead such separate lives. Each has its own extremely important agenda, its own analysis of the challenges ahead, its own strategic plans and literally its own language and it is not as if they don’t recognise the importance of the other’s agenda. But unless they start to talk and act together neither group’s goals will be achieved.
Meanwhile, the climate negotiations that are now the most important forum where development and environment experts and decisionmakers meet have become the ultimate proof that the era of western global hegemony has passed. The so-called developing world has something that we want; huge untouched rainforests that are vital to our future existence. They are also able to choose a different technological path to than we took, a path based on low carbon strategies and an economy built on green principles. It is a path we desperately need them to choose, but it also means they will have a greater power in the negotiations than what we have ever seen before from the poorer parts of the world. It’s going to be challenging, but maybe it will also be healthy for our common future.
So if we resolve today’s armed conflicts, and manage to save the climate, will we then be OK? Will that be enough to fight global poverty? Of course not. Funding will still be the crucial issue. The amounts needed for development, for peace and for climate adaptation and mitigation will be enormous. For years we have been debating the appropriate level of aid, but although aid is important, public funding from the developed countries can never be enough, even if we were to fulfil all our pledges. Over the last decade, innovative financing has become the new buzzword, and not just for development. As part of the climate negotiations, new mechanisms for mobilising funds are being suggested, with levies on air fares and taxes on financial transactions perhaps the best known. An interesting aspect of this is that it will be the richest people who will pay, regardless of their own country’s economic position. In a world where we find increasing numbers of rich people in poor countries, and poor people in what we think of as developed countries, it is a new and innovative approach to look for funding that ensures the financial burden is shared on a personal basis.
But the most important of all financial flows are the illicit funds that pour out of so many developing countries. The Tax Justice Network estimates these to be around ten times as much as the development aid that goes to the same countries. A large proportion of these funds are cross-border financial transactions linked to illegal activities, with the profits from organised crime and the trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings accounting for a substantial proportion. And although large sums of money disappear through fraud, corruption, bribery, smuggling and money laundering, the largest share of illicit financial flows is related to commercial transactions, often within multinational companies, for the purpose of tax evasion.
These flows are mainly made possible by tax havens, so above all the fight against global poverty should also be the fight against tax havens. Tax havens make economic crime more profitable, and the only way to fight them is to come up with global agreements on transparency in financial transfers that covers not only tax havens but also companies on a country-to-country basis.
The Millennium Development Goals concept has to continue long after 2015, not so much because they may not have been met, but because the MDGs are far from the end of the fight against poverty. We must be careful not to fool ourselves into believing that the MDGs can be reached by development aid alone. The wider politics of poverty must be lifted to the top of the international agenda, along with the three factors most critical to development: climate, conflict and capital.