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July 01, 2014

Tackling Poverty and Inequality Globally

by Gay McDougall

The international community has been engaged in a historic discourse about poverty and inequality both between countries and within countries around the world. The discussion was launched by former United Nations (UN) Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2000 with his successful effort to get world leaders and heads of state to commit to implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs charted a 15-year plan to cut poverty in half and advance human and economic development, chiefly in the “underdeveloped” world.

In September 2014, the General Assembly of the UN will be presented a draft of a Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. For the upcoming year, they will negotiate and refine the commitments, goals, and targets in that draft to shape it into a dashboard to guide global progress for the upcoming decade and a half. It will be the basis on which national plans of action will be developed and it will shape national budgets.

The achievements under the MDGs have been impressive. For the first time since records on poverty began, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen in every developing region, including sub-Saharan Africa. Preliminary estimates indicate that the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 per day fell in 2010 to less than half the 1990 rate and during the same period over 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources. The share of slum dwellers in urban areas declined from 39 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2012, improving the lives of at least 100 million people and the rate of primary school enrollment in sub-Saharan African has increased from 58 to 76 percent. (UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs.)

But from the beginning it was clear that this first global development plan was fraught with serious flaws. Notably, in the eight goals identified for human development and the over 48 indicators, there was no thought given to how different societies should address an uneven distribution of wealth within their nations or how discrimination between population groups might result in entrenched inequalities. So, countries were allowed to report on progress toward achieving the MDGs in terms of aggregate statistics, which did not reveal inequalities between population groups. Some countries achieved certain of the goals and even moved from developing country status to middle-income status without improving the life circumstances of the most marginalized communities. This was most often the case where there were communities that suffered discrimination based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or caste.

Now as we stand on the eve of 2015, we are assessing the gains from the MDGs, analyzing the flaws and the failures, and trying to build a consensus around a new global development plan that will change the world as we know it by 2030. As the process began of drafting the new development agenda, the nations of the world committed to “strive for a world that is just, equitable and inclusive . . . to promote sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development and environmental protection . . . to benefit all.” United Nations, The Future We Want: Rio+20 Outcome Document ¶ 6 (2012). The High Level Panel of Experts convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to initiate the discussion urged that the slogan “leave no one behind” must be the core concept for the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. At the same time, global civil society organizations pledged to press for an approach that is truly transformative.

The draft that will commence the negotiations in September will itself be the product of a historic consultation among global civil society, economists, development specialists, climate scientists, human rights experts, and politicians. Civil society has played a critical role in this exercise by bringing expertise to the table and articulating the aspirations of ordinary people under the banner of “The World We Want.”

It has been a historic discussion because, for the first time, international development professionals have sat across the table from human rights professionals and searched for a common language that would allow them to integrate visions, expertise, and approaches into a human-centric rights-based development model.

It also has been a difficult discussion because candid debates between governments about development policies cannot avoid addressing the tremendous gap in wealth and power between countries. Difficult questions are being raised: Can foreign aid compensate for the unjust enrichment enjoyed by some industrialized countries as a legacy of the era of conquest, the practices of colonialism, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade? What does economic justice between the global North and the global South look like in the era of economic globalization and the worldwide financial crisis? Who pays for the tangible and intangible costs of environmental sustainability and the impact of climate changes? Why should industrialized countries prefer contributing massive amounts of humanitarian assistance only after thousands of lives are lost to natural disasters like earthquakes, rather than granting lesser sums in financial aid to programs to prevent predictable losses to disasters?

From the beginning of the process, the human rights caucus of civil society organizations has insisted that an effective road map for human progress must be centered around the international legal obligations of nations to guarantee fundamental rights. That would require the new development agenda to reflect the following four points.

First, the human rights principles of nondiscrimination and equality among different individuals and groups in society must be seen as an imperative for the development process. Gross income inequality, poverty, and social disparities are impediments to the development process and also violate human rights.

Discrimination is a key determinant for poverty. Where there has been entrenched prejudice, those targeted groups are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage, low-skilled labor sectors, like domestic work, agricultural labor, and street vending—sectors that are in most countries unprotected by labor laws and social security.

Governments are being called on to undertake robust affirmative action measures, as required by international law, to address disparities in the participation of all racial and ethnic groups in economic life. It is considered essential to the development process that countries have comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation and strong enforcement institutions with procedures that can be initiated by victims or their representatives.

Most importantly, structural biases to advancement based on invidious distinctions must be eliminated. States should take a comprehensive approach that recognizes the importance of tackling legal regimes, policies, and practices that have disparate negative impact on communities disadvantaged by discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, or caste. And labor protections and Social Security policies should be extended to the low-wage and informal-sector workers such as those in the care industries, domestic workers, agricultural workers, service workers, and restaurant workers.

Second, there is a broad consensus that national development policies cannot leave 50 percent of the population excluded. Women are the great untapped resource in nearly every country. While the statistics on women and education have been improving over the past decade, cultural constraints, religious and traditional practices, and stereotypes have proven to be the most intractable obstacles to the realization of the full participation of women in the life and progress of their countries. Ending violence against women, respecting sexual and reproductive rights, and enabling women to control assets and the means of economic production and to play equal and meaningful roles in decision making are minimum requirements for unleashing the power of women to advance national economies.

In order to guarantee that women and groups that have been victims of race- and ethnicity-based exclusions participate fully, every development program and policy are called on to pay explicit attention to the obstacles that they face and to produce data disaggregated in ways that reveal the existing inequalities.

Third, poverty within countries is fundamentally linked to macroeconomic dynamics that must be addressed. As Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said, today’s poverty is not simply a consequence of history. “Poverty is being created every day, driven by asymmetrical power dynamics between countries.” Global governance systems of the future must create development-friendly regimes for trade, taxation, science and technology transfers, investments, and measures of international cooperation that generate balance and support equality within and between nations.

Additionally, income inequality in the most developed countries in the global north is beginning to look similar to the patterns of inequality in developing countries. And the movement of economic migrants from the global south to the industrialized global north has created an indivisible pool of people on the margins of the global economy.

The MDGs were created around a traditional framework that saw the world divided between underdeveloped and highly developed countries, the north and the global south, the rich and the poor countries. The MDGs then set goals and objectives for the developing countries to meet in order to receive development assistance from donor countries in the global north. This paternalistic model is not appropriate for current thinking and realities. The human rights culture that we now seek is centered around universal principles and obligations that must apply to all nations and all people, including the United States and Americans in poverty.

Fourth, this new development agenda should recognize the importance of the rule of law and strong institutions of accountability at both national and international levels. At national levels, it must be understood that freedom of thought, speech, and assembly; strong and independent courts; and inclusive civic engagement are crucial to development prospects. At the international level, the institutions that secure human rights must be strengthened and the commitments made by governments to the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda should be monitored by institutions empowered to hold nations accountable.

As the international community looks forward to 2015 and beyond, we have the capacity and resources to be the first generation in human history to end poverty and ensure that “no person—regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status—is denied universal human rights and basic economic opportunities.”

Gay McDougall

Gay McDougall is the former UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues. She is currently at the Leitner Center of Fordham Law School.