The world's poor evaluate progress on the MDGs

A new report by ActionAid International asks rural people in 18 countries two crucial questions: Have the rights and freedoms of people in developing countries been enhanced in the process of realising the Millennium Development Goals? And have the burdens on the poor diminished over the past five years?

As the largest gathering of world leaders got underway on September 14, with heads of state of 189 countries meeting at the United Nations World Summit to discuss progress towards achieving the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), policy specialists, academics and civil society leaders have all called for development reforms. Everyone except the very people the MDGs were designed to help.

ActionAid International (AI), one of the world's largest aid organisations, has found that the central element of people's participation is lacking in all UN evaluations of progress towards the MDGs, which bear the strong imprint of a technical approach. Driven by quantitative targets and assessed through statistical surveys, the whole process of review and planning fails to put the poor at the foreground, as the agents of their own liberation from poverty.

To give these billions of people a voice, AI visited people living in poverty and asked them whether their freedoms, rights and dignity have been enhanced over the past five years.

Between June and August 2005, AI surveyed over 340,000 impoverished people living in 5,000 villages across 18 countries -- Afghanistan , Pakistan , Nepal , India , Bangladesh , Cambodia , Vietnam , Ethiopia , Senegal , Malawi , Sierra Leone , Kenya , Tanzania , Somalia , Nigeria , Rwanda , Brazil and Guatemala . People have reported from areas that face recurrent drought and flooding; where particular groups face exclusion and discrimination on grounds of gender and descent; from communities torn apart by conflict and where arduous process of reconstruction is just beginning.

The result of this extensive and pioneering survey is 'Whose Freedom? MDGs: As If People Matter!' in which the world's poor speak out on the lack of progress towards meeting the MDGs.

Through their perspectives on livelihoods and income, access to basic services, quality of social infrastructure, and level of fulfilment of fundamental rights to food, water, health and education, the people surveyed highlighted the current realities in their villages and town settlements, where a single drought, one mosquito bite, and a few wageless days could mean the difference between life and death.

Astonishingly, AI found not a single case where people were aware of any feedback that had been taken from them on the performance of development schemes or the provision of services, let alone any form of consultation before or after the adoption of the Millennium Declaration, or progress on the MDGs.

Main findings of the survey:

Small and marginal farmers and agricultural labourers are on the brink of a livelihood crisis. Comprising nearly 70% of people living in extreme poverty, they face:

Women face increasing levels of discrimination and deprivation in these conditions:

While people consider education to be an important service, the AI report highlights concerns about the trade-off people have to make for education and problems connected with availability, access and affordability of education.

Regarding health and drinking water, the important concerns are access to and affordability of health services.

Overall, poor people reported that in the past five years they have remained where they were, or are even worse off in terms of their development.

The AI report found that the main reasons for the slow and patchy progress towards the MDGs are that while the Millennium Declaration sets out an agenda for securing rights for all humanity as a means to achieving the desired objectives, a conspicuous lack of ambition runs through the MDGs and the United Nations Millennium Project (UNMP).

Also, the human rights dimension has been insufficiently highlighted in both the MDGs and the UNMP. Devoid of a strong human rights agenda, the MDGs and UNMP fail to place people acting for themselves at their centre.

Furthermore, already weak governments and their structures are hamstrung by policies imposed from outside that undermine the state's ability to deliver services and meet people's demands. The failure of national governments to build national strategies and ownership of the process, as well as accountability for the same, makes the entire MDGs endeavour more like an act of charity; a mission to be carried out by a few on behalf of the poor.

Given these findings, the ActionAid report concludes with a 12-point charter for action to reclaim the human rights aspect of the Millennium Development Goals:

InfoChange News and Features, September 2005