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Democratizing the Millennium Development Goals

PARIS – On September 20-22, world leaders gather in New York to encourage progress towards meeting the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals – a set of eight objectives, ranging from eradicating extreme poverty and hunger to reducing child mortality and achieving universal primary education, that are to be achieved by 2015. The summit’s purpose is to take stock of successes and failures, and to move towards “concrete strategies for action.” But this summit would do the entire world a great service by acknowledging what has gone so wrong with the MDGs, and choosing a radically different approach.

The MDGs, as they are currently conceived, address the symptoms of poverty and underdevelopment, but mostly ignore the deeper causes. They draw attention to 18 targets in total – those for which data are most easily compiled. But the result is that the MDGs may divert attention from the mechanisms that produce underdevelopment – rather like the drunken man searching for his keys under the lone streetlamp because the light is better there. 

Instead of vowing to support humanitarian objectives and throwing money at poverty’s symptoms, the rich countries must recognize the urgency of removing the obstacles to development that they have the power to address. Each year, for example, developing countries miss out on $124 billion in revenue from offshore assets held in tax havens. By not closing down such tax havens, we actively encourage corrupt elites in these countries to continue cheating their populations.

Moreover, the current system of international trade is deeply inequitable: it exposes developing countries to unfair competition, and discourages diversification of their economies. These countries face a burden of foreign debt – estimated at $500 billion for poor countries – that is simply incompatible with the pursuit of development goals.