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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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

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 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left