DESCRIBED as unrealistic and unattainable, the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the UN in 2000 were initially dismissed as requiring too much progress too fast.
Yet, since their adoption, the goal of cutting in half the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been met. Malaria deaths have fallen by a third, the number of people with access to safe water has doubled, and 90% of children now attend primary school — up from 82% in 1999.
Ireland will this week co-host a special meeting at the UN General Assembly with South Africa to discuss the maturation and future of these development goals, which are set to be replaced in 2015.
The original goals were effective, both in their simplicity and in focusing the strength of solidarity within the international community. However, while the goals addressed the symptoms of poverty and underdevelopment, they ignored their deeper causes.
A plan for reducing inequality was a major omission in the original goals. The most recent communication from the UN about the goals signals that we may be set to make the same mistake again; focusing on poverty without addressing the deeper problem of income inequality. We know global poverty is declining but income inequality is soaring, and billions of people are being left behind by economic growth. The world’s 100 richest people amassed $240bn (€178bn) last year — enough to make a huge contribution to ending extreme poverty more than three times over.
Ignoring inequality again will undermine the struggle to eliminate poverty and injustice both at home and in developing countries. Across the globe, 870m people go to bed hungry every night. But there is enough food in the world to feed all of them. More than 1bn people live on less than $1.25 a day. Yet the rich dodge €120bn tax on hidden assets — enough to end global poverty twice over.
And while 10% of Europeans live in households where nobody has a job, the combined wealth of Europe’s 10 richest people, €217bn, exceeds the total cost of stimulus measures across the EU in 2008-10, according to Oxfam research.
Europe alone will face up to 25m “new poor” by 2025 if harsh austerity measures continue to be implemented. Without targeted efforts to reduce inequality, the social and economic progress that has characterised western society since the industrial revolution will continue to be undermined.
The failure to include inequality in the original set of Millennium Development Goals targets has led to a deepening of poverty and vulnerability among a range of excluded groups in all societies in all countries.
A UN high-level panel has already recommended an overarching aim of ending extreme poverty altogether by 2030. For that to happen, Oxfam strongly advocates establishing a single, standalone developmental goal on income inequality.
The UN Human Rights Council has echoed these concerns, baldly stating that there can be no set of targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals without a separate goal on inequality.
If we are to live in a world in which everyone can enjoy their human rights, live equitably and free from the injustice of poverty, on a planet that has the natural resources to sustain them, this is critical. We cannot hope to end extreme poverty if we don’t tackle the economic, political, and social inequalities that are adversely affecting the poor at home and abroad.
Ireland can help build consensus on how we tackle these challenges at the UN in New York this week.
Without a roadmap for closing extreme income inequality gaps within and between countries, the next set of global goals is almost certain to be unachievable.
*Jim Clarken is chief executive of Oxfam Ireland, which is part of a global movement of people working together to end poverty and injustice.
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