Prompted by my international law and developing world revision, I had another look at the eight Millennium Development Goals which were adopted by the 192 UN member states in 2000, and which are meant to be achieved by 2015. All eight are quite ambitious and represent worthy ambitions and intentions.
Some of the goals give themselves over easily to quantitative evaluation. For instance, reducing the maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters. While there are the ever-present concerns about data quality and the danger of people fudging their numbers, at least there is an empirically verifiable objective being targeted.
The environmental category (MDG7) has the general heading “Ensure environmental sustainability” and among the most vague provisions in the whole list:
- Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes; reverse loss of environmental resources.
- Reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.
- Achieve significant improvement in lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers, by 2020.
To begin with, ‘sustainable development’ is not as objective a concept as it is sometimes considered. If it requires a society that could continue to operate in its present form indefinitely, then no society that exists today meets the standard. Of course, the term ‘development’ contradicts the idea of stasis. So too does the inclusion of the term in the MDGs generally, since all of them would require large-scale changes in both domestic and foreign policies.
When it comes to sheer vagueness, “reverse loss of environmental resources” must take the cake. What are ‘environmental resources?’ And what would ‘reversing their loss’ involve? With a few exceptions, such as the breakdown and slow recovery of stratospheric ozone, it is not terribly clear what this could mean. Even in cases where the general thrust of the idea seems applicable, such as reforestation or the protection of coral reefs from damaging fishing practices and increasingly acidic oceans, it doesn’t provide much in the way of guidance, or much of a standard for achievement.
Access to water
The second goal, about access to water, is much more in keeping with the qualitative targets that the MDGs generally seek to establish. A map of the world showing who has poor access to water and another showing the incidence of deaths from cholera demonstrates just how unequal quality and availability of water around the world is. All the technology required to provide safe drinking water to everyone exists. The degree to which the present situation is the result of a lack of will makes it a very appropriate target for a high-profile initiative like the MDGs.
While I have never believed that water is a likely cause for large-scale wars (countries that can afford to fight large-scale wars can afford desalination plants, which are expensive but cheaper than wars), there is every reason to believe that water will become a more acute problem in coming decades. One minor example is how a sea level rise of about 100cm could essentially eliminate Malta’s major sources of fresh water. Expect bigger problems in places like India or Bangladesh.
The Economist printed a good Survey on Water back in 2003. Accessing it requires a subscription.
Slums were mentioned here quite recently. Improving the lives of 100 million slum dwellers is certainly a worthy aim. As many as 1.2 million people may live in just the Kibera slum in Nairobi. In sub-Saharran Africa, where more than 70% of the urban population already lives in slums, the rate is growing at 4.53% per year. Improving their lives probably requires two sets of approaches. One is based around providing basic needs, including water, health care, sanitation, lighting, security, and education. The other is based around reforming legal systems. Providing secure title to land, for instance, would likely reduce opportunities for bribery, provide access to credit, and generally reduce the level of insecurity in people’s lives. Actually implementing either set of approaches is an awfully tricky proposition, not least because of entrenched interests that value slums as a source of bribes from those who live there as well as a source of cheap labour for the city in which they are embedded. That being said, there are potentially huge improvements in human welfare to be achieved from success in this area.
All told, there seem to be a lot of reasons to be hopeful about the MDGs. They demonstrate, at least, that there is universal awareness within the international system about some of the most pressing problems of the present day. There is likewise at least some energy and initiative being committed to their resolution. The extent to which such efforts are successful will probably have a big impact on the kind of world in which we find ourselves in fifty years time: one in which most of humanity has reached a situation in which their basic needs are met and their basic rights are respected, or one that may be even more unequal and conflict-prone than the situation at present.