More than just a bar on a chart in New York: Why the MDGs matter

The good news is, we're reaching them.

This time of year always seems particularly hectic for the ONE Campaign and others in the movement against extreme poverty. The run-up to the annual G8 summit, which this year is hosted by David Cameron near Enniskillen in mid-June, is our equivalent of Sir Alex Ferguson’s "squeaky bum time". Within a few weeks we’ll know what we’ve won and what we’ve lost, and the implications will be felt for a long time.

Yesterday I wrote up on my office wall nine big moments for ONE in this period. The first is today, with the launch of our 2013 DATA Report. The report shows that while aid and investment from wealthier countries is critically important, perhaps its greatest value is in leveraging and supporting resources closer to home – the resources that developing countries themselves can provide - which will ensure that one day, aid from outside will be rarely needed.  

We’ll continue to push governments in Europe and beyond to stick to the commitments they’ve made. But African governments have made promises too, and in the DATA report we look at some of the big ones.  

Overall, things are getting better. The report explodes the myth that all advances against poverty and disease are thanks to China; in fact, in six of the eight MDG targets, at least half of sub-Saharan African countries are fully or partially on-track. However the performance of leading countries like Ethiopia, Malawi, Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso is undermined by persistent underperformance by a handful of others, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Chad and Burundi.  

There is also a clear correlation between countries that are allocating a greater share of government spending to health, education and agriculture over the past decade and improved progress in those areas. From 2000 to 2011, Ethiopia lifted an estimated 10 million people out of extreme poverty, and over the same period the government spent nearly 45 per cent of its total budget on health, education and agriculture, a third more than the average in sub-Saharan Africa. The fact that increased resources go hand in hand with better results might be considered a statement of the obvious. But in these sceptical times, it’s helpful that a hard-headed look at the numbers demonstrates the link is strong.  

However, no African government is on course to meet the promises it has made for investment in all three of these sectors. In the next three years as the 2015 MDG deadline approaches, sub-Saharan Africa as a whole could add $243bn to its health, education and agriculture efforts. The difference this could make is clear in one country after another: for example, by meeting its health spending commitment between now and 2015, Nigeria could provide an anti-malarial bednet for every citizen, vaccinations against killer diseases for every child and life-saving treatment for everyone who is HIV positive in Nigeria – and still have billions to spare in its health budget.  

As the G8 leaders meet in Enniskillen this report should remind the world’s decision makers of the task immediately ahead. On Friday, David Cameron delivers the report of the High Level Panel he has co-chaired, on what should replace the MDGs after 2015, to the UN Secretary General in New York. It’s important of course. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that if there were the same level of interest in the pre-2015 agenda, the world could get a lot closer to achieving the goals we already have. That’s not just a bar on a chart in New York: it means kids in school, small farmers with more chance to work their way out of poverty, people alive in 2015 who would otherwise die if we fail to act. There are less than a thousand days left until the end of 2015 – we need to make every one of them count.

In the days before the G8 summit, leaders of a wider group of countries will meet for a “Nutrition for Growth” event, dedicated to tackling the scourge of malnutrition. If this event is to succeed, it will need to drum up resources from both developed and developing countries, as well as companies, foundations and charities. ONE’s report couldn’t be clearer on this: you get out what you put in.  

But the G8’s core agenda is also hugely relevant. David Cameron has called for a “transparency revolution”. With greater transparency – whether in the extractives industries, aid, public spending, company ownership or tax information – governments and citizens in developing countries will be able to ensure that funds intended for the fight against extreme poverty do not end up in the wrong hands. If that revolution succeeds, developing countries will be able to claim more of what is rightfully theirs – and have more resources to build a better future for all, accountable to all.

All of this requires leadership. David Cameron’s government has been resolute thus far. It has built on the excellent work of its predecessors and finally met the historic 0.7 per cent GNI spending target. But this test is a different one. In the coming weeks, as the UN High Level Panel delivers its report and Cameron hosts the series of gatherings culminating in the Enniskillen summit, he has a real opportunity to be remembered as a true global leader on development. It will require determination and vision. I hope he will find both.

Adrian Lovett is the Europe Executive Director of The ONE Campaign

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle