A Poverty of Rights: Six Ways to Fix the MDGs

Chapter 11

A Poverty of Rights: Six Ways to Fix the MDGs

Malcolm Langford


The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were greeted with disbelief and praise by those focused on human rights. It was disbelief from commentators who saw the MDGs as a betrayal of more demanding and/or nuanced international human rights commitments; the ‘Major Distracting Gimmicks’ as one women’s rights advocate labelled them (Saith 2006). It was praise from those who saw them as a bridge between the human rights and development agendas (Jahan 2003).

Between these two reactions, one can find many shades. Some like Alston (2005) and UNDP (2008) straddle the contrarian positions, arguing that the MDGs are an adequate reflection of socioeconomic rights and the real challenge is to integrate human rights into development practice. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR 2008) has been more critical, urging States to better align the targets at the country level with human rights and then ensure integration in practice. For others, the MDGs seemed to have passed by unnoticed; possibly from ignorance, possibly from the fact that MDGs were seen as contributing little to strategies on human rights and social justice. The end result has been a mixed and fragmented engagement by human rights nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), social movements, lawyers and UN human rights bodies. One empirical survey of attitudes found that many Northern NGOs embraced the MDGs, while those in South preferred rights-based standards (Nelson 2007). From the perspective of pragmatism, it is tempting to fudge some sort of middle position on the human rights and MDGs debate. But it carries dangers. For instance, Alston (2005) seeks to largely defend the MDG design from a human rights perspective but he is simultaneously puzzled as to why human rights are almost entirely absent in MDG-related policy guidance, strategies and reporting. He does not adequately stop to ask whether the problem might be the original design. We thus need to go deeper and ask two questions. First, are the ‘human rights’ gaps in the MDGs architecture partly responsible for the mixed success in reaching the Targets? Second, would a critical reading from a human rights perspective alert us to the potential that the Targets could be used to avoid human rights commitments and perpetuate violations? The latter scenario has unfortunately been all too common in the history of international development policy. This is not to dismiss the sunny side of the MDGs agenda. The Goals have given a clear, communicable and quantitative focus to international and sometimes national development priorities. One can discern shifts among donors, UN agencies and the World Bank in the allocation of aid that is attributable to the Goals. Some national governments from Kenya (Government of Kenya 2005) to Indonesia (Government of Indonesia 2007), claim that the MDGs have influenced their domestic spending priorities, while political discourses and campaigns on poverty have been shaped by MDGs language. MDG 5 has seemingly inspired international campaigns on maternal mortality by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and now Amnesty International. Moreover, there has been some attentiveness to the MDG critiques and a target on reproductive rights was included in 2007. However, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (2008: 1) points out that while Poverty Reduction Strategies have increased their focus on social sector investments (MDGs 2–6), other areas such as ‘decent work, hunger and nutrition, the environment and access to technology tend to be neglected’.

As many development critics have discussed elsewhere, determining the impact of the MDGs in isolation from other causal factors is fraught with difficulty. Progress in some Targets such as income poverty is partly attributable to the pre-MDG efforts of China, India and Vietnam (Smith 2007). Achievements on HIV/AIDS (MDG 6) have largely occurred outside the MDG framework—for example, a slew of more precise targets on HIV were adopted in 2001 by the General Assembly but these were never integrated in the MDG monitoring system. However, less discussed in terms of impact are the negative human rights ‘externalities’ that have resulted from some of the MDG Targets. These are often not picked up in the monitoring. And how does one determine the human rights counter-factual—i.e., would a more human rights-friendly MDG design have done a better job?

In the emerging discussions on post-2015, it is interesting to observe the increased weight given to human rights. Calls are being made to repoliticise the MDGs, base them firmly on human rights values, return to the original rights-focused vision of the Millennium Declaration and even to frame part of the overarching development discourse in terms of rights, for example global social rights or global social citizenship. These calls are to be welcomed; indeed, one is almost tempted to hope that 2015 may be the moment when economic and social rights will come in from the global cold.

In this chapter, I want to look more at the practical consequences of bringing in human rights; both in process and substance and by looking critically backwards to 2000 and forward to 2015. The first section or ‘fix’ in this chapter will thus focus on the process for formulating new development mandates from a human rights perspective. It will examine what went wrong in 2001 and what could go right for 2015. The next five ‘fixes’ concern how the 2000/2001 MDG framework could have been better shaped by human rights, from both principled and instrumental perspectives. These latter points assume that we might continue with a target-based approach post-2015. While the target-based approach is under discussion itself, I use this framework to demonstrate the possible practical and design consequences of a human rights approach. In other words, if we accept the MDG-style targeting approach, where could human rights take us?

Stopping at the Participation Sign

Before we begin to dream up new post-2015 roads, we need to stop at the participation sign. If we are to take human rights seriously, then the design of the MDGs cannot be simply left to a few international agencies and a group of invisible experts in New York (or Brussels) as it was in 2001. This is not to disparage the group completely. They faced the difficult task of trying to operationalise the Millennium Declaration and, to a certain degree, they were inventive in trying to fold some of the broader aspects of the Declaration, such as environment, into the Goals and push the envelope with some additional Indicators, even if they lacked Targets. At the same time, a neoliberal agenda appeared to have set in during this process, and there are many alarming omissions from the Declaration:

  • Affordable water. The target for affordable water in the Declaration was dropped from the MDGs. Perhaps the target was deemed ‘unmeasurable’ but indexes of water affordability are available. Or was affordability dropped in order to allow space for privatisation of water utilities—a strategy very much in vogue at the time?
  • Orphans from HIV/AIDS. The Declaration target of providing ‘special assistance to children orphaned by HIV/AIDS’, one of the world’s most vulnerable groups, was likewise completely and inexplicably omitted from the MDGs.
  • Equitable trade. The Declaration called for a trading system that was ‘open, equitable, rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory’, but one is startled to find in MDG Target 8A that the crucial word ‘equitable’ was deleted.
  • Gender equality and empowerment of women. The Declaration contained a general target in paragraph 20 of promoting ‘gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable’. Instead of fashioning some targets, perhaps along the lines of the Beijing Declaration, this broad Declaration target was whittled down to being the title of Goal 3 with a quantitative Target for equality in primary and secondary education. This is to be contrasted with other general targets in this paragraph where there some efforts to fashion them as (at least) qualitative Targets in Goal 8. After an initial critique, UNIFEM (2004) embarked on the task on trying to show how gender can be mainstreamed in each Target but one still wonders whether some clear Targets might have helped focus more attention on the gender gap in development: from land ownership to political representation. This omission of targets is startling on the face of the 2001 MDG list, where an additional four Indicators are added but there are no accompanying Targets.

There was also no attempt to include other key elements of the Declaration, particularly human rights, as Goals or Targets, as was done with environment. Yet, the Declaration specifically speaks of the connections between human rights and development. This orphaning of specific aspects of the Declaration is possibly the reason for the UN General Assembly’s reluctance, contrary to common belief, to embrace the 2001 Goals, Targets and Indicator list. It was only in October 2005 that the General Assembly made reference to it; all earlier resolutions had focused on calling for implementation and monitoring of all the Goals and measures in the broader Millennium Declaration framework.

But not all the blame can be laid at the feet of the 2001 technocratic takeover. Some of the flaws lie in the selection of the targets in the Millennium Declaration, as will be discussed below. Broader participation and greater attention to human rights could have improved the precision and focus of the targets.

So what kind of process can take us to 2015? How can grassroots groups, Southern-based NGOs, human rights advocates, under-capacitated ministries in developing countries be properly involved this time around?

There will be great temptation to create some sort of Bruntland-style Commission of high level politicians and experts to come up with a new development vision. But the recent experience with the Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor (CLEP) (led by Hernando de Soto), shows its limitations. CLEP was modelled on the Bruntland Commission but came under vociferous attack for its non-representativity and its focus on the magic bullet of formalisation, a policy which had undermined land and livelihood rights of the poor in many contexts. The outcry led to the addition of regional consultations and creation of advisory boards (see discussion of issues and process in Langford 2007). This adjustment brought in other voices but the rushed and bifurcated process led to serious splits within the Commission and a report that was balanced but fundamentally contradictory with something for everybody, as the Economist (2008) gleefully pointed out.

The key lesson from the CLEP experience is that one needs time and attention to ensure some sort of genuine bottom-up participatory process. While any final decision needs to be made within the current confines of international law, ideas for high level commissions need to be put on the backburner until a more participatory mechanism can be commenced; where those who are meant to be the ‘beneficiaries’ of development have a direct say in how it is conceived.

Put the Targets in Front of a Human Rights Mirror

Creating a list of targets large enough to address poverty’s dimensions but short enough to avoid unwieldiness is more art than science. Nonetheless, the current list of targets still begs too many questions, despite its seeming artfulness. The MDGs appear more driven by the availability of data than a concrete vision of what the global community wanted to achieve and measure. Of course it is possible to demonstrate linkages between various socioeconomic rights and existing MDG Targets, and some in the human rights community have drawn pretty tables to this effect. But it largely misses the point of a human rights approach. The key questions are whether the rights were sufficiently covered, and more importantly, whether the substance of the target actually reflects the legal standard.

If we just confine ourselves to socioeconomic rights, we would see a number of Goals, Targets and Indicators in both the 2000 and 2001 lists that are in desperate need of adjustment: